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Victory would be huge boost for Armagh, insists Smyth

 

Scoring ace: Jamie Clarke can pull the strings in attack
Scoring ace: Jamie Clarke can pull the strings in attack
Big task: Kieran McGeeney hopes for Ulster breakthrough
John Campbell

By John Campbell

When Jimmy Smyth led Armagh into the 1977 All-Ireland football final against Dublin, he did so against the backdrop of what had been a depressing period in the Ulster championship for the greater part of the decade up until then.

And this is one of the reasons why the easy-going Smyth refuses to become embroiled in any discussion pertaining to the current team's failure to have won a provincial championship tie to date under Kieran McGeeney's tutelage.

Smyth, a long-time pillar of the thriving Ulster Colleges' GAA Council, believes that Armagh can come to the fore in the flagship competition now that McGeeney appears to have the potent blend of youth and experience that he has been seeking.

Smyth said: "I think that Armagh have been a work in progress and can now blossom on the Ulster stage. Take tomorrow's game, for instance. Down have injuries and they have had defections from their squad.

"I suppose you could say the same about Armagh but I like the look of the side nonetheless. I think if Armagh were to get over Down in this one they could really go places."

While Jamie Clarke, Rory Grugan, Brendan Donaghy, Aidan Forker and Charlie Vernon will lend their considerable experience to the cause, a quartet of Ulster Championship debutants - Patrick Burns, Rian O'Neill, Ryan Kennedy and Aidan Nugent - are in line for a baptism of fire.

Yet while manager McGeeney is taking a bold gamble, Smyth still feels that the orchard county is ideally equipped to strike out for Ulster glory. But he is conscious that Down will bring a raging thirst to the table as they have not won the title since 1994.

Like Armagh, their side is a fusion of youth and experience with Rory Burns and Ruairi Wells having bedded down well in defence. Daniel Guinness and Conor Poland among others have been making waves up front alongside seasoned campaigners such as Kevin McKernan, Caolan Mooney, Jerome Johnston and skipper Darren O'Hagan.

The loss of Ryan Johnston through injury is viewed as a being a heavy blow for Down given his pace, distribution and finishing skills.

Smyth pinpoints Derry's performance against Tyrone last weekend as an example of how a team can be talked up only to be given a fright.

Smyth added: "Derry stayed with Tyrone who were favourites for the greater part of the match and took the lead in the closing stages only to be overhauled.

"There were other matches last weekend in both hurling and football that did not go according to the script so you can take nothing for granted. I recall in the years leading up to that All-Ireland final in 1977, Armagh did not make any impact in the Ulster Championship.

"We might have won a game against Fermanagh but this did not deter us from putting in a decent performance against Dublin.

"Armagh have been doing quite well in the qualifiers in recent years but obviously all sides want to take the direct route into the All-Ireland series.

"Even though Down are at home tomorrow, I don't see this as any great advantage. Armagh played Clare there during the league when they lost home advantage for that game so they won't be in the least put out."

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