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Date: Wednesday 5th May 2010

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Photographer: Liam McBurney

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Top All-Ireland pairings like Armagh v Donegal are showing competition in a great light

Oisin McConville


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Rory Grugan celebrates Armagh's victory over Tyrone

Rory Grugan celebrates Armagh's victory over Tyrone

©INPHO/Laszlo Geczo

Con O'Callaghan has been in fine form for Dublin

Con O'Callaghan has been in fine form for Dublin

©INPHO/Evan Treacy

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Rory Grugan celebrates Armagh's victory over Tyrone

Gaelic football can bring with it highs and lows which can delight and depress fans in equal measure.

Yet there is nothing calculated to raise hopes, trigger optimism and fire enthusiasm more than the prospect of a team reaching the closing stages of the All-Ireland Senior Championship.

I am well aware that this is by and large the prerogative of only a handful of teams while a pipedream for others.

Today, we find two teams which I feel have an equal chance of reaching the Semi-Finals going toe-to-toe in the hope of adding another dimension to the race for ‘Sam’.

Donegal and Armagh have become familiar foes to date this year with Declan Bonner’s side having won the League and Championship ties which they have contested, yet for me this is a whole new ball game today.

Even though the men from the north west may have held the upper hand, I don’t think there is much between the sides. And that’s why I believe we are in for a cracking contest with both sides giving their all.

Donegal had, with some justification, harboured viable ambitions of landing the Ulster title but Derry had other ideas and when they put them into practice Bonner’s side’s title aspirations perished.

But hope springs eternal and today Donegal will seek to put the disappointment of that Ulster Final setback behind them and come good against an Armagh outfit re-energised by that unexpected win over All-Ireland champions Tyrone.

I think the appeal of the All-Ireland Qualifiers has been enhanced by the quality of the pairings to date and this reunion between Armagh and Donegal certainly gets top billing today.

Even before a ball was kicked in the Ulster Championship, I expected Donegal to reach the Final and now I believe they have the capacity to reach the last-four of the All-Ireland series.

The reason for taking this view is that they can be a notoriously difficult side to beat but even with this reputation, Rory Gallagher proved to be a tad too smart for them when he successfully plotted Derry’s Ulster Final victory.

Now that they are getting another bite at the Championship cherry, I expect Donegal to be even more passionate and committed. With their old hands now supplemented by players like Jason McGee, Michael Langan, Ciaran Thompson and Peadar Mogan, the team is well balanced.

Armagh may have had an indifferent League campaign before capitulating to Donegal in the Ulster Championship, but having regained their confidence and poise against Tyrone, I expect them to hit the ground running today.

Injuries have taken their toll on Kieran McGeeney’s troops and his choices have suddenly become more limited yet I feel that he will be able to cope.

It’s 20 years since Armagh won their only All-Ireland title and that’s a gap they would like to see bridged.

But it’s one step at a time and this means that all their energies will be expended in trying to fend off Donegal.

I think the atmosphere will be electric and there is no doubt that the fans will create a tremendous din.

The only thing certain is that another Ulster team will bite the dust, leaving the winners and Derry to bring the battle for Ulster pride onto the All-Ireland stage.

With several big guns likely still be in the hunt, whoever wins the Sam Maguire Cup this year will have to do it the hard way no matter what way you look at it.

Attacking sides on to a winner

Slowly but surely, teams are making their All-Ireland Football Championship exit.

Ulster sides that have departed from this year’s series to date include Antrim, Down, Fermanagh, Tyrone, Cavan and Monaghan.

But having assessed the situation, I have come to the conclusion that those teams which were prepared to have a go, play on the front foot and eschew safety-first tactics to an extent are those that have made significant progress.

In overcoming Kildare in the Leinster Final, Dublin gave a masterly display of attacking football with Con O’Callaghan the real showstopper. Then we had Derry taking the bull by the horns to send title holders Tyrone packing from the Ulster Championship.

And Armagh sent the reigning All-Ireland champions out through the exit door following a full-frontal display of attacking football that left the Red Hands mesmerised.

And Antrim hurlers did Ulster proud by landing a phenomenal 5-22 against Kerry in lifting the Joe McDonagh Cup for the second time in just three years.

There is no doubt in my mind that the teams which have been coming to the fore of late are expressing themselves fully. In doing this, they are minimising lateral passing, constantly probing for openings rather than retreating into their shell and consistently taking the game to the opposition.

Then you have a team like Monaghan who to my mind have been playing lately but at the same time holding something back. Their tame exit from the Ulster Championship at the hands of Derry and their unconvincing performance against Mayo not surprisingly expedited their expulsion from the All-Ireland race.

But the fact that a majority of teams are willing to have a go rather than confine themselves to a defensive strategy is helping to bring spectators back through the turnstiles.

I noted during the return to some semblance of normality following the worst of the pandemic that it was the teams who were prepared to be brave who made real progress.

They could have had grounds for taking a more cautious approach but instead they were prepared to give it everything in a quest for success and in a lot of cases it turned out that fortune favoured the brave.

The upshot of all this is that over weeks fans have been regally entertained at matches and I think this will be the case during the next six weeks or so as the All-Ireland Championship builds to what I feel could prove a fascinating end.


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