By Shaun Casey
WHEN the final whistle sounded in Clones and droves of Armagh supporters flew onto the field to greet their heroes, who had just ended a 15-year Orchard wait to reach the Ulster final, three Cullyhanna men were lined out in the orange and white.
Jason Duffy had started the game and ended his own personal drought, scoring for the first time since the third round of the league. He chipped in with 0-2, joint-captain Aidan Nugent hit 0-1 off the bench while Ross McQuillan was also introduced.
Ciaran McKeever, another member of the St Patrick’s club, is part of Kieran McGeeney’s management team, so in total, four Cullyhanna men are involved in the Armagh setup. And like the semi-final win over Down, it’s likely the three lads will all see game time again on Sunday.
“It is (a special occasion for the Cullyhanna club),” said Aidan Nugent, joint captain of the team along with Rian O’Neill.
“I suppose you sort of forget it when you’re in the bubble with Armagh. You’re sort of just thinking about Armagh but it’s big for the club because they’ve developed us over the years so I’m sure they’re proud looking on that they have four representatives on the county panel.
“It’s good for the club and good for the coaches as well that have taken us up from maybe underage right through to senior, I’d say they’re probably prouder of us than we think.”
In that ten-point semi-final victory over Down, Armagh displayed a clinical edge that seemed to be missing throughout the Division One league campaign, which ultimately ended in relegation.
Kieran McGeeney’s men hit four goals, with four different goalscoring, against the Mourne men, raising more green flags in 70 minutes of football (4) than they had done in the previous nine games (3).
The narrative throughout the league was that Armagh had adapted a more safety-first style of play, but Nugent insists it was their execution in front of the goals, rather than an alternative gameplan, that had let his side down.
“I think there’s a lot made of what way we were playing in the league but if you actually studied the games, we weren’t playing any different, we just weren’t getting results,” said Nugent, who missed out on most of the league through injury.
“I think when you lose games, we probably weren’t racking up as big of scores as last year, but people tend to say that we’re playing a more defensive game.
“I think we’ve just finished the league, okay we got relegated but we got a bit of momentum going and when you have momentum going people start saying you’re playing a whole different game.
“If you look back and studied the games, we’re probably playing the exact same but maybe just getting a bit of the rub of the green.
“It comes down to execution, I’d say we were getting the same amount of (goal) chances (in the league) it’s just putting them away and we knew as the weeks went on, we weren’t being as clinical as we should be.
“It’s something that we really knuckled down on and tried to work hard on and I suppose we’re getting that wee bit of luck this last few weeks and hopefully it continues.”
Derry will be a step up compared to what Armagh have faced in the Ulster Championship to date. The Orchard County overcame Antrim, Cavan and Down, three Division Three teams, to reach Sunday’s decider.
The reigning provincial champions are genuine All-Ireland contenders who have arguably better now than they were last year and with Ciaran McFaul back in the fold, they have so many strings to their bow.
“That happens in every game, most teams are talked up especially when they get a run,” added Nugent. “I think supporters and pundits are quick to point out a team that has had a run as contenders for the All-Ireland.
“But Derry, they’re definitely there as contenders on merit, they’re Ulster champions and we’ll just have to put the head down and try and get our gameplan as best suited to them as possible.
“I think confidence comes with momentum and Derry have built that up this past few years and I suppose it’s the sign of a great team that they have their marquee forwards, the likes of (Shane) McGuigan, but if you look at the end of the game, their scores are spread throughout the team and that’s hard to play against.
“The people that maybe aren’t known for scoring are popping up with crucial scores for them and that means they’re a dangerous team. You go out trying to shut out they’re main men and sometimes you might do that, but they have other players popping up with scores.”