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Michael Murphy: Relentless Donegal raise further doubts for Armagh

It takes until All-Ireland quarter-finals for likely Sam Maguire winners to emerge but non-contenders can be identified much more quickly

As Jim McGuinness said afterwards, it was hard not to feel for Armagh in that moment when Shaun Patton saved the penalty and for Shane McPartlan, especially because of how it all becomes about the kicker who missed.

Within the playing group, everyone knows that this isn’t the case. There were loads of opportunities during that game to close it out. Other players at various stages had their own ‘penalty’ moments that didn’t go well.

Overall though, you would have to say what Jim McGuinness and his players have achieved is remarkable. To beat Derry, Tyrone and Armagh – I don’t think there has ever been a sweeter Ulster success for Donegal.

Armagh had been four ahead on three occasions. At 0-13 to 0-9, you just couldn’t see Donegal breaking Armagh down and all of a sudden Niall O’Donnell, with an exceptional kick, got the team’s first score in the second half.


When it went to 0-15 to 0-11, again it was Niall with an immediate response. Then Oisín Gallen and Jason McGee added more points within a few minutes and, suddenly, it’s a one-point game.

Not only that but it’s a one-point lead to an Armagh side that hasn’t been able to close out big matches. That was a question hanging over them, the fear of pushing on to win a match.

I was working in Clones but tuned into a bit of the Leinster final. When Dublin seized the initiative, got their goal and had Louth on the ropes they pushed out the lead to seven or eight – just as well as they conceded a late goal. If you have a three- or a four-point lead, you have to keep going.

Armagh looked like they were hesitating. Even with penalties at the end, did their players feel under more pressure than Donegal’s?

Penalty taking isn’t a skill that’s practised as much in the GAA. We work on shooting from the hand rather than from the ground. Sometimes if players have played soccer, that’s an advantage. Of the Donegal players in the shoot-out, Jason McGee and Daire Ó Baoill were underage internationals and Aaron Doherty played with Finn Harps.

I know people don’t like this as a means of deciding matches but the allotted 90 minutes is plenty of time for a team to go and win it. Sunday was slightly different in that it was high-scoring – five each in extra time is good shooting – but many of the matches you see going to penalties are not.

Instead, they are quite passive. Look at Monaghan-Armagh last year. You needed penalties there because neither side looked like they wanted to win it on the field of play. Given the threat of the shoot-out, you would expect more urgency in the final 10 minutes.

After the shoot-out defeat by Galway two years ago in Croke Park, Armagh manager Kieran McGeeney was philosophical when asked about the fairness of the process.

“It’s just the way sport is. It’s cruel. Going to replays and stuff is not fair on supporters either, the way things are. Coming to Dublin is an expensive thing to do. It’s not ideal to do it. It’s a pure lottery.”

I’d actually disagree on one point. Describing these shoot-outs as ‘pure lottery’ suggests that there’s nothing you can do, that it’s in some way arbitrary. You can practice and make yourself a reliable penalty taker. Unlike soccer, goalkeepers rarely save well-taken shots.

The irony was that the way Armagh needed to play was on show on Sunday. On the BBC broadcast I voiced concerns for Donegal at half-time.

Armagh scored 10 points in the first half, several from pushing up on kick-outs when they outfoxed Donegal by going over the top on quick transition. It got them three or four points.

Then, as the second half wore on, you began to sense the anxiety from Armagh. Even at two points up, there were jitters and Donegal managed to keep it mostly at that sort of a margin apart from those four-point gaps in the third quarter.

Essentially, then it came down to a relentless Jim McGuinness team that wouldn’t go away against an Armagh side wrestling with doubt.

I get that kicking forward-marks backwards isn’t always a negative action but when a player is looking to the line to see whether they should go for a score with time running out and scores level, that’s anxiety.

There was another on the right. Soupy (Stefan) Campbell was on his wrong side and had just dropped a previous shot short and left of the posts so I could see why he did it but not having the confidence to take it on for me wrote another page in the Armagh book of lost opportunity.

It was actually after the Monaghan shoot-out defeat last year that I finally began to despair of Armagh’s ability to get over the line. They were well superior and had the wide-open spaces of Croke Park to play but ended that match so passively that it slipped away to extra time and penalties.

Every year you have to wonder where they are going to find the inner resources to recover and reset. Again, we’re wondering.

This weekend’s first round of All-Ireland matches will generate a great deal of analysis and barometers will be read and markers set down to get a picture of where teams are.

My feeling based on what we have seen is that we won’t have a decent fix on likely winners until the quarter-finals. Last year, Kerry and Dublin blew away their opponents, Tyrone and Mayo in the last eight, which sent out unmistakable signals.

The group fixtures are not a phoney war and Saturday’s Galway-Derry match will for instance have real consequences for whoever loses because of the importance of winning the group.

We may not know who is going to win the All-Ireland until next month’s quarter-finals but we will have a good idea in the coming weeks of who is not going to.