As Kieran McGeeney took a sip of his coffee an Armagh fan chirped: “I hope that’s not the last cup you lift this year...”

Mindgames swirl as Down aim for upset victory over Armagh in Ulster Championship semi-final

Armagh captain Kieran McGeeney hoists aloft the Sam Maguire Cup after the Orchard's 2002 All-Ireland triumph. Picture by Ann McManus
Armagh captain Kieran McGeeney lifts the Sam Maguire Cup in 2002. Armagh haven't won a major title since 2008. Picture by Ann McManus

ARMAGH manager Kieran McGeeney took a sip of his coffee in a café last week and, so the story goes, a witty onlooker didn’t miss his opportunity.

“I hope that’s not the last cup you lift this year,” he says, quick as a flash.

Lifting cups was almost routine for McGeeney during his playing days but since the 2002 skipper hung up his boots in 2007, the Orchardmen have picked up just one of note – the Anglo-Celt in 2008.

Now, with the Mullaghbawn native’s 10-year stint as manager apparently drawing to a close, this could be Armagh’s last chance to end that drought under his watch.

With Derry gone, you could make a strong case for Armagh being Ulster favourites now and old enemy Down – who haven’t won a provincial title in three decades now – stand between them and another final appearance.

The neighbours meet at Clones on Saturday evening and, on paper, there can only be one winner: Armagh are red-hot favourites.

Bar a three-quarter-hearted effort in the Division Two final (they only lost by a point to Donegal) the Orchard County haven’t been beaten this season and they breezed past Fermanagh at Brewster Park in their quarter-final. The Orchardmen did the basics brilliantly and took their chances ruthlessly and the game was over before half-time.

Conor Laverty.jpg
Conor Laverty was disappointed with his side's performance against Antrim (seamus loughran)

Like McGeeney, Down manager Conor Laverty will also have had to listen to plenty from fans over the past fortnight. His only respite from GAA probably comes when he’s on top of a mountain looking after his sheep and even then you wouldn’t rule out the possibility of a zealot jumping out from behind a whin bush to ask about the team for the weekend.

Laverty, who will have former mentor Conleith Gilligan in the Armagh dugout, also took his county to a League final. Down were in the Division Three decider and, like Armagh, they lost. But they showed few signs of Anglo-Celt winning promise as then they struggled to see off Antrim on home soil in their Ulster quarter-final.

Was Laverty’s side complacent against the Saffrons? Did they play within themselves? Down fans, who are gradually hopping back on the county bandwagon, hope so.

Armagh supporters are expected to out-number them at Clones. Those brought up watching Down’s glory days will always have a grudging respect for the Mournemen and younger fans, who don’t have to carry that baggage around, should remember 2017 when Eamonn Burns’s team surprised Armagh in an Ulster quarter-final. Almost half the Armagh side from that day will start this weekend. Down’s only survivor is Ryan Johnston.

The mindgames are going on. This business about both counties being offered to toss for the right to host the game instead of everyone trekking down to Clones.

Down say there were up for it, Armagh sources suggest the option was never there - at least not officially. Even if it was, why would they turn it down? After all, they hammered the Mournemen by 10 points this time last year. Would Armagh fear going to Newry? Ok, they lost in 2017 but they won there the following year, so you wouldn’t imagine so.

There’s a theory they see this semi-final as a chance to get back on the Clones pitch and put the ghost of last season’s Ulster final penalty loss to Derry (then managed by Ciaran Meenagh who is now in the Down management) to bed? That’s a bit of a stretch.

Whatever the truth is, Down are coming in under the radar and, if they were prepared to go to the Athletic Grounds, like they say there must be real confidence in the camp.

Donegal surprised us, can Down do the same at Clones? Maybe last week’s coffee will turn out to be the only cup Geezer lifts this year…