The championship is warming up but there will be a molten feel about Ulster this weekend. I am interested in what Armagh might do in the coming weeks.
My sense is that there is a lot of optimism and a feeling that they are on a threshold of something special. They won a small battle in getting Saturday’s game moved from Omagh to Newry, which takes Monaghan almost to Armagh’s back door.
Armagh are 70 minutes from the Ulster final. They won five Anglo Celt Cups in the 00s yet haven’t appeared in an Ulster final since their last success, in 2008. And with Kieran McGeeney in charge of this team, you inevitably think back to 1999 when they made that breakthrough. Are we witnessing a new dawn for Armagh?
This team has been a long time in the making. There are some similarities with the team Kieran played on. They have a lot of big men – the O'Neill boys. Jarlath Óg Burns and Niall Grimley give them a lot of size down the spine of the team. And they possess a good kicking game. But they bring a modern twist in that they are playing a lot of percentages, starting with their own kick out.
Against Antrim, almost all of their kick-outs were short. I tagged about half of them as short to go long: in other words, they’d pop the ball to a midfielder or a half back coming short and either the receiver or the player who took the first pass instantly looked to kick the long ball to their inside forwards.
It is reminiscent of the period when Steven McDonnell and Ronan Clarke were on the edge of the square and Joe Kernan just wanted that ball in there, always. They want that 3 v 3 match-up. It was effective, too, against Antrim. They also look to go long from free-kicks – a short free and then they immediately seek the direct ball. You even see it on turnovers – a dispossession, one pass and they are looking downfield to survey the options. They do run quite a bit of ball as well but I think the long option is their preferred route.
Rory Grugan is their main man in terms of keeping their attack moving. He pops up everywhere and kicks scores. They have kickers capable of delivering quality diagonal ball. There was a lot of talk about Kieran Donaghy’s influence and you could see his fingerprints on Conor Turbitt’s goal. Jemar Hall came along the right side and he waited and Conor also waited and back-doored the Antrim defender and got a nice pass over the top and he buried it. Dublin have killed teams with this move repeatedly.
So Armagh have a bit about them. There is a lot of composure there. However, there are still questions over the defensive aspect. They played a sweeper against Antrim for the entire game and they played a kind of loose man-to-man on Antrim players who were spread across the 45. It looked like an Armagh defensive ring from a distance – except it wasn’t of steel. Even with 13 and 14 behind the ball they weren’t making contact. And it also meant that they conceded possession to Antrim for long periods.
They are also trying to push up on the opposition kick-out. Against Antrim they pushed seven or eight men up to prevent the short kick-out. But it didn’t work. Yes, they forced the ball long. But it became a 3 v 3 battle in the middle of the park and Antrim won that battle. They were up to the task.
Dublin were the best defensive team last year. Then, to my mind, Cavan. Both were aggressive and proactive. That style of play reminds me of John Joe Doherty’s mantra in Donegal dressingrooms. Hit hard and hit often, he would tell us. And nobody epitomised that form of defence like the Armagh team of the 00s. They dictated the officiating by raising the bar. They normalised the physicality of the game.
Right now, there is a conspicuous absence of physical exchanges. It is all very sanitised. Showing people down the side of the pitch and holding the centre is reactive rather than proactive. It is all fine until you are two points down with say 10 minutes left and you need turnovers. How do you get that? The game used to be defined by full-blooded confrontational defence. If you were beaten as a defender, there was no safety net. Now you can see the ball worked into the final third with shadow defence.
That major shift to the possession-based game ends up being a training function. The game is reduced to Established Attack versus Established Defence. Each possession becomes a series of trades. But part of me feels the tactics Armagh employed against Antrim might be well suited to Monaghan. They will need bodies back and need to close the gaps. Pushing up is a bigger risk because of Rory Beggan but these are the kinds of risks you need to take.
I think both these teams feel they have the beating of Donegal or Tyrone. I feel in their minds there has been a levelling out within the province. Monaghan are an unusual team in that when they get the bit between their teeth and sense blood, they cut loose. They can bring a game from the sanitised to the chaotic. I hope that happens here because it could make for a brilliant contest.
This is a massive opportunity for Armagh. Remember, that 1999 team was not overly rated at that time. Even when they made the breakthrough, they weren’t regarded as anything special. And yet they became a brilliant team. Sometimes, you just have to make that breakthrough. This is Armagh’s big chance. And if they get to the Ulster final they will arrive with big hope.