Kevin Madden: Returning O’Neill delivers a big moment for Armagh

Rian O'Neill (left) made an important defensive intervention when introduced for Armagh in their Ulster SFC quarter-final against Cavan at Kingspan Breffni on Saturday evening
Rian O'Neill (left) made an important defensive intervention when introduced for Armagh in their Ulster SFC quarter-final against Cavan at Kingspan Breffni on Saturday evening Rian O'Neill (left) made an important defensive intervention when introduced for Armagh in their Ulster SFC quarter-final against Cavan at Kingspan Breffni on Saturday evening

A NUMBER of weeks ago, when the rumour mill was rife about the severity of Rían O’Neill’s injury against the backdrop of a potential bust-up with manager Kieran McGeeney, the pessimists were out in full force.

After an unexpected relegation from Division One that was followed by the loss of their marquee forward, the wheels were almost off, or so we were being told.

Whatever the circumstances, often the loss of such an important player will eventually unearth the truth about the character, quality and togetherness of a playing squad and their management.

When Rían O’Neill came off the bench on Saturday evening, he didn’t make his usual offensive impact on the game.

Armagh were almost home and hosed at that stage and Cavan were having a purple patch of dominance on Ethan Rafferty’s kickouts.

So keeping a major score out was the key to seeing out the game. A goal from Cavan would have put three between the sides and ensured a nervy ending to the game from an Armagh perspective.

As Tiarnán Madden stepped inside, his shot had beaten Ethan Rafferty and looked destined for the net. Out of nowhere, Rían O’Neill produced the most unbelievable save, but more than that, a signal of intent that he was there to do whatever it took for the team to get over the line.

That was a massive moment in the game but, more than that, could it be an even bigger moment in the journey of this Armagh team?

The absence of O’Neill the last number of weeks has coincided with a relatively new kid on the block stepping up and leading the Armagh forward line.

Conor Turbitt was once again in outstanding form. You really need to watch his footwork to understand how he carves out the shooting opportunity when the space is very limited.

He has this very deliberate ability to subtly pivot and change direction to find a gap to accelerate and get the shot away.

I thought he was the outstanding forward on the pitch, not for the first time in recent weeks. Not only was his finishing top class, but his decision making each and every time when in possession was excellent too.

Armagh produced a brilliant performance defensively, but the biggest difference between the two sides was the structure and movement of the ball in the final third. For me, it was method versus madness.

As soon as Cavan got the ball inside the 45-metre line, there was an unnecessary urgency to get a shot away against a packed, aggressive and organised Armagh defence.

Cavan in attack played as individuals whilst Armagh worked the ball through the phases as a team. The wide count was a glaring statistic. The Breffni men had a dirty dozen on the board before the Orchard had even broke their duck.

So many of Cavan’s wides came from around the periphery of what you would call the scoring zone. They lacked the patience or the game intelligence of their counterparts to work the ball around the different points of attack before carving an opening.

I was really impressed with how quickly Armagh moved the ball, through the hands, but more so by the way they were always looking for the fast measured kickpass in attack.

Heads up football isn’t always something we have associated with this Armagh team, but they looked to be kicking the ball more than usual on Saturday night. Andrew Murnin was a great target man and a very effective foil for Turbitt in the full-forward line.

I said Armagh would need to buck the recent trend and score a goal and, no doubt, that was the score that gave Cavan just a little too much to do. With runners breaking at various angles ahead of the ball, it was a great team goal and the simplest of finishes for Ben Crealey.

There were calls for a square ball, but I think referee Paul Falloon and his team got it spot on. If there was one facet of the Armagh play that was poor and gave unnecessary oxygen to the Cavan challenge, you would have to say it was their own kickouts.

That was one area where the home team were completely on top, particularly in the last 20 minutes.

Cavan had a really good press on, which unnerved Ethan Rafferty to keep going long, which resulted in attack after attack coming back at the Armagh defence.

It didn’t cost them on Saturday, but losing four or five of your own kickouts consecutively (at two different stages) against better opposition will most definitely result in a lights out scenario. Under the high ball and from open play, Rafferty was excellent.

Although it wasn’t a major surprise, Down’s victory in Páirc Esler was a great win for Conor Laverty’s side. Armagh will rightly start as favourites for the semi-final, but Down will relish being the underdog once again.

There will be some interesting match-ups to look forward to. I cannot understand why teams aren’t tagging Ethan Rafferty and trying to restrict his influence on the game.

He kicked a wonderful pass with the outside of his boot from right to left into the path of Conor Turbitt which resulted in another great score in the second-half. It was delivered under zero pressure and resulted in another Armagh score.

It will be interesting to see how Down deal with the threat of Rafferty next day out.