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Armagh need to reach another level to beat Mayo, says O'Neill


Hot stuff: Rian O'Neill's eye for scores can boost Armagh
Hot stuff: Rian O'Neill's eye for scores can boost Armagh
John Campbell

By John Campbell

Armagh manager Kieran McGeeney has on more than one occasion since the start of this year had cause to lament the profligacy of his forward division.

In the recent Ulster Championship semi-final replay defeat to Cavan, McGeeney pointed to the fact that in that particular game his team missed five gilt-edged goal chances.

His subsequent plea for greater accuracy was answered when his team hit 2-17 in overcoming Monaghan in the All-Ireland qualifiers last Saturday, with no fewer than 13 players sharing in the scoring.

Now McGeeney is seeking a repetition of this accuracy when his side take on Mayo in the third round of the qualifiers at Elvery's MacHale Park, Castlebar on Saturday (7.00pm), and the spotlight has already fallen on Rian O'Neill as the player deemed most capable of inspiring an extension of the Orchard county's participation in the race to the All-Ireland title.

In Armagh's four Championship outings to date, O'Neill has hit an impressive 2-19 and has also provided the assists for a further ration of scores.

In his team's opening game in the Ulster Championship against Down, O'Neill recorded 0-8 (four frees) before landing four points (three frees) in the drawn game against Cavan. He bettered this with 0-6 (four frees) in the replay, but it was in the win over Monaghan at the weekend that the 20-year-old Crossmaglen Rangers shooting star really stepped up to the mark.

His two well-taken goals, which were complemented by a point, underpinned Armagh's handsome 2-17 to 1-12 victory and have triggered optimism in advance of Saturday's demanding test against a Mayo side that has come agonisingly close to landing the All-Ireland title on several occasions in recent years.

James Horan, in his second term as manager, has amended his forward line, but at the same time he has largely kept faith with a defence that has soldiered together for some considerable time.

And it was Mayo's defensive stubbornness and counter-attacking craft that ultimately allowed them to hurdle Down last Saturday.

Now O'Neill and his colleagues in the Armagh forward line face the intimidating challenge of a mind games battle against some of the most renowned warriors in the overall GAA army.

Yet O'Neill, steely-eyed and sharply focused, positively relishes what he feels will be the biggest test Armagh have faced for some considerable time.

"While we were disappointed with ourselves after the replay against Cavan, I suppose the fact that we did not get much time to dwell on this because we were out against Monaghan so soon afterwards was a good thing," reflects Dundalk IT student O'Neill.

"We knew that we could hardly be facing tougher opponents than Malachy O'Rourke's side, and it was certainly refreshing for us to knock up a decent winning total against what is a top Division One outfit.

"We're now going in against another big side in Mayo, who are the Allianz League champions and vastly experienced in playing in major All-Ireland Championship matches in which the pressure is always at its highest."

Mayo's feat in clinching the league title brought a depressing losing sequence to an end.

Since their last league title triumph in 2001, Mayo have competed in 10 national deciders, with the 2016 All-Ireland final draw the only tie that did not culminate in defeat.

"We know that Mayo have come close to winning the All-Ireland without quite getting there, but with home advantage against us they will fancy their chances of moving on," states O'Neill.

"We are glad to be getting games. I think we have built up a bit of form since we played Down but we will need to take things to another level against Mayo.

"I know much is made of scoring statistics but we don't mind who gets the scores as long as we get over the line."

Saturday's match will ask big questions of Armagh but it will be an occasion on which the young guns like Jarlath Og Burns, Aidan Nugent and Jemar Hall, as well as the influential O'Neill, will be expected by many to be able to step up to the mark.

These players were scarcely known outside their county not that long ago and now they are inching towards action in the last-12 of the All-Ireland series.

Saturday's game will determine if they sample life at this lofty level or not.

Belfast Telegraph


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