Tuesday, 30 May 2017

THE wait is almost over...

And lifeless Ulster Senior Football Championship finally breaths as Down take on their biggest rivals Armagh on Sunday (June 4) at 2pm.

The Mourne men at last have an Ulster Championship opener in Pairc Esler in what will end a too long wait of 19-years.

While in the mid nougties the Armagh and Tyrone rivalry was intense, it was based on two teams vying for pole-position in their sport. The dynamics between the Orchard County and the Mourne men runs much deeper than that and there is no bigger flashpoint than Newry City, which means a sold out Pairc Esler will be rocking.

Of course the bragging rites are vitally important, as after all, what is the GAA if not parochial? And families, friendships, workmates and schoolmates will be tested as many cross the Armagh/Down divide.

And despite their professional approach the sense of occasion isn't lost on the players such as Down captain Darren O'Hagan.

“It is massive, it has been 20 odd years since we got an Ulster Championship first round game in Pairc Esler, and it probably is a tie of the round," said O'Hagan.

“In the National League we got a last minute free to stay up while Armagh conceded a last minute goal to stay down, so that is how tight it is going to be, plus the local rivalry. That is why it is going to be tie of the round.

“There are a lot of families that will have to split their loyalties living in Armagh or Down and it will all add to the occasion. The supporters are going to enjoy it just as much as the players will."

This game matters.

Neither Armagh and Down are dining at the Championship top table but a win on Sunday could set off a chain of events few would expect - just think of 2010!

An Ulster semi-final will be a sign of progression for both teams and winning on Sunday means everything, while losing just isn't an option.

“Down has a home game at last for over 20-years and it wouldn't bare thinking about getting beat by Armagh in Pairc Esler,"said O'Hagan.

“But it is 50/50 between Down and Armagh, we could have got relegated from Division Two very easily and they could have won promotion from Division Three very easily, so that's how close an encounter it is going to be."

Indeed when the bookies the price the games as an all evens contest then that sends out its own message and the result could be settled on a piece of individual brilliance or error and both teams boast many matchwinners.

Down's Johnston brothers Jerome or Ryan, Rostrevor's Caolan Mooney, Barry O'Hagan, Conor Maginn and Kevin McKernan can turn a game and likewise Armagh have star quality such as Stefan Campbell, Jamie Clarke, Rory Grugan, Charlie Vernon and Mark Shields.

Both sets of players looked relaxed and took time out to sign autographs and have their photos taken with fans on their respective Open Days. The hard work is complete and for the players everything from now until Sunday is about preparing properly to deliver that optimum performance.

The rivalry is inescapable and Whitecross' Mark Shields expects fireworks in Pairc Esler but he believes composure will have to its place too.

“I am expecting it to be really heated but it is just basically about bringing our own game and relaxing on the ball," said Shields.

“Because we can't let the occasion get to us as it will affect how we play and it is going to be tight. "But as long as we bring our own game and our intensity into the game then we should be there or thereabouts."

Beforehand James McCartan and Ambrose Rogers will manage Down's young guns against Paul McGrane's and Diarmaid Marsden's Armagh in the Ulster Minor Championship at noon. This is another game not be missed.


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