Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 December 2014

Optimism sweeps Armagh with dream of All-Ireland impact

Armagh's Jamie Clarke
Armagh's Jamie Clarke

The topsy-turvy nature of inter-county football has been brought into sharp focus following the draw for round 3B of the All-Ireland football qualifiers.

A matter of weeks ago Roscommon and Armagh were like ships passing in the night, John Evans's side striding majestically into Division Two of the Allianz League while Paul Grimley's team made their dismal descent to replace them in Division Three.

Yet fate has now decreed that the teams will meet this weekend in the qualifiers and their respective league fortunes coupled with their championship track records this term add spice to a contest that has suddenly spawned national appeal.

Armagh's rather surprising 0-13 to 0-10 win over Tyrone on Sunday has actually triggered a fresh bout of football fever, not just within the county but also within Roscommon as well as engendering fresh respect for a team that has been making headlines for the wrong reasons in the recent past.

And now Grimley's side will seek to extend their tenure in the All-Ireland title race by thwarting Roscommon's bid to banish two Ulster counties within a week.

On Saturday night, Roscommon left Cavan wallowing in their slipstream in a one-sided qualifier which they won by 0-16 to 0-5 – a result that has ignited optimism within the county that they can take another step towards a coveted All-Ireland quarter-final place by lowering the colours of Armagh.

But Orchard County boss Grimley is adopting a cautious approach to a game which he knows will represent a further banana skin to his side's hopes of significant progress.

"We had a lot of injuries in the league and when relegation came we had to take it on the chin but since the start of the championship, we have had people back in action and we hope to take things on from where we are at," maintains Grimley.

Precisely where Armagh are at is among the contenders to reach the last eight – something that would have been deemed a fanciful notion a few weeks ago.

Yet in their last four games the Orchard County have beaten Cavan, drawn with Monaghan, then lost to them in a replay and overcome Tyrone. By any standards that's a decent track record in high summer.

In the process, their defensive alignment has improved to such an extent that they have conceded just one goal in their last four games, that coming against Cavan.

"I have always had faith in the squad even when we were down to the bare bones but even though we had people like Caolan Rafferty, Ethan Rafferty and Kieran Toner out of action last week, we still had the resources to beat Tyrone," points out Grimley.

Though, the form of Jamie Clarke, Tony Kernan, Mark Shields, James Morgan and Charlie Vernon would suggest that Armagh still have considerable firepower for the Rosses clash.

It's not a boast, just a simple statement of fact. And nowhere has Grimley's assessment of his resources been dissected more diligently than in Roscommon.

County board spokesman Colm Beirne admits that Armagh's win over Tyrone has suddenly garnered fresh respect for a team that had not been expected to make any championship impact given their poor league campaign.

"We ourselves had a good league campaign and while we were very happy to get promoted, we had set our sights set on making our presence felt in the championship," explains Beirne.

"We missed out on promotion by a point under John Evans in his first year but now that we are in Division Two we want to show that we are well worth our place by the way we perform in the championship."

Roscommon's recent record certainly makes for impressive reading. They beat Cavan in the Division Three final at Croke Park, hammered Leitrim in the Connacht championship before losing to eventual title winners Mayo by just a point and then humbled Cavan last weekend.

"While we are happy with our form, we know that Armagh will be very tough opponents.

"Any team that can beat Tyrone on their own ground has to be accorded huge respect. Let's just say that we are very glad to have home advantage for this one," states Beirne.

"There were about 8,000 people at our game against Cavan in Kinsgpan Breffni Park on Saturday night and I'm happy to say that about half of them were from Roscommon.

"This suggests we will have a bumper crowd in Dr Hyde Park for the meeting with Armagh this weekend and it should be a tremendous occasion from every perspective."

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