John McEntee: Upset is on the cards...but which game will provide it?
ONCE in a blue moon the Ulster Championship delivers a shock. Last week’s outcome, however admirable the fighting qualities of Derry were, was an entirely predictable one.
Is this weekend going to be any different? Well, guess what? Not only will there be a full moon on Saturday night, it is also going to be a blue moon.
This astronomical event coincides with the meetings of Cavan and Monaghan and Down and Armagh. If Mystic Meg was a GAA pundit, she would be saying a shock is written in the stars this weekend.
The first game in Kingspan Breffni is the game best set up for that scenario.
The two teams last met in the Allianz League in Clones on St Patrick’s weekend. On that occasion, Monaghan were much superior, leaving Cavan in the depths of relegation and in no doubt about the challenge they face in a few days’ time.
The key differences between the two teams are Monaghan’s ability to create scores and their conversion rate. They have an excellent blend of speed and skills in their ranks, with a healthy sprinkling of work-rate throughout the front six.
Players such as Ryan McAnespie and Conor McCarthy are coming of age and poised to shine alongside Kieran Hughes and the masterful Conor McManus. Should a score be needed, they are likely to find a way to get it. This is the reason why Monaghan are a match for anyone.
By comparison, Cavan’s key forwards are much less prolific. It’s not that they cannot score – give Cian Mackey a yard of space and not only will he leave you for dead, he will bag a goal.
It’s just that the defensive structure they’ve committed to over the past three years or more has not evolved in the same way as Tyrone’s or Donegal’s
It results in them executing a ponderous counter-attacking style. Rarely do their key players get behind the opposing defence to stretch them or to create
Their attacking play requires them to break the first tackle and create an overlap or else to draw a free. This lack of creativity stifles them and renders them massive underdogs in this game.
So why might a shock be on the cards? When two teams meet as often as these do, the weaker one will eventually find a way to beat the other.
Cavan’s goal is to win one match – this match. Anything else is a bonus. It does not need to be pretty, only the result matters. Cavan have been stealthily quiet since the end of March. They’ve been working on a game-plan which they hope to execute on Saturday evening to conjure up the first shock of the Ulster Championship.
Myself and many other Armagh supporters will be keeping a close eye on this match, because if Cavan fail, then perhaps it will be Down who manage to upset the bookies’ odds on Sunday.
This game is the very definition of local rivalry. Wicklow’s Anthony Nolan has been appointed to officiate, a decision which in itself provides an insight into how the GAA think this match could fare out.
Nolan is one of the top referees in the country. He will aim to stamp his authority on this game from early on so that it does not develop into a bitter neighbourly bashing.
In the same fixture two years ago, Down were in Division Two, while Armagh were in Division Three. Fortunes have reversed since then with the general opinion being that Armagh’s stock is higher than that of their neighbours at present.
On paper, Armagh’s potent forward line – which includes Rory Grugan, Jamie Clarke, Rian O’Neill and Stefan Campbell – has greater potential to score and the defensive structure they have been moulding for five years ought to be well established.
In the recent League campaign, Down struggled to generate scores when most needed, although they always produce a fine forward.
Who will shine in 2019 is anyone’s guess but trust me, one will.
Their defence is solid when the entire squad is available, however, their bench has been a cause for concern during the League.
In a similar way to how Cavan are approaching their game, Paddy Tally has been diligently honing Down’s defensive formation to thwart Armagh’s attacking flair.
It is my guess he will try to frustrate Armagh and upset their rhythm so they can then punch holes in the Orchard rearguard using a fast counter-attacking response. This is where it all gets messy.
Armagh will set up defensively as will Down. It is going to be a game of attrition so the team which holds its composure and sticks to the plan will triumph.
If Armagh start strong and get a few early scores, they will see this game out and win their first Ulster Championship match since 2014.
A local man says it’s been 64 years since Armagh beat Down in Páirc Esler, but once in a blue moon, Armagh will beat them in this venue. It’s Armagh’s time.