While in Waterford and Casement Park, respectively, Armagh didn’t look like the force that they were last year. But many expect their match against Dublin to re-ignite that missing fire in their bellies. It was against those Dubs last September that this Armagh team ended their alleged Croker hoodoo, by that single point. And it was against Dublin in Croke Park last February that Armagh powered to victory in the first game of the NFL.
Yet, since that stunning win, the Orchard men have plodded through the fixtures. It was more hard slog than fine football that took them past Antrim, and many believe that the strain of five long years is finally catching up on the Ulster men. The Dubs in Croker, though, has a funny way of curbing tiredness. “This is a game we have to win, indeed both teams have to win,” Enda McNulty admitted yesterday. “There are no back-doors after Saturday. Of course, this is a big draw for the GAA, and the whole country will be watching it, but we can’t concern ourselves with that. Our only concern is defending our All-Ireland title.” McNulty, a coaching officer with St Enda’s in the capital, is currently overseeing summer camps which might spawn future Dublin footballers. This week, his mind is on the downfall of the current crop. McNulty believes that people will be better off looking back to the All-Ireland semi-final clash rather than the league opener for evidence of how Saturday’s match will develop.
“There is not much separating the teams; it was very close last summer and it will be the same now. I think that league game in February was an aberration, we still had the momentum of the All-Ireland behind us. There is only going to be one or two points in this game, like the semi-final. That is really all the difference between the teams.” Living in the capital, McNulty was surprised at the nature of the criticism directed at Dublin following their defeat to Laois, but was impressed by their display in Clones when defeating Derry on Saturday. “Dublin are back on track now; they proved that against Derry. I was very impressed by them on Saturday and the way they improved.
“The way Dessie (Farrell) and Jason (Sherlock) came in and played showed the depth they have. They just slotted into the attack. My club-mate Collie (Moran) has looked a lot more comfortable in defence and Shane Ryan is more natural as a wing-back, too, as he showed on Saturday. There has been a lot of changes to the Dublin team since that game in February and they are changes for the better.
“Look at that excellent corner-back they have found in Paul Griffin, he played extremely well on Paddy Bradley on Saturday. And then there is Paddy Christie. Paddy has probably been the outstanding player in the country so far this year. His battle with Ronan (Clarke) will be key, like it was key to the game last year. But like in last year’s semi-final, there will probably be five or six key confrontations and it will be whatever team emerges from most of them that will win.”
Armagh have also discovered one of the downsides of being reigning All-Ireland champions in recent months. Before and after their defeat to Monaghan, there were rumours in cyberspace and beyond of dissension in the ranks. McNulty has heard the rumours and treats them as such.
“Everyone is happy in the squad. You hear all the rumours and the bullshit that has come out, because we lost to Monaghan or because we weren’t that impressive against Antrim, but there is no dissension in the camp. Everyone is happy and just focused on keeping our All-Ireland title. What we are concentrating our minds on is winning every game we play, because we have to now. That is all that is in our minds. If we keep winning games, people can say what they want.”
Although there are some worries for Armagh ahead of Saturday’s enticing fixture, Clarke and Oisín McConville are reportedly both struggling with injuries, the very fact that they are back in the centre of attention might be enough to light the spark conspicuously missing from the All-Ireland champions this season. Croke Park no longer holds the fears for Armagh and Joe Kernan has still to lose there as a manager.
“Every GAA player wants to play at Croke Park. It is a fantastic opportunity that we in Armagh have had for a lot of years. But it doesn’t matter how much attention is put on this game. We just want to win, and like we said against Antrim, we don’t care if it is only by one score. As long as we win,” the defender said. That was the attitude that carried Armagh to an All-Ireland title last year. Perhaps, the bright lights this weekend will spark that fuse once again.
*The game between Dublin and Armagh was due to throw-in at 6.15, but following garda advice, GAA officials brought the match forward to 4.15pm.