Armagh and Cavan ready to get the ball rolling on McKenna Cup return
Dr McKenna Cup Section B: Cavan v Armagh (tonight, 7.45pm, Kingspan Breffni Park)
NOT that long ago, the Dr McKenna Cup was considered to be as dead as the much mourned Dodo. Left hanging by a GAA fixtures shake up, knocked for six by a global pandemic, considered a factor in player overload and burn out, the grand old pre-season tournament looked to have been administered the last rites not far short of its one hundredth birthday.
And yet, here we are. Despite the uncertainty caused by the marauding progress of the Omicron variant of Covid through Ireland and criticism of mid-week fixture scheduling and the attendant travel headaches, the McKenna Cup is back. Whatever about anything else, some in Ulster will just be happy that the last name on the Cup may not now necessarily be Tyrone’s.
Breffni Park under the floodlights, close to freezing temperatures, probably a bit of sleet thrown in for good measure and a meeting of National League Division One and Division Four opponents to get the blood flowing, the hands clapping and the feet stomping. Many Gaels will be hoping Cavan town is the place to be tonight to shake off the post-Christmas blues.
Armagh will need to hit the ground running ahead of their top flight opener with Dublin at Croke Park on January 29, while Cavan have a head of steam to build up if they are to ensure it’s just the one year they spend in the National League’s basement division. As far as the McKenna Cup goes, despite their respective auspicious histories, the recent record of both counties in the competition isn’t great - Cavan haven’t won it since the turn of the century, Armagh haven’t managed it since way back in 1994.
There may be some new faces among the Breffni lineout tonight with Kildallan’s Ryan O’Neill, Cian Madden from Gowna, Laragh duo Jack McKenna and Paul Smith, goalkeeper Lorcan Hammond from Kill and Ballinagh pair Evan Finnegan and Thomas Smith all reported to be new additions to Mickey Graham’s panel. With Ramor United and Gowna contesting a replay in the Cavan championship final as late as November 14 and Ramor not exiting the Ulster club championship to Kilcoo until December 5, there may be plenty of opportunities in the weeks ahead for the above mentioned to make their mark.
Whatever about Cavan on the pitch, their bench will have a new look to it tonight following the departure of coach Dermot McCabe, with Seanie Johnston and Ryan McMenamin making their bow as part of Graham’s backroom team. Former county star Johnston has been focusing on the Breffni forward line while McMenamin brings a trove of experience with him from his time in charge of the Fermanagh senior footballers.
As for Armagh, Cullyhanna’s Aidan Nugent could make his first performance as joint-captain alongside alongside Crossmaglen Rangers’ Rían O’Neill. The skilful forward missed the last two inter-county seasons after he suffered a cruciate ligament injury in 2019. Nugent returned for his club in the Armagh championship towards the end of last year and is expected to play a big role for the Orchard men in 2022.
Ross McQuillan impressed in the charity match Armagh played with All-Ireland champions Tyrone at the Athletic Grounds before Christmas and the Cullyhanna clubman may be given another chance to make his case by Kieran McGeeney tonight.
One familiar face who will be absent from McGeeney’s panel is highly-rated Crossmaglen defender Paul Hughes. The 30-year-old, who has suffered from injuries in recent seasons, announced his retirement from inter-county football last month despite the Orchard boss asking him to stay on board for one more year.
With Tyrone up the road for both these teams in Section B, a good start tonight is vital to maximise chances of progression past the group stage.