O'Hagan is out to chop down the flourishing Orchard
Thursday 16th May 2019
Down captain Darren O'Hagan is in no doubt that his team will be meeting an "emerging Armagh" in the Ulster Senior Football Championship on Sunday.
By John Campbell
The long-serving O'Hagan is no stranger to battles with the Orchard County in both league and Championship but the Clonduff player believes that the current squad is poised to make a significant breakthrough.
Far from 'talking up' Kieran McGeeney's outfit, the level-headed O'Hagan bases his assessment on what he views as Armagh's progress of late.
"When you look at the way in which they got through to the last round of the qualifiers last year, and were rather unfortunate to be beaten by Roscommon, and then take on board the experience they gained in Division Two of the league this year, you would have to say that they are an emerging side," stated O'Hagan.
"As I see it, they are coming in there on the heels of Tyrone, Monaghan and Donegal in Ulster and, this being the case, they will be very difficult opponents for us this weekend."
O'Hagan reveals that his side are geared for "a tough battle" and pinpoints the opposition's strengths as his own team prepare to embark on what they hope will prove the first step towards ending what has now stretched into a 25-year Ulster title famine.
"The last time we played Armagh in the Championship I had my hands full because I was marking Jamie Clarke. You cannot take your eye off him for a minute and the same will apply to people like Rory Grugan, Rian O'Neill and others on Sunday," said O'Hagan.
"It will be absolutely essential for us to maintain our concentration for the 70-plus minutes on Sunday. I expect that the two teams will go hell for leather for the entire game in what will be a tough battle.
"There is a sharp rivalry there and I don't think that the media need to build it up too much because it is so well known. You can be sure that no quarter will be asked or given."
Down, though, have slipped up at Pairc Esler in some important matches recently. Last year, defeats to Cork and Clare in the league contributed significantly to their demotion to Division Three, while this year losses to Laois and Louth book-ended a league campaign that brought five successive victories yet failed to yield promotion.
But O'Hagan prefers to take what he sees as the positives from a competition in which manager Paddy Tally successfully blooded several new players.
Rory Burns, Ruairi Wells, Pierce Laverty, Daniel Guinness and Johnny Flynn were relative unknowns prior to the start of the Allianz League but they repaid the faith that Tally showed in them by maintaining an encouraging level of consistency in their performances.
And with David McKibbin, Cory Quinn and Owen McCabe also getting game time, Tally soon discovered that he had a talented, if somewhat inexperienced, bench.
Ceilum Doherty has since left the squad but Paul Devlin, Barry O'Hagan and Connaire Harrison are there to play a part in attack if called upon to do so.
Caolan Mooney, meanwhile, has blossomed into an effective midfielder, while Conor Poland continues to pull the strings in an attack which will be missing the elegant skills of the injured Ryan Johnston on Sunday.
Johnston has had an unfortunate run of injuries of late and there are fears that he may not play any Championship football at all for Down over the summer.
Devlin is also pressing for a starting place and his ability as a free-taker could prove crucial. In addition, his versatility gives manager Tally options, something that could prove valuable in the closing stages of the game.
Skipper O'Hagan, while acknowledging that the Mournemen will have to do without the services of some players, believes that the side which Tally puts out on Sunday will be the strongest possible and will endeavour to do Down proud.
"I think if you look back on some of the league games you will see the depth of character of the team," pointed out O'Hagan.
"In a couple of matches in particular our backs were against the wall but we managed to pull through.
"Against Westmeath we were down to 14 men from early on but we still managed to win by a point, and we were getting it tight against Sligo before we came out on the right side.
"And you would also have to say that we were unfortunate to lose to Louth by a point.
"It's this kind of battling mentality that we will really need to show if we are to overcome Armagh.
"It's vital that we bring this spirit into the Championship. Paddy Tally has encouraged us to see games out and this is what we want to produce for him on the Championship stage."
While most teams have their focus on reaching the Super8s, either via the Championship or through the qualifiers, O'Hagan is in no doubt as to what he wants for Down.
"I would love to see us get into the Ulster final," added O'Hagan.
"It's always a great challenge to go and play in front of a packed crowd at Clones. We got there two years ago when we feel we did not do ourselves justice against Tyrone and we would like another crack at it. But, for now, Armagh is the only team on our radar."