So much conspired against Cavan the first day, now is their time to see off Armagh and seal Ulster final spot
Ulster Senior Football Championship semi-final replay: Cavan v Armagh (tomorrow, 4pm, Clones, deferred coverage on BB2NI from 7pm)
IF you’re basing judgement on body language alone, Cavan were happier than Armagh to be leaving Clones with their Ulster Championship dreams still intact last Sunday.
Rian O’Neill kicked the ground and shouted in frustration as the dust settled, while others stood with hands on hips or hunkered down, staring into space after almost 100 minutes of frenetic fare.
The Cavan players weren’t exactly clapping each other on the back as they walked towards the tunnel, but there wasn’t the same look of regret in their eyes – even if Cian Mackey’s heroism didn’t quite extend to landing the match-winning score right at the death.
After all, it was the Breffnimen who lost arguably their best defender to a harsh black card 28 minutes in when Padraig Faulkner caught Niall Grimley bursting through. Graham’s men also saw wing-back Gerard Smith leave the action early with a hamstring injury, trailed by four at a point early in the second half, and played out the final 10 minutes of normal time with 14 men following the straight red card shown to Ciaran Brady for a stray elbow on Mark Shields.
Throw into the mix the fact that Gearoid McKiernan and Martin Reilly were nowhere near their influential best and you begin to understand why Cavan were happy enough to get another crack at the Orchardmen tomorrow.
There is a bit of house-keeping to be attended to on both sides as a result of that first game. Cavan will be without Smith while the suspended Brady is man most likely to have replaced him.
The chances are Conor Brady, who operated around the middle last week, will drop into wing-back instead with Paul Graham starting at midfield.
Armagh, meanwhile, start without the experienced Brendan Donaghy after he received a straight red for dropping a knee into Killian Clarke. Greg McCabe has been a familiar figure at sweeper during the past couple of years and appears the likely candidate to fill that role, although Kieran McGeeney may turn to Aaron McKay instead.
Beyond that call, though, McGeeney has some other conundrums to solve – the most glaring of which is how to get more than one point from play out of a full-forward line boasting the extravagant gifts of Jamie Clarke, Rian O’Neill and Stefan Campbell.
Clarke played a key role in the only goal of the game, edging out in front of Jason McLoughlin to collect Aidan Forker’s clever pass before laying off into the chest of Jarlath Og Burns.
For the rest of the game, however, he got very little change from the Shannon Gaels man. McLoughlin is one of the stickiest man-markers in Ulster, and Clarke looked a forlorn figure at times, drifting further and further from goal, eventually finishing up with just a converted free to his name.
After his brilliant Championship debut, O’Neill too was handed a dose of reality as Killian Clarke had the pace, size and strength to match his every move.
Campbell looked lively after coming back on the field in extra-time but, prior to his early exit from proceedings, Faulkner had kept a close and controlled watch on the Lurgan man.
Forker had a superb game last week, not just in terms of limiting the impact of Reilly – which he did brilliantly - but as a driving force in his own right.
Graham needs to get more from the creative Killygarry man, and may even consider starting him in a deeper role around wing-back.
For Cavan, meanwhile, the big question is how they stop Jarlath Og Burns turning in another powerhouse performance at midfield. Thomas Galligan was fit for him in the air but couldn’t live with him on the ground while Conor Brady was no match under the high ball.
Killian Clarke has played midfield before and has the height and athleticism for Burns, but it is not his natural position and after doing so well on O’Neill it is unlikely Graham will shift him from that station.
Dara McVeety picked up Burns late in normal time and did well. However, without the Crosserlough man in the forward line, Cavan would have posed absolutely no threat to Armagh at all.
It would surely be robbing Peter to pay Paul for Graham to start with that match-up, and Gearoid McKiernan may find himself going toe-to-toe with the Silverbridge man in what would be a potentially match-deciding tussle.
That would free McVeety to resume his role as tormentor-in-chief of the Armagh defence, with McGeeney likely to hand the pacy Mark Shields that brief. The Whitecross man was switched onto McVeety after James Morgan’s early struggles and did a solid enough job.
McVeety aside, Cavan need to get much more from their forward division if they are to reach a first Ulster final since 2001. Conor Madden, superb in the win over Monaghan, was barely involved against Armagh. Oisin Kiernan got on the ball a good bit but did little with it. Niall Murray showed his class in spurts but wasn’t involved enough.
After his stunning cameo from the bench last week, Graham might be tempted to start Stephen Murray – although having him and the experienced Mackey on the bench would be a serious ace up the sleeve of the Cavan management if the game is still in the balance during the second half.
Another attacking option could be Caoimhin O’Reilly. The Butlersbridge man missed much of the League with a broken foot, but there was a lot of talk before the Monaghan game that he could either start or be on the bench.
As it transpired he didn’t even make the matchday 26, and it was the same in Clones last weekend. Tomorrow might be his time, and he has the pace and directness to trouble any defence.
So much went against Cavan last week and yet they still came within a wayward shot of being in an Ulster final. The significance of Faulkner to Cavan cannot be understated, while McKiernan and Reilly surely won’t be so subdued again.
The Breffnimen by two.