Armagh travel the short distance to Newry on Sunday afternoon to renew their rivalry with old foes Down. Two years ago Armagh made the same journey and the Orchard supporters need no reminder of the outcome that day. They also don’t need reminded of Armagh’s current losing streak in Ulster Championship during Kieran McGeeney’s tenure – played 4, lost 4.
Games against Donegal (2015), Cavan (2016), Down (2017) and Fermanagh (2018) have been and gone, with the outcome repeated year on year, Armagh’s summer hanging on the hopes of the back door route. This has undoubtedly provided their followers with many memorable outings; however a win in the Ulster Championship is all on Armagh minds this weekend.
A spot in the Ulster semi-final is this year’s prize with the winners of Cavan and Monaghan waiting in the wings. Armagh will certainly enter the game as favourites having consolidated their place in Division Two for 2020 while Down just missed out on promotion and will remain in tier three of the NFL next season.
So, what key aspects will influence the outcome of the game?
Down’s current home form won’t put much fear into Armagh hearts, however they are hard stopped once they enter championship battle. Since the turn of the decade, Down have hosted their opening round tie three times with a perfect 100 % record against Fermanagh in 2012 Armagh in 2017 and Antrim last season, which suggests the comforts of their Newry venue goes a long way in helping them oust their opponents.
However, this season Down have played 6 games in Pairc Eslar, through the McKenna Cup and the NFL, winning just 50% of those games, against QUB, Westmeath and Offaly, while they lost out to travelling sides Donegal, Laois, and Louth. The most fatal loss of course coming on the final day of the NFL, as they missed out on promotion with a narrow one point defeat to Louth.
Although this seasons home results fail to complement Down to a huge extent, there has only been two occasions this year where they have failed to raise a green flag when at home, against Donegal in the second round of the McKenna Cup and in their 0-10 to 0-9 win over Westmeath in round 3 of the NFL.
Similar to the build up to this fixture two years previous, a lot has been made of Armagh’s attacking options, with forwards like Jamie Clarke, Rian O’Neill and Stefan Campbell all on board after missing the 2018 campaign. Throughout the league Armagh showcased the quality forwards possessed in their ranks, however it was their inability to see out winnable games that cost them to opportunity to be in the hunt for promotion.
Over the course of 7 rounds in the NFL, Armagh amassed a grand total of 5-86, their biggest return coming in their 6 point win over Tipperary when they hit 1-15. The trio of Clarke (0-5), O’Neill (0-18) and Campbell (2-7) recorded 35% of their side’s scores while Niall Grimley and Rory Grugan (both free takers) chipped in with 0-16 each.
The most surprising return is perhaps that of Clarke’s, who started 5 of Armagh’s games, averaging one point per start. However, his movement off the ball and his ability to take others into the game while often being double marked cannot be underestimated, which makes him such a key cog in the Armagh machine.
The challenge facing Down is how they can curtail this Armagh forward line. Ethan Rafferty Jemar Hall and Jarly Og Burns are also men who will have a part to play so one can only imagine that if Armagh’s forwards click, they will be too strong for Down.
Darren O’Hagan vs Jamie Clarke
2017: Down won the game, Jamie Clarke didn’t score from play. Mission accomplished for Darren O’Hagan. O’Hagan will again be assisted by several Down bodies in their defensive third of the field but winning his duel with Clarke would set up the perfect platform for Down to upset their neighbours.
James Morgan vs Jerome Johnston
Like O’Hagan, Morgan also held his man scoreless from play two years ago and furthered his reputation as a tough corner back with a fine display that day. Two years on, Morgan faces the same task this time around and Armagh hopefuls will once again expect the Crossmaglen defender to come out on top.
Kevin McKernan vs Armagh Attack
While each Down defenders main task is to keep their opponent as quite as possible, a lot of that will also rely on their sweeper, Kevin McKernan. Down are sure to flood the defence in an attempt to suffocate the Armagh attack, as they did for the final 30 minutes in their 2017 tie. To do so, McKernan will be essential as he’s the man covering the space and stopping any quality ball heading towards his goal.
VERDICT: Armagh by 4.