Injury and age hands impetus to Armagh, but are they hungry?

Mickey Harte - forced to start players he simply doesn't have enough confidence in

Tyrone v Armagh
Jarlath Burns came to prominence in Omagh in 1997.

I watched from the bench as he gave a masterful display of fielding from midfield creating a platform for success only to be denied by wasteful shooting with 20 plus wides. From memory an anomalous amount was attributed to defenders and the midfield pairing of Jarlath and present day assistant manager Kieran McGeeney. Incidentally this team also included our best ever forward Oisín McConville but this wasn’t his greatest hour and an equal culprit in front of goal.

Previously, in 1989, the great Mark Grimley, brother to current manager Paul, again in Omagh against Tyrone destroyed a fancied Red Hand midfield pairing catching everything including, allegedly, John Lynch’s jaw in the tunnel at half time. Unfortunately this day Armagh were eight points up but again beaten by a single point.

These were different times and football has changed in so many ways, mainly positive in my view.

Modern life is all about statistics and the GAA are not behind the curve with managers adopting real-time live statistics to influence the flow of matches and patterns of play. But what has been a growing trend is the use of these statistics by management teams to explain why their team have been defeated. Armagh is a case in point. Statistics show that last weekend Armagh had the majority of possession (53.5% v 46.5%) and won primary possession from kick outs handsomely, though the conversion of possession to scores was only 28% (38% for Monaghan).

Management will impugn a four-point half-time deficit despite a goal disallowed in the first half, and will drum up encouragement by highlighting they only lost the second half by one point, despite conceding a goal after a clear push in the back by Conor McManus on James Morgan.

Though these statistics are used to give encouragement to players and management, they fail to flush out many more lucent issues. These include the inability of defenders to press up on their men or provide proper cover to the full-back line. This creates a state of limbo. Whereby there is a choice to be made, players must exercise this choice without fear of compromise or the anxiety of indecision removes the power of choice. Whereby players accept and understand the system of play these choices should be second nature.

Should Armagh defenders play with this indecision against Tyrone they will be destroyed by overlapping runners and play-making half forwards such as Ciarán McGinley.

Will they allow Stephen O’Neill to pick up as much breaking ball as Monaghan’s Stephen Gollogly? Will the Armagh half forwards withdraw ineffectively into defence allowing Tyrone to set up their attacking system? Is it likely that Aaron Kernan will be kept in reserve for another match?

What appears to be a burning issue is the level of hunger this Armagh team actually have. Some have raised a concern that key players are accepting defeat too early and that idiom ‘hope springs eternal’ isn’t that strong. This is surprising considering the proven leadership in the management team.

Since 2009 Tyrone have been vastly superior to Armagh but injury and age seem to be finally catching up. Mickey Harte is forced to start players he simply doesn’t have enough confidence in and not only do these players know this but they do not have enough championship game time accrued.

It is possible that to strengthen his defence Harte will play McGinley centre back to mark the excellent Kevin Dyas, push Sean Cavanagh to centre forward to capitalise on the loose marking Armagh half backs and start Joe McMahon in midfield where Armagh are strong but generally less attack minded. Stephen O’Neill may return to full-forward and Conor Gormley deployed at wing half back. Harte has to balance youth with experience, but with the options available to him he may have to gamble and stick with what he knows works, or used to work.

Mark Twain once said: “Facts are stubborn things, but statistics are pliable.” Despite the over-emphasis on statistics to create a story I believe Armagh will have learned from the three matches to date and continue to show signs of improvement. Crucial to this is the roll Aaron Kernan must play as a true leader. On this occasion it is Tyrone that have too many monkeys on their backs and they won’t be able to shake them off. Armagh’s paralysis by analysis to stop, leading to an Armagh win.


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