Ulster Championship: McDonnell remains Armagh rock
The theory that Armagh tend to rely rather heavily on Steven McDonnell and Jamie Clarke as their only source of scores is well founded.
After all, the duo form one of the most dynamic partnerships in Ulster football and are elite marksmen, with McDonnell having spent the past decade plundering goals and points with Clarke proving his useful ally since his introduction to the team.
But when the Orchard County eased Down out of the Ulster Championship last month, manager Paddy O’Rourke not only took great comfort from what was hailed as a shock victory, but enjoyed the considerable bonus of seeing seven players in all finish on the score sheet.
For a team which up until then had been regarded as having limited fire-power, this was a significant achievement.
Rather surprisingly, the normally prolific McDonnell scored just once — and from a free at that.
Clarke imposed his stamp on the game by landing 1-2 while Aaron Kernan bagged 0-5 (0-4 frees), Billy Joe Padden chipped in with 0-3, Malachy Mackin landed 0-2 and Tony Kernan and Kevin Dyas each registered a point.
It’s hardly surprising then that O’Rourke is hoping for a similar spread of scorers when his side face Derry in Sunday’s Ulster semi-final at St Tiernach’s Park, Clones.
Indeed, the canny O’Rourke, whose personal stock has risen since the win over James McCartan’s side, believes it will be essential for as many Armagh players as possible to hit the target if a place in the provincial final against either Donegal or Tyrone is to be copper-fastened.
“I have always maintained that Armagh have a good squad of players and I think the overall team effort against Down highlighted this,” states O’Rourke.
“The fact that seven players shared in the scoring is a source of satisfaction, but now we have to try and replicate this, against what I feel is a very good Derry side.
Some of Armagh’s long-range shooting against Down was out of the top drawer, but O’Rourke warns that his players will not be allowed to dwell on the ball against Derry.
“Derry have very good players — anyone who does not believe this is only fooling themselves. They have a new manager in John Brennan who will have them well set up.
“You can be sure that they have studied our game against Down and they will come to Clones well prepared,” insists O’Rourke.
Yet his belief in the Orchard County squad has been further solidified, as has his faith in the McDonnell-Clarke partnership, to flourish once again, even though they will come in for close attention from a Derry defence that is cushioned by experience and underpinned by superb pace.
“Against Down, I looked up the field a few times and I saw Stevie and Jamie standing maybe 15 yards apart, but even though they were both being very closely marked I just knew that if decent ball went in they would get on the end of it.
“That’s the kind of players they are,” says O’Rourke.
His team laboured through the National League only retaining their Division One status by virtue of the fact that they beat Monaghan by a solitary point in their head-to-head encounter — a circumstance that saw Eamonn McEnaney’s side make the drop into Division Two.
“We made things hard for ourselves in the league but that’s behind us now,” said O’Rourke.
“This is a very committed bunch of Armagh players who take great pride in wearing the jersey, but we will have to improve even further on our performance against Down if we are to win.
“I don’t really mind who gets the scores as long as we come out on top, but it’s always nice when the scoring load is shared around where possible.”