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McDonnell to lead Armagh men to victory

ALMOST 12 years have passed since Joe Brolly celebrated his injury-time goal in the 1998 Ulster final by blowing kisses to the Derry faithful. It's unlikely that ecstatic fans paused for a second to predict that the next 11 provincial titles would be shared by Armagh and Tyrone, or that the famous Ulster 'minefield' would in fact become a wasteland for Derry and all the rest.

In typical Derry fashion, there have been times when they built up a head of steam during the league only to implode under the weight of expectation. They won a National League in 2000, and again in '08, and reached last year's top-flight decider too. And yet they haven't even reached an Ulster final since 2000 and the long wait for provincial deliverance continues ... 12 years and counting.

A cynic might suggest that Damien Cassidy is trying a different route this year: instead of flattering to deceive come summer, Derry 'deceived' us all by getting relegated from Division One.

Their strange campaign actually started and ended in victory (over Tyrone and then Galway) but sandwiched in between were five consecutive defeats. In a couple of those games - the seven-point reversals to Dublin and Monaghan - they looked the polar opposite of genuine summer contenders.

And yet, it would hardly constitute a major surprise if Derry bucked this spring trend by ambushing Armagh. For once, they aren't lumbered with exaggerated expectation; and they are at home; and they have their two mercurial assassins, Paddy and Eoin Bradley, fit for duty. Mind you, James Kielt's omission from the half-forwards is a tad unusual.

Whereas Derry have been waiting in the long grass, Armagh's successful Division Two campaign meant they couldn't avoid the spotlight that comes with winning a league final (against Down) in Croke Park. And while Steven McDonnell has been shooting the lights out, the ongoing injury-enforced absence of Ronan Clarke (named among the subs) will become a graver concern if Derry concoct a cunning plan to stifle 'Stevie Wonder'.

Derry are marginal favourites with the bookies, presumably because of the Celtic Park factor ... but we can't ignore Armagh's more compelling form and progress under new boss Paddy O'Rourke.

ODDS: Derry 10/11, Draw 7/1, Armagh 6/5


DERRY: B Gillis; B Óg McAlary, K McGuckin, D McBride; G O'Kane, B McGuigan, M Bateson; F Doherty, Patsy Bradley; SL McGoldrick, M Lynch, D Mullan; Paddy Bradley, E Bradley, R Wilkinson.

ARMAGH: P Hearty; A Mallon, K Toner, B Donaghy; P Duffy, C McKeever, F Moriarty; C Vernon, J Lavery; M Mackin, A Kernan, G Swift; B Mallon, S McDonnell, R Henderson.

REF: M Deegan (Laois).