By Shaun Casey
AARON McKay was just 12 years old when Armagh last reached an Ulster final, and on Sunday the Dromintee defender is hoping to end that 15-year wait as Kieran McGeeney’s side take on Down in Clones.
McKay has been ever present in the Armagh rearguard since breaking into the team back in 2017 when he scored a first-half point on his championship debut against Down. Now the Mourne men stand between him and a place in the provincial decider.
McKay, speaking after Armagh’s five-point win over Cavan in Kingspan Breffni, only their second ever championship win in the venue, insists that despite the restructure of the All-Ireland series, the Ulster Championship still means a lot in the Orchard County.
“I know people have probably spoken about how the Ulster Championship isn’t what it was because of the change in structure,” said McKay. “But it’s still as big for us and anyone in Ulster, Ulster’s probably the most competitive championship of the lot.
“It still as important as ever, for me anyway and the squad. We’re glad, I didn’t really know about any of those statistics in terms of wins here in Breffni Park and the weather probably wasn’t great for good viewing but we’re just glad to get a win.
“It’s another game in the Ulster Championship and it’s another step closer to hopefully getting to a final. If you want to win something, you have to beat every team in front of you, so we don’t really care who we’re playing, we’ll just get our own house in order.”
McKay lined up against Gearóid McKiernan for long periods last Saturday evening and could face another man-marking duty this weekend, possibly on Pat Havern. At full back, McKay needs a safe pair of hands, but having Ethan Rafferty behind him makes life easier.
“You’re sort of worried that you’d drop a ball, and you’d never know what would happen, but the likes of ‘Raff’ there, he did really well under the high ball. We probably came in for a bit of criticism after the Antrim match about how we were dealing with aerial balls, but I thought today we done very well so we’re very pleased with that.
“It’s still a bit raw, I don’t know if I’m a fan of the ‘keeper coming out!” laughed McKay.
“But I suppose that’s the way the game’s gone. It’s actually ironic now, I remember we played Cavan here in 2016 and Paul Courtney was doing nets for us, and everybody was slating us, I know we didn’t win that day but now it’s very common across the game.
“Even at club level now you see it happening a lot. You see it happening very badly as well and ‘keepers being punished but for high balls and stuff coming in, it takes a bit of pressure off, you can just box your man out and let ‘Raff’ come out and claim the ball or break it.”
Armagh are in a good spot ahead of Sunday’s semi-final showdown, with the likes of Andrew Murnin, Conor O’Neill, Jarly Óg Burns and Rian O’Neill all returning from injury.
“Funny, we were looking at statistics based over most of Geezer’s reign in terms of injuries and if looked towards the Dublin team that was so dominant, they nearly had the same 17 players fielding every game.
“Whereas, I’m not saying it’s just us, but we’ve been killed with injuries, especially come championship time when you’re missing some of your main men. But it’s great to the boys coming on.
“The likes of Rian and (Aidan) Nugent, boys adding to it, and you have ‘Turbo’ (Conor Turbitt), and the younger boys are stepping up but to have boys with experience to come off the bench, it shows the bit of squad depth too which is great.”
Turbitt has stood out in the early stages of the championship, hitting 0-15 across two games.
“I’d give Turbo a right bit of slagging,” admitted McKay.
“But there’s some days you feel that you’ve got the better of him and then he’ll tell you that he scored four points during the in-house game and you’re wondering how he did it. Turbo’s one of the best forwards I think in Ulster and in Ireland.
“He probably just needed a bit of confidence and in fairness to him in the last two games he’s really stood up with the likes of Rian and Nugent missing.
“He can improve as well, but there’s no ceiling for him, he can reach the very top and if he keeps pushing himself, he will.”