By Shaun Casey
IF Armagh are to compete for silverware this season, then they have to start winning big games against good opposition says former Orchard captain Steven McDonnell.
Armagh travel to Kingspan Breffni on Saturday afternoon and can book their place in the last four of the Ulster Championship if they see off Cavan.
McDonnell was part of the first and to date only Armagh team to record a championship win in the Cavan town venue, top scoring with 0-6 in 2008, which was also the last time the Orchard County claimed the Anglo Celt Cup.
“The expectation from supporters is that we want to see at least an Ulster final appearance,” said the 2003 Footballer of the Year. “To get to Ulster finals though, you have to beat good teams on your way and Cavan are a very, very good side.
“If Armagh have any aspirations of showing that the league performances were a bit of a blip but that they are contenders for silverware then they’ve got to travel over to Breffni Park full of confidence, go out and put in a performance and see this game out.
“Do I think Armagh will win? I do. I think it’ll be a very tight game, a typical Ulster game, but I do think Armagh just have that wee bit more firepower. The likes of Andrew Murnin and Rian O’Neill are coming back into the side, I think they had eight different scorers against Antrim and that’s what Armagh have to do.
“Conor Turbitt is a fantastic inside forward. He’s not afraid to take his man on and he shows pretty well for the ball, Jason Duffy the same, Tiernan Kelly as well, there’s a lot of attacking flair in this Armagh squad. If they can get the ball to them early and fast, then I’ve no doubt that Armagh will win the game.”
Question marks surround the fitness of O’Neill and Murnin, who missed Armagh’s nine-point win over Antrim in the preliminary round through injury, but McDonnell insists the two sharpshooters should start if fit.
“It all depends on how far progressed they are in terms of their rehab, they’re two very important players, as is Conor O’Neill,” said the Killeavy clubman.
“Rian O’Neill and Andrew Murnin are two valuable members of Armagh’s attacking unit and if they are fit, they will want to be playing and from a manager’s point of view, I think you have to go with your strongest possible team.
“Those two boys, if they’re fit or close to being fit, they’re in your strongest team. It’s an Ulster Championship match against a team that are record isn’t brilliant with. You’ve got to put out the best possible team to go and win the game and I would like to see Rian and Andrew starting, but only if they’re right.
“I think Kieran (McGeeney) will be cautious as well. If they aren’t 100 per cent right, then you’ve got to give them the due rest that they need but at the end of the day, if they’re close to it, you’ve got to play them.”
McDonnell describes Cavan as a “formidable” force under Mickey Graham’s tutelage and suggests they’ll have full faith in turning over the Orchard County following their successful Division Three league campaign, while Armagh suffered relegation from the top tier.
“Getting relegated is never easy on any team and there has been a difference in how Armagh have played this year in comparison to last year but with injuries to key players, you have to try and work around that as best you can,” added McDonnell.
“I think they were good enough to stay in Division One, but they just didn’t happen to do that. I don’t think it was lost on the last day of the campaign, there was games that they could have won but they just weren’t as critical as they could have been.
“Those results went against them so that’s ultimately what cost them. It’s a case of, when opportunities present themselves, particularly at the highest level, you need to capitalise and you need to put them away and unfortunately, there were a number of instances throughout the course of the year where Armagh didn’t do that.
“Cavan under Mickey Graham have been a formidable side. They won Ulster in 2020, they were in the final the year before, they’re a team full of experienced players. They won the Division Three final and they’ve gained promotion while Armagh were relegated.
“It’s two Division Two teams, one on the crest of a wave and playing with confidence and Armagh, you have to take each competition as it comes. They did get back on track against Antrim, but you’d still feel that Cavan are coming into this game a wee bit more confident, but Armagh won’t shirk the challenge of playing against Cavan.”