Derry and Armagh seeking victory to ignite season

The meandering nature of our football competitions mean the season is much more of a marathon than a sprint now.

The ability of teams to reach that special peak where psychological ‘hunger’ is met with physical preparation and tactical surety to produce their very best is not an endless reserve. You have maybe two to three of those moments in a year. Use them up and you become a punch drunk fighter whose arms and legs are gone when you need them the most.

Even professional teams in other sports cannot play endlessly at their peak. Man City or the All Blacks achieved their amazing records not by being at their peak all the time. Rather, their consistently excellent ‘normal’ level of performance still crucially left room to push their own bar higher again on those few occasions in a season when they knew things were really on the line.

Those games where, as players, you have a nervous energy in you all week and where there is a buzz and tension in the camp. Dublin’s superb team were a great example of this and their current crop is ominously heading in a similar direction.

And it is this most challenging of conundrums that is facing Mickey Harte and in a slightly different manner Kieran McGeeney. Both men have teams of accomplished players and built panels of sound depth, albeit a depth that Derry stretched to breaking point the last day out.

To push their teams to the level they are currently at, top eight teams in the country, takes a massive effort for the respective counties. For Kerry and Dublin to do the same, simply put, takes less.

Derry pushed hard for the national league, ending up winning it. That was their fifth year in a row of pushing hard to rise from Division 4. Just because we have got used to their standing now, shouldn’t take away the unbelievable nature of their achievements.

Those peaks we mentioned earlier had been pushed to time and time again. With that their standard level of performance had also consistently risen. Then the perfect storm hit. A huge championship game where the opponent was perfectly set for an ambush weeks after the massive psychological battle to win that league final.

Tactical naivety and an off-day at the office in front of the posts both were definite factors but the energy in the players, so often the determining factor, failed to hit their peak. That had to be the biggest worry. Cue four weeks of circling the wagons, getting inside their heads by using the negative chat about them and the hurt of the Donegal fuel to stoke the flames for a massive bounce-back performance.

Injuries and a sending off killed off Derry’s relaunch bid in Salthill. Suddenly those previous performance peaks seem a long way away. How hard was training pushed to have a team, returning to the top tier for the first time in five years, end up winning the thing? Is there energy for them to up their training now when all around them that’s exactly what their opponents are doing? Will the motivational talks relight the fires when they didn’t against Donegal and Galway or has the fuel for the fire ran out?

Mickey Harte’s Derry can bounce back from defeat to Galway

Similarly Armagh, the skeletons in the closet, put there one by one with each big game that hadn’t worked out, had a jamboree in the Ulster final. Those things rattle in the back of players’ minds when they’re coming down the stretch. They can give a team a feeling in the pit of the stomach that they’ll find a way to lose a game rather than win it.

What McGeeney has done in rising Armagh from Division 3 and keeping them consistently as a top tier side for several years now is remarkable. Keeping a large squad under his spell and training hard after the setbacks and coming back again and again is in many ways as remarkable as Derry’s rise.

Armagh’s resilience speaks volumes of their character. But somehow, be it a stumble, fall or trip over the line, they must get across it. As per Brian Dooher back in the day, gone is the time for keeping knocking at the door, now is the time to kick the f***ing door down. They will know that Sunday is a chance.

Both sets of players, styles of play and managers are well-known on Sunday. What is not is where the respective energy levels at? Both teams have pushed hard for previous games and fallen short. Which team’s preparations this year has left room to build for further performance peaks down the line. They both need one today.

Our new season, for all its ills, asks so many varied questions of teams who want to succeed. Squad depth, skill and tactical levels, ability to learn and adapt in-game and between games, and physical conditioning all gets tested along the way with weak points exposed.

Yet rather than any of these, it is belief in your team and its management and the unity and collective resilience of the group that are the traits waiting to be exposed today.

Both teams are running on fumes. Like fighters in a Rocky film, they have had a punishing few rounds. Stay strong and come through this one and they will gain fuel and momentum that maybe, just maybe reignites their season.

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