Cavan set to have their noses in front of Armagh when final whistle blows in Clones
Ulster Senior Championship quarter-final: Armagh v Cavan (tomorrow, Clones, 4pm, deferred coverage on BBC2 NI at 7pm)
A CAVAN supporter remarked recently that he’d expected Armagh to win two games in Ulster this season.
“Yeah and they won them both in Newry,” he added with nice comic timing, before marching off with a 'job done' swagger.
On reflection there is some truth to his tongue-in-cheek punchline because Armagh did have to win their opener twice to get past Down. Five points up against 14 men with the game nearing injury-time, Kieran McGeeney’s side needed only to keep their heads to register a comfortable victory.
But they didn’t. Down launched an all-out assault which the Orchardmen couldn’t resist and they ended up in extra-time and quickly found themselves three points behind.
In a game that ebbed and flowed they fought back bravely and won it again thanks to a brilliant late cameo from Andy Murnin who was the 23rd player in orange to see action on a topsy-turvy, superbly entertaining evening in Newry.
That win will have done Armagh a power of good and McGeeney’s introduction of Murnin was a masterstroke. But until his team breaks their bad habit of squandering match-winning positions, their supporters will continue to spend the closing stages of games on the edge of their seats and their opponents will feel they’re always in with a shout.
Cavan fans had also been on the edges of their seats at Kingspan Breffni the evening before when their side locked horns with neighbours, and bitter rivals, Monaghan.
The Farneymen had dominated this fixture in recent seasons but Cavan came racing out of the traps, made the pitch as big as they could by playing with an inside forward unit and got playmaker Martin Reilly on the ball. Former Burnley soccer star Reilly’s sublime passing laid the foundations for a memorable win.
The Farneymen – All-Ireland semi-finalists last year - were never allowed to recover from an early blitz that included a dubious penalty and despite Monaghan's gutsy second half fightback Cavan, perhaps inspired by a pitch invasion from a mystery dog, held on to win by four points.
The action-packed start to that game was in keeping with Mickey Graham’s time as manager of his native county. Graham has been a busy man since he took over from Mattie McGleenan last year and has had to divide his time between his county’s Division One campaign and masterminding Longford giant-killers Mullinalaghta’s run to the Leinster title.
“I was right in at the deep end in Division One against the top teams in the country so I hadn’t much time to settle,” says the Cavan boss with a laugh.
“With the condensed Championship now you haven’t much time to think about things, you’ve only got a couple of weeks to get over one game and get ready for the next one and that’s not a bad thing I suppose; it stops you from sitting back and having too much time to think about it.
“That’s the joys of Ulster Championship. As a player it was always the be-all and end-all for me and as a manager to be part of an Ulster Championship game, it’s always a special day.
“Ulster is the best provincial Championship in the country as regards quality and intensity and rivalry and the whole lot that goes with it. That’s what makes the Ulster Championship so special – on any given day, anybody can beat anybody.”
That is certainly true of this game and both panels will board their buses bound for Breffni with genuine belief that a long-awaited Ulster final return is there for the taking. Armagh haven’t been in the Anglo-Celt decider in 11 years and Cavan’s last appearance was back in 2001 so massive crowds – up to 20,000 is estimated – are expected to turn up at Clones tomorrow to roar them on.
“At this stage the players have a game under their belt, the pressure of getting that first win has been taken off and I think they are around long enough at this stage to know that they have to keep their feet firmly on the ground and prepare for this one like they would any other game,” Graham explained.
“They don’t play the occasion, they play the game. Hopefully that’s the case with our lads on Sunday.”
Armagh fans will have been delighted to have ended their four-year Ulster hoodoo by beating Down and the win should give the Orchard players confidence and momentum. The same is true for the Cavan faithful who had had the rough end of the stick against their Monaghan neighbours but turned that around impressively.
Cavan will bring pedigree, experience and quality tomorrow. This side includes players who spent the last five seasons fluctuating between Divisions One and Two and half of this team – including Moynagh, Faulkner, Clarke, McVeety and Ciaran Brady - played their parts in the county’s Ulster U21 four in-a-row run between 2010 and 2014.
Despite that, Armagh, with the likes of Rian O’Neill, Jamie Clarke, Stefan Campbell and Murnin, have the edge in individual talent and they have the ability to click into a gear beyond many teams and land 1-2 or 1-3 without replay.
However, their inability to convert relatively simple first half frees against Down and then repel the Mournemen’s late assault on their posts almost cost them in Newry and they will need a whistle-to-whistle performance to win tomorrow.
A tendency to switch off in games prevented Armagh from challenging for promotion in Division Two this year and, after their bad habits resurfaced against Down, the question marks about them remain.
Having said all that there is nothing between these sides but in a game of who-blinks-first on neutral ground, Cavan look the better bet, just about.
Mickey Graham’s side toppled Monaghan and they deserve credit for that so, while you can’t rule out extra-time again tomorrow, Cavan get the nod to have their noses in front when the final whistle blows.