Armagh have no score to settle with Cavan - Ciaran McKeever
THE Armagh senior team Ciaran McKeever joined in 2003 was the best in the county’s history, packed with future legends. Now, as he heads into his 14th Championship season, the Cullyhanna man tells Andy Watters he approaches every county game like it could be his last...
THE voice on the other end of the phone was familiar. It was Joe Kernan: “Hello… yes… well Joe.”
It was the call a young fella from Cullyhanna dreams about. Ciaran McKeever listened and the Armagh manager did the talking. “Right Joe… thanks Joe…” By the time he put the phone down, McKeever was in the Armagh senior squad and this wasn’t any Armagh squad.
This Orchard county group were reigning All-Ireland champions and they did things differently. There were revolutionary tactics and training methods, even the jersey had been reinvented. McKeever was part of a panel that included all-time greats like ‘Geezer’, Marsden, McGrane, Oisin, the McNulty brothers, the McEntees…
“We were playing U21s around that time,” he said.
“You would have been brought in to play in the odd in-house match if the seniors were down a player around 2002, 2003. Joe rang me the week of Armagh’s last National League match - they were flying to Killarney to play Kerry - and he invited me into the squad.
“He said ‘you won’t be travelling this week because everything is booked and in place ready to go, but the following week we’re heading to Bath on a training week and we want you to come’. I was delighted to get the opportunity, it was a great experience and, thankfully, I’m still going.
“It was an unbelievable call to get because it was one of your childhood dreams to get the call to represent your county and put on the Armagh jersey. Especially at that time, from ’99 Armagh was going really well and the county was buzzing, so it was an honour and a privilege to get that call.”
He travelled to Bath and threw himself into every session. He’d watched his new team-mates from the stands at Croke Park when they’d beaten Kerry to win the Sam Maguire the previous September. Now, he was one of them. Of course, he had all due respect, but he didn’t tip-toe around, Kernan hadn’t brought him along to do that.
“You were coming into the team at that time and there were household names there,” he said.
“Every player there made you feel welcome but, when you got out on the training field, it was down to work and there was no holds barred. That’s just the way it was.”
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Since then, the boys of 2002 have shuffled off the stage and, 13 years on from that trip to Bath, McKeever - who turns 33 next month - is one of the last remaining threads to that great Armagh side. Andy Mallon also joined the panel in 2003, while the likes of Charlie Vernon and Tony Kernan came a couple of seasons later.
“You don’t see the years going by,” said McKeever, who now plays his football for St Oliver Plunkett’s/Eoghan Ruadh in Dublin.
“I think young players have to realise that. It goes by so quick and you’ve got to really grasp every opportunity you get in these jerseys because your next match could be your last and that’s the way I’m looking at it now.
“Myself and Andy are the longest there, but there’s a great mix of boys in the panel and all the boys know what it means to play for Armagh and they’re all chomping at the bit and driving in the one direction. Hopefully, we get across the line on May 29.”
That date is when Armagh hit the road for their Ulster quarter-final at Kingspan Breffni Park. The counties have become familiar foes over recent seasons and the balance of power has swayed back and forth.
Armagh lost heavily in Cavan town in 2013, but avenged the defeat with a comprehensive win the following season after players from both sides clashed as they lined up for the pre-game parade. The Orchard men went on to reach the All-Ireland quarter-final that year and looked to be going places, but their progress has stalled and Cavan have overtaken them.
The memory of the 17-point defeat in the league in March, which ended with Cavan promoted and Armagh relegated, remains etched in McKeever’s mind: “Och, you could say we were unfortunate, but I think we’ve nobody to blame but ourselves,” he said of the league campaign.
“Our start to the league wasn’t up to the standards we expect of each other. A couple of five-minute periods here and there in them first loch of matches would have saved us in Division Two. We have to learn that a wee bit of composure on the ball and to be a wee bit more clinical in front of the nets would have got us across the line in some of them matches.
“I think we’ve learned from them and, in the second half of the league, you saw a different Armagh team. We have built on that over the past couple of weeks at training and we’ll continue to build on it leading into this Cavan game.
“There’s no score to settle with Cavan, they were rightly 17-point winners on the night. We have to hold our hands up, but we’ll be there to win when we go back, simple as… You’ll definitely see a different team at Breffni Park on May 29.”
Armagh have improved since that loss in Cavan. After they came back from the dead to draw with Tyrone in the league, McKeever predicted with total confidence the side would go on to beat Derry in their final game.
They did and with a bit to spare too and he remains convinced Armagh can mix it with the best in Ulster: “Every day you go out, it’s a two-horse race,” he said.
“If one team’s up for it and the other is not, anything can happen - it’s just a matter of having the right attitude leading into the game and taking your chances when they come. If you take your chances, you’re capable of beating anyone on any given day. There’s no reason why Armagh can’t beat anyone on their day.”
McKeever missed all but 10 minutes of the league, but has slowly regained fitness. A recent cameo for his club in the Dublin championship last weekend was another step in the right direction and training with the likes of Bernard and Alan Brogan is enough to keep anyone on their toes.
“If you’re there to train, you’re there to train,” said McKeever.
“I got 10 minutes in the club championship and we played an in-house match on Saturday among ourselves and I got the full 60 minutes in that. I was happy enough to get that into the body coming up to the Championship.”
He adds with a laugh: “I suppose I just have to recover for the next two weeks now.”
But after a succession of injuries, the 32-year-old knows he can’t push too hard, too soon: “I have to be sensible,” he said.
“I’m just coming from an injury and I don’t want it flaring up again. I’ve recovered well from Saturday and we’re back training tonight, so I’ll be back in the mix tonight and hopefully I’ll stay healthy over the next couple of weeks.
“I’m not stupid, I know I’m coming to the end of it. Whether there’s another year or two left, I don’t know. Every time I play for Armagh, I’m going to enjoy it and empty the tank when I get the opportunity. When there’s a ball to be won in training tonight, I’ll go for it the same as I’ll go for it on May 29 - that’s just the way I am.”
You cannot write them off and, if they can get their best team on the pitch, the Orchard men should be capable of giving any Ulster county a game.
Vocal goalkeeper Paddy Morrison has been a good addition to the side. His handling is excellent and his kick-outs are accurate. In front of him, the returns to fitness of defenders McKeever and Brendan Donaghy are timely boosts for the Orchard men, who will be keen to draw a line over their unfortunate relegation to Division Three. The defence also includes vastly experienced corner-back Andy Mallon, as well as Charlie Vernon and Whitecross wing-back Mark Shields.
If Armagh can nail down an effective kick-out strategy, they have a capable midfield pair in Aaron Findon and Ethan Rafferty while, up front, Stefan Campbell showed some superb form during the league and has continued it at club level since.
Add the passing and free-taking ability of Tony Kernan - who surely has to start against Cavan - and the supporting cast of Rory Grugan, Micheal McKenna, Aidan Forker - who should play further forward if McKeever and Donaghy are fit - Gavin McParland and Ciaron O’Hanlon and it means there are scoring options if Armagh get the ball forward smartly.
Armagh were relegated from Division Two despite beating Derry and Fermanagh and drawing with champions Tyrone.
Their form was consistently inconsistent and the challenge for them in this campaign is to put together 70-minute performances. The bad days in the NFL were headline grabbers: Not scoring in the second-half against Meath, losing to Cavan by 17 points and then surrendering a commanding lead against Galway.
At their worst, Armagh were poor but, in between, they played some decent football and that makes this side Ulster’s biggest conundrum. Too often in the league, they kicked the ball away cheaply or were dispossessed when they ran into trouble. It seemed, at times, that they needed to be in real trouble before they dispensed with a laborious, over-elaborate running game and threw off tactical shackles to play a more direct system with pace and passion.
In last year’s Championship, Donegal, Wicklow and Galway exploited the Orchard defence’s weakness against route one tactics and - with David Givney at full-forward - Cavan will look to do the same on May 29.
Meanwhile, injury has robbed Armagh of Crossmaglen Rangers defender James Morgan, as well as Kevin Dyas and Andy Murnin. Meanwhile, Jamie Clarke is unavailable as is pacey Granemore forward Caolan Rafferty.