By Frank Craig
Stevie McDonnell says Armagh will turn up for their Ulster SFC semi-final clash with Donegal firmly believing they can win the game.
The legendary ex Orchard marksman says that his former team mate Kieran McGeeney looks like he’s on the verge of pushing his county back to the forefront of Gaelic football.
Their last Anglo Celt title came way back in 2008. But Donegal are chasing a third title in a row and, having navigated past Tyrone last time out, are being tipped to push on to an eventual All-Ireland semi-final meeting with the mighty Dublin.
Still, McDonnell feels this Armagh side can raise its head from the footballing doldrums with an upset in Kingspan Breffni Park on Saturday.
“We know in Armagh that there is a talented group of players there,” said McDonnell. “It’s a settled squad now and it’s a group of players that seem to be giving absolutely everything they have.
“That’s crucial. I think the whole country knows Armagh have talented players, particularly in the forward line.
“That is something that definitely excites someone like myself, someone that played in there as well. You want to see good attackers and exciting football.
“There are lads there now that when they get the ball in their hands, they create that bit of spark and there’s that hair’s on the back of your neck feel as well that something magical might happen.”
McDonnell says his barometer for optimism is the fact that Armagh have also made the jump back up to Division 1. Staying there and plying their trade against the best sides in the country will, he feels, give his county a much better chance of being successful in Championship.
“It’s crucial,” he said on Armagh’s top tier return. “For the further development of this group, to get back up to Division 1 is huge. They’ll be competing with the very best players and teams in the country. And that’s not being critical or disrespectful of anyone else in Division 2.
“You just have to look at the likes of Donegal, Dublin, Kerry, Galway; the best teams in the country consistently play top tier football. For Armagh to get to that next level, they need to be competing regularly in Division 1 against those better players. That’s where you learn and that’s where you’ll only get better.”
Armagh’s Ulster final dream was dashed last term at this same juncture by Cavan, who edged them out after a replay. However, they did really put it up to Mayo in the All-Ireland qualifiers and only went down by a single point.
They’ll have taken plenty of learnings from those Championship ashes. But McDonnell says they’ll need to deliver their absolute best against Donegal if they’re to cause the upset.
Armagh will believe they can win this game. Like I said, there is quality in the squad but they’ll need to dig deep and find that level required. To win, they’ll need to put in their best performance in maybe three seasons. The reason I say that is because Donegal are a seasoned team.
“And the fact is they have some unbelievably talented players. They also have arguably the best footballer over the course of the last 10 years in Michael Murphy. He leads by example every single time he goes onto the field. It really is quite incredible.
“There is also the likes of (Ryan) McHugh, (Eoghan) Ban Gallagher and (Patrick) McBrearty to name but a few. You know that they will make things happen. They will definitely turn up on the day and put in a performance. That is a guarantee.
“In Armagh, we’re hoping the likes of the O’Neills (Rían and Oisin), Stefan Campbell and Jamie Clarke turn up and put in a performance. That makes it an exciting challenge to look forward to.”
Having tuned into Armagh’s opening Ulster win over Derry, McDonnell says McGeeney’s men will have to find another few gears if they’re to trouble the reigning Ulster champions. But, he says, that improvement is definitely within their reach.
“The one concern that I do have is in defence. Armagh do have good defenders, I know that as I’ve watched them play in club football. But we seem to be conceding a lot of scoreable frees.
“That gives opponents the chance to stay close, within touching distance. That’s what happened again against Derry. If they can tidy up on their tackling then they’ll have a much better chance in this game.
“We have the ability to kick points and to kick points from distance. What I was impressed by in Derry, and Celtic Park is a tough place to go, was the fact that they led from start to finish. Derry did come back at them for a period of time but Armagh seen the game out. Even though Jamie Clarke was gone for 10 minutes.
“Their game management seems to have improved on that evidence. We’ll be hoping to see that trend continue as we move on.”
McDonnell had little or no trouble with Donegal in his playing days. But the sides’ fortunes have certainly changed in the last decade or so. If Donegal do get over Armagh on Saturday, he says Declan Bonner’s men are one of the few sides out there that have the potential to topple Dublin.
“Donegal never lacked talent – we just had the upper hand in terms of structure and maybe a psychological edge. Back then, if you got on top of them early, targeted a fast start, they’d crumble.
“That was the mental block that they had. I remember the 2003 All-Ireland semi-final. They really put it up to us. But we were a seasoned side and we didn’t panic that day.
“We worked our way out of trouble. We knew how to see games out. This Donegal side, last week against Tyrone, reminded me a little of us at that time.
“They know how to see a game out. Donegal’s transformation has been quite remarkable. I was there that day in Crossmaglen back in 2010. I remember some of their lads talking about what they were going to be doing later that evening… they were already making those plans.
“That was their attitude back then. But that flipped on its head as soon as Jim McGuinness came on board. The next year they were Ulster champions. And they lifted Sam the season after that. That standard hasn’t slipped since.
“Look at Neil McGee – what an attitude and what an example he is. I loved how he went about his business against Tyrone. He relished that marquee name that (Conor) McKenna was.
“I can’t believe he’s now 35. In my opinion Donegal would never have achieved what they did without Neil at the heart of their defence. To still be putting in the big performances that he is, is phenomenal.”
On the bigger picture and toppling the dominating Dubs, he said: “If Donegal get over the weekend, they’ll view themselves as one of the few that could do it.
“I do think Dublin are more vulnerable now than they’ve been in quite some time. They aren’t going away. But this season could be the chance for someone else.
“The change of management, the retirement of a few players and even blooding a few lads that maybe aren’t just quite as good yet as the ones that have left; all that means something.
“There is an opportunity there now for a few other counties. But it still isn’t an easy task.”