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Armagh owe their resurgence to their boss Kieran McGeeney

By Peter Canavan

Of all the Ulster teams, no one has probably come from a darker place than Armagh.

They fell to arch-rivals Down, who had largely struggled for the two years before that, at the first hurdle in the championship. And that blow came not long after missing out on promotion to Division Two thanks to a last-minute Michael Quinlivan goal.

It would have been easy for them to go down after shipping those knocks. The fact they have stayed on their feet and are on the cusp of an All-Ireland quarter-final appearance is an achievement in itself. And you have to lay a lot of that credit at the door of Kieran McGeeney.

The Armagh side we'll see against Kildare tomorrow night is very different from the one that captured the All-Ireland in 2002 and proved so hard to beat for the best part of a decade.

They don't have the likes of the McNulty brothers, Enda and Justin; the O'Rourke brothers, Aidan and Cathal; Francie Bellew, McGeeney and Paul McGrane. Apart from being fine footballers, they were strong men who knew how to use their physicality.

Maybe Kieran wanted to mould this group in their image but he has learned on the hoof that that is not the hand he has been dealt. To his credit, he has adapted along the way to keep their season alive.

The players he has at his disposal need to play a different kind of game than the 2002 side. They have some good athletes and good footballers and are more suited to an attacking style of game that puts Niall Grimley, Rory Grugan and Jamie Clarke at the centre of things. McGeeney has recognised that and they are playing to their strengths now.

I was critical of their forwards against Down. They had more than enough chances to win the game but lacked composure and took the wrong options too many times. You could put that down to a lack of experience but you couldn't excuse the lack of effort I saw that day. It surprised me the way Down could counter-attack without a hand being laid on them. That would have irked Kieran.

One of the reasons Armagh are still standing is because that work-rate has improved.

Their forwards are better defensively, covering more runs and tackling harder. Clarke has embodied that new level of application. He's a fabulous footballer but the sight of him turning over ball can do so much to lift the team.

Paul Hughes and Aidan Forker are getting forward to good effect while McGeeney is getting the most out of Andrew Murnin. He's a handful at the edge of the square when Armagh deliver their long, diagonal ball but on occasion he wanders out around midfield for kick-outs to put a shift in out there.

If McGeeney has been smart when deploying his players to good effect, he showed that he can nullify the opposition's main threats too.

Against Tipp, Armagh identified centre-back Robbie Kiely as a key man. Mark Shields is a defender by nature but he started on Kiely that day and it proved to be a good move.

Likewise with the switch of Forker on to Brian Fox. Fox had been doing damage in the first half but Forker limited his influence later in the game.

Tactically Kieran has done well and it has helped keep them in the hunt. I think that is something he has picked up with experience over the years. And he is helped hugely by the return of Clarke.

Modern football can be quite formulaic, broken down into minute detail, but what a player like Clarke can bring to a team can't be quantified.

He has that X-factor and even in the white heat of championship, he carries himself like he has all the time in the world; a sign of a really classy player.

He has always been talented but his late goal against Tipperary showed he's a leader too.

McGeeney faces his old side in Kildare this weekend but to my mind that's not much of a factor. If you look back at the key men in that side, most of them like Johnny Doyle, Ronan Sweeney and Dermot Earley have long since moved on with only a few like Eoin Doyle and Emmet Bolton still there

McGeeney managed several of the current team when he guided them to a Leinster U-21 title in 2013 but they will have developed a lot since then. I don't think he'll be able to use that much in the build-up to this clash.

McGeeney's team are up against it tomorrow night. Beaten Leinster finalists tend not to do well next time out but I like what I saw from Kildare.

They have good players in every line and they are a team that will get better for every big game they play.

Their Croke Park record is poor but against Dublin they showed a new level of maturity. After conceding those two quick-fire goals they could have been looking at a hiding but they gathered themselves and stayed in the hunt.

They lost by nine points but they still caused Dublin problems.

We've talked a lot about Kevin Feely but I think he deserves it. Daniel Flynn will rue that missed goal chance against Dublin but he's a handful.

They have Paddy Brophy in there too and their size and skill in the full-forward line will cause anyone trouble.

Armagh will hope that Charlie Vernon and Co can get a hold of them early on and look to cause problems at the other end.

If they can stay in the game, they'll be confident enough. In the last ten minutes against Westmeath and Tipp they showed that they can dig out a win but it will take their best performance of the year to progress here.

Kildare by a few.

Belfast Telegraph

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