I know it sounds parochial but there is something magical about being in the latter stages of the championship.
Armagh have missed that these last couple of seasons but if there’s one thing they have going into Saturday All-Ireland quarter-final it’s momentum and that counts for a lot. The support on Saturday was huge. Never would I have imagined Armagh would outnumber Kildare in the stands but they did and it was a massive factor as the game wore on.
There’s also an unpredictability about this Armagh team that is just as pleasing as the brand of football they are playing. I heard Cian O’Neill in the lead-up and he said that their homework on Armagh had been done. But I don’t think they had a clue about what way Armagh were going to play and that’s with the benefit of having watched the game for a second time on Saturday night.
I’ve watched Armagh in every league and championship game and I can’t figure out what way they are going to play from one day to the next. Against Kildare, they brought more bodies back than usual and they are able to tweak and move guys around. Brendan Donaghy is known as a solid man-marker but he was designated sweeper on Saturday and he looked made for it.
Armagh started the game well and were 0-6 to 0-3 up but then Kildare dominated the next 10 minutes. They were still breaking down Kildare attacks but were giving more ball away and started to force things. They didn’t appear comfortable leading and that’s a mental thing. They lacked belief but they later realised they were as good if not better than their opponents.
I’m not sure where that lack of faith comes from – perhaps losing leads like they did against Laois in the league or promotion to Tipperary’s last-gasp goal – but it can be addressed and they will take confidence from this. They grew into it, took ownership of the game and the big players stepped up. The other thing they do well like Dublin and Tyrone is they switch the point of attack continuously and it denied Kildare getting a base.
One of Armagh’s biggest problems has been finding a permanent replacement in goal since Paul Hearty retired after the 2011 season. Blaine Hughes isn’t a tall man but he looks confident now and that has brought an end of the chopping and changing in that position. His kick-outs were decent especially when Kildare pushed up. A couple went astray but that happens. Midfield weren’t great. There were a few passengers around the field and yet Armagh were still able to win the game.
It begs the question – what are they capable of? With Jamie Clarke in this form, they have a major reason to be cheerful. This was undoubtedly his best performance for Armagh. His work-rate and movement was a sight to behold. You could tell from early on that his head was in a good place. One of the things I would have told him was not every day is going to be a 1-8 day. Sometimes you just have to suck it up. As a corner-forward, all I wanted to do was score. I didn’t want to be a playmaker but if you’re being marked out of it you have to be something other than just a finisher.
Jamie realises that now. He was clever too. Because he’s offloading the ball and bringing others into the game, defenders then tend to give him some more space and it’s then that he’s hurting them with scores and manipulating attacks. Whether it was the way he was running away or to the ball, it was a real watershed evening for him.
As for Kildare, I think the Dublin game suited them. They went into it not expected to win and not expecting themselves to either. Their goal was to put on a big show and they did that. I heard former Kildare defender Andrew McLoughlin talking about how Kildare were almost being congratulated after that nine-point Leinster final defeat and he was bang on.
It wouldn’t have sat well with me either and it seemed like it softened them. They took the praise and didn’t take it face value.
Facing Kildare, there was pressure on them and they lacked leaders.
Only Fergal Conway stood up and put up a fight when the shit was hitting the fan. A couple of the substitutions were surprising too. Niall Kelly and Daniel Flynn are two of their best players so for them to be replaced would have boosted Armagh. Kelly’s point at the end of the first half was important to keep Kildare in touch. Kieran McGeeney gave him his debut as a teenager and he, like Flynn, would have worried Armagh going into the game.
Now what’s most pressing for Armagh is ensuring they’re fresh to face Tyrone. It’s the draw every Armagh supporter wanted. Tyrone, to me, are still the unfinished article.
When you draw a form line through results, Tyrone should be slightly alarmed because haven’t beaten anybody. I’d have thought Kildare would have been too athletic for Armagh but they were able to stop their runners and if they set up as defensively again Tyrone will find it difficult to break them. For all the hype, I don’t think Tyrone are genuine All-Ireland contenders. They are by virtue of the fact they have regained an Ulster title but they are beatable.
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