There is a lot of pressure on Armagh today as they make the short trip over to Páirc Esler for a meeting with heated rivals, Down, in the Ulster Senior Football Championship.
Armagh go into the game as slight favourites in an eerily similar build-up to their meeting two season’s ago at the same venue when the Mournemen dominated Kieran McGeeney’s charges before coming away with a two-point win.
Favouritism and fear of history repeating itself is not the only reason that Armagh must feel under pressure. Lose tomorrow and it will mark five years without a win in Ulster. The fact that their last win in the province came against Cavan in 2014 is a staggering statistic given the stranglehold that the Orchard County had over the province for the better part of a decade in the early 2000s.
Paddy Tally’s charges must be licking their lips at the thought of Armagh coming to Newry on Sunday. Down’s failure to gain promotion out of Division 3 has dented the already fairly low expectations on the Mourne County and they will be viewing this game as the perfect opportunity to make an early-season statement.
The game has gotten even bigger now that Cavan dumped Monaghan out of the running for Ulster. The winner of tomorrow’s match will go on to face the Breffni County in what will be a toss of the coin contest for a place in the 2019 Ulster final.
There are some noticeable absentees from the Armagh starting line-up as Kieran McGeeney named four debutants for the trip to Newry. Jarly Og Burns, Rian O’Neill, Ryan Kennedy and Aidan Nugent come in for their championship debuts.
The two counties met in the Ulster final 20 years ago in a game that is widely viewed as the catalyst for Armagh’s period of dominance throughout the noughties and fans of the Orchard County needn’t look very far for the spirit of ’99 among their new faces.
Burns’ father, Jarlath Sr, captained the Armagh side that ended that 17-year long famine back in 1999, while fellow debutant, Rian O’Neill’s uncle, Oisin McConville, hit 2-7 in their route of Down that day. Fans will be hoping that this is a positive omen for them come 4 pm as Burns lines out at midfield like his father and O’Neill in the full-forward line akin to his uncle.
The key battle will be at midfield where Down will look to utilise the speed and high-octane energy possessed by Caolan Mooney. Does Charlie Vernon have the legs to stay with the Rostrevor man? Will it take away from Burns’ strong attacking game if he’s to focus on the Down man?
It’s certainly possible that Armagh could call upon someone to try and negate the influence of Mooney, possibly Aidan Forker.
Down’s full-forward line also causes a serious threat to an Armagh full-back line that looks slightly understrength without James Morgan. Connaire Harrison hasn’t been firing on all cylinders this season but he is a big man for the big day and one suspects there could be a big performance coming from him tomorrow.
Donal O’Hare is the focal point of the Down attack and if he can get going early on he will ask serious questions of Armagh’s defence.
If Brendan Donaghy can keep a tight ship at the back for Armagh and not get dragged every which way this could have a big bearing on the game. Armagh are at their best when the Clonmore colossus is able to stay close to his goals and remain in a centralised position.
Ethan Rafferty’s return to centre-forward for Armagh could be the big call. A huge physical presence, Rafferty can make a nuisance of himself around the middle third whilst still contributing to the Armagh attack. Rafferty is a stylish footballer to watch and not only can he kick scores, but he’s a strong ball-carrier and could be the key link-man between defence and attack.
While Down’s full-forward line poses serious problems, the exact same can be said about Armagh’s. O’Neill is flanked up top by his club-mate, Jamie Clarke, who as always is vital to the Armagh cause while captain, Rory Grugan, starts on the other side. However, Grugan may drift in and out of the full-forward line.
Given that the Armagh captain is probably their best kick-passer, he may play the role of play-maker, feeding passes into the deadly Crossmaglen duo inside.
Armagh are under pressure and need a big win. They need their big players to stand-up. The experience of Grugan and Clarke up front combined with the fearlessness of youth could be what gets the Orchard County over the line in Ulster for the first time since 2014.
Armagh by 1