As you all know by now, the Round 3 qualifier draw this morning paired us with Armagh. This knockout tie has been set for MacHale Park on Saturday evening, where throw-in will be 7pm. The match will be shown live by Sky Sports but sure ye’ll all be at it so that’s not really relevant.
So, then, what do we know about the Orchard County and what have they been up to of late?
Let’s start with some historical context. Unlike many of the counties we’ve come across on our qualifier travels down the years, Armagh are a team we’ve faced in the Championship long before the qualifiers were even thought about.
That meeting happened in the All-Ireland semi-final of 1950, where we beat them with ease, by 3-9 to 0-6, before accounting for Louth in the final. That entire campaign, by the way, only comprised three matches for us because, for some bizarre reason, we were given a bye into the Connacht final where we beat Roscommon. Those were the days.
Fast forward to our most recent meeting of any sort. That took place in the League campaign of 2012 when we met on a rainy night in early March up at the Athletic Grounds. I was there myself that evening to witness an efficiently accomplished 1-14 to 0-11 win for us.
Armagh got relegated that year and since then they’ve plied their trade between Divisions Two and Three. They could do no better than finish 6th in the second tier in 2013 and then got relegated in 2014.
With Kieran McGeeney taking over as manager in 2015 they won promotion and, with it, the Division Three title but the following year got relegated again. Having narrowly missed promotion in 2017, they succeeded last year in getting out of Division Three, once again beating Fermanagh in the divisional title decider.
McGeeney’s homecoming didn’t reap the expected rewards for the Orchard County in the Championship either. In fact, their recent Ulster Championship win over Down – a match myself and the young buck were at in Páirc Esler last month – was their first provincial Championship victory of any sort since 2014. That year turned out to be a half-decent one for them as they made it to the All-Ireland quarter-final through the backdoor, losing by just a point to Donegal in that quarter-final.
In 2015, they lost to Donegal again, this time in the Ulster quarter-final, and they then beat Wicklow in Round 1 of the qualifiers before going under to Galway in Round 2. In 2016, Cavan beat them at the quarter-final stage and then, in an unusual twist, they lost twice to Laois in Round 1 of the qualifiers. The O’Moore County’s first win was annulled as it was discovered afterwards that they’d used seven subs but they knocked Armagh out at the second time of asking, winning by a single point.
In 2017, though, the Orchard County went on a run that took them all the way to the All-Ireland Series. It started – so far, so familiar – with quarter-final defeat in Ulster, this time to Down, but then they got going nicely in the qualifiers. Wins over Fermanagh, Westmeath, Tipperary and Kildare saw them reach the All-Ireland quarter-finals. Once again, however, it was Ulster opposition they faced when they made it to Croke Park, where Tyrone crushed them on a 3-17 to 0-8 scoreline.
Last summer began once more for Armagh with quarter-final defeat in Ulster, with Fermanagh turning them over by 0-12 to 0-7. But then they went on another qualifier gallop, this time almost making it into the inaugural Super Eights.
In Round 1 of the qualifiers they had an easy 3-16 to 1-11 win over Westmeath in Mullingar, while in Round 2 they accounted for Sligo by 1-19 to 1-13 at Markievcz Park. A 2-16 to 1-15 win over Clare at the Athletic Grounds followed in Round 3 but then they came unstuck against Roscommon, losing that Round 4 tie at Portlaoise by 2-22 to 1-19.
Their Division Two form was a bit up-and-down this spring, in a campaign that saw them finish in fifth spot with six points. They never threatened to push for promotion to the top tier but they were in no danger either of sliding back down to Division Three.
In Round 1 they drew 1-11 to 0-14 with Kildare in Newbridge and drew again in Round 2, with time playing out a 1-13 to 2-10 stalemate with Clare at the Athletic Grounds. In Round 3 they fell to their first defeat, Meath getting the better of them by 2-13 to 0-13 in Navan.
They bounced back in the next round, though, to beat Tipperary by 1-15 to 0-12. This good work was undone in Round 5, however, as they lost out narrowly, by 1-9 to 0-11, to Donegal in Ballybofey.
More of the same followed over the course of the final two rounds. They had it pretty much their own way against Fermanagh at the Athletic Grounds, winning by 1-9 to 0-6, but then went under by a single point, on a scoreline of 3-9 to 1-14, against a Cork team battling in vain to stave off the drop.
Armagh mixed the good with the bad as well in the two Ulster Championship matches I saw them play this year. Down were badly hobbled by the harsh dismissal of Caolan Mooney shortly before half-time – we saw on Saturday night just how good he is – but still Armagh, though outplaying the home team, were unable to complete the job in normal time. In fairness, they upped the tempo in the second half of extra-time, that late surge eventually seeing them scrape home by the minimum margin, on a scoreline of 2-17 to 3-13.
I was in Clones as well a fortnight after that to see them throw away what was a clear winning position in the Ulster semi-final. Once more the opposition – Cavan this time – were reduced to fourteen men but Armagh, having propelled themselves four points clear in a really positive spell, shrank back into their shell and tried to see the game out with defensive tactics.
That backfired badly on them. Cian Mackey rolled back the years for Cavan and drove them forward in the closing stages. Cavan drew level with four minutes to go, only to fall behind again before they levelled a second time to force extra-time.
That additional time only produced a point more apiece as the match finished all-square on a 1-14 to 0-17 scoreline. Armagh looked to have missed their chance at making it to the Ulster final and so it proved as the following weekend back at St Tiernach’s Park Cavan beat them at the second time of asking, by 0-23 to 0-17.
When Oisin McConville then plucked his native county from the bowl to face Monaghan away – so back to Clones for a third time in a month – in Round 2 of the qualifiers it looked like Armagh’s fate was sealed. But last Saturday evening Monaghan proved a pale shadow of the team that lit up last summer and Armagh dumped them out emphatically, winning by an impressive 2-17 to 1-12.
All of which means that Kieran McGeeney’s lads will head to Castlebar with a bit of a bounce in their step next Saturday night. The most recent time we met them there, by the way, they came away with a 2-10 to 1-10 win over us in the League. Fun fact – friend of the blog and the podcast Billy Joe Padden lined out for them against us in that one.
They won’t have Billy Joe in their ranks for this one, a game in which we’ve been installed as firm favourites to win by the bookies. As usual, though, let’s leave the final bit of conjecture on that matter to yourselves. So, then, will we do it on Saturday evening?
Will we advance past Armagh?
- Yes (85%, 679 Votes)
- No (15%, 120 Votes)
Total Voters: 799