Ulster Championship quarter-final
Cavan v Armagh
Saturday, Kingspan Breffni, 6.30pm
By Niall Gartland
IF you believe the bookies, this should be an Armagh victory all day long. They’ve been priced as 12 for Saturday’s trip to Kingspan Breffni Park, but in our eyes you’d be foolish to write off Mickey Graham’s Cavan.
For one thing, they have considerable pedigree in the Ulster Championship in recent years. They reached the final in 2019, losing by seven points to Donegal in Mickey Graham’s first season in charge of the team.
They reversed that result a year later, claiming their first provincial championship since 1997 and deservedly so, producing a barnstorming performance against Declan Bonner’s side.
At that stage, Graham was very much perceived as the man with the Midas touch. He’d steered Longford’s Mullinalaghta to the Leinster title in December 2018, a stupefying achievement by any measure, and within two years had brought the Anglo Celt back to success-starved Cavan.
They weren’t a million miles off the pace in last year’s Ulster Championship either, putting up a strong display against Donegal before faltering on the home straight.
Armagh, by contrast, have underachieved in the Ulster Championship during the Kieran McGeeney era. Yes, they excited the nation with their swashbuckling style of football last season (so much so that goalkeeper Ethan Rafferty was their first line of attack) and came agonisingly close to booking a place in the All-Ireland semi-finals, but their provincial record certainly isn’t anything worth writing home about. In his nine years in charge, McGeeney’s team have only mustered four Ulster Championship victories of any description – none of which came against the heavy hitters in the province. And when they happened to chance upon Cavan – in 2016 and 2019 – it was the Breffni County that emerged with the spoils.
Why then have Armagh been pegged as comfortable favourites to progress to an Ulster Championship semi-final clash against the winners of Donegal or Down? Their memorable 2022 season has to be a big factor – they enthralled the watching audience with some mightily impressive victories strewn across their campaign. From a Rian O’Neill masterclass against Dublin at Croke Park on a chilly night in January, to dumping the reigning All-Ireland champions Tyrone out of the championship and playing out a veritable classic against Galway, it was hard not to be taken in by the Orchard side and their band of passionate supporters.
This season hasn’t been quite so memorable – they were dumped out of Division One, their style of play, comparatively defensive in nature, has come in for criticism and they’ve also been unlucky on the injury front.
O’Neill missed their preliminary round victory over Antrim with a quad injury and is unlikely to play any part against the Breffni. James Morgan and Ben Crealey made their first inter-county appearances of the season against the Saffrons having recovered from injury, while Aidan Nugent, who came off the bench, still looked a little ring-rusty.
Andrew Murnin, a potent attacking threat, is still sidelined with injury, while Niall Grimley has seen his game-time limited since returning from last year’s horror neck injury.
That said, it was important that they got back on the wagon against Antrim after the disappointment of relegation. They breached the 20-point barrier in an impressive attacking display with Conor Turbitt and championship debutant Shane McPartlan each recording four points from play respectively in a facile victory.
Cavan are lurking in the long grass following their recent league final victory over Fermanagh. It was an important win – a third defeat in the trot could really have dented their confidence heading into the championship and the signs weren’t great after a sluggish first-half display at Croker. They got their act together after the break with a number of players simply outstanding on the day, including goalkeeper Raymond Galligan, Padraig Faulker (who blotted out Ultan Kelm), Killian Clarke (who did likewise with Darragh McGurn), Dara McVeety, Gerard Smith and others. They aren’t lacking in squad depth either with Conor Brady, Conor Madden, Jason McLoughlin and Conor Smith all making a positive impact when sprung from the bench.
On the flipside, their first-half performance was concerning and on an individual level Gearóid McKiernan didn’t have his best day at the races. He was taken off in the second half, but it should be noted that he was surrounded by two or three Fermanagh defenders every time he got his mitts on the ball.
There was also comment made of Graham’s decision to give Jack McKenna the curly finger with only 19 minutes on the clock after he picked up a booking, but it’s hard to find fault in the decision giving how Cavan turned the game around.
So Armagh are favourites to advance, but we wouldn’t be one bit surprised if this game goes right to the wire. Cavan seem to be a little stronger this year with the addition of some good young players, while Armagh are yet to hit top gear. It’s probably about time they did – otherwise an upset could be on the cards weekend.