McNeice backs Armagh to secure back-to-back final appearances

By Shaun Casey

MATTHEW McNeice guarded the goals for Armagh in Kieran McGeeney’s first-ever championship game as county manager back in 2015 when Rory Gallagher’s Donegal proved far too strong in the opening round of the Ulster Championship.

Patrick McBrearty rattled the net early on and the Tir Chonaill men cruised to a nine-point victory in the end. It took McGeeney another four seasons, 2019, to earn his first victory in the Ulster Championship, with a first round win over Down after extra-time.

Now in 2024, McGeeney’s men have to see off the Mourne County once again to be in with a chance of reaching their second Ulster final in as many seasons with the hope of getting their hands on the Anglo Celt for the first time since 2008.

McNeice is an Armagh man currently residing in Kilcoo, so he knows all about the rivalry between the two counties. He represented the Orchard County at senior level but was also the St Colman’s netminder in 2011 when they tasted back-to-back Hogan Cup success.

The Annaghmore man was teammates with the likes of the Johnston brothers, Ryan and Jerome, along with Caolan Mooney and Niall Donnelly, all of whom went on to represent Down at the highest level.

“It’s definitely going to be an interesting match up; I need to be careful what I say here given where I’m living,” laughed the former Armagh ‘keeper. “But it really is hard to see anything other than an Armagh win here and I could be eating my words.”

McNeice was a spectator at Croke Park just a number of weeks ago when Down competed in the Division Three league final having already gained promotion to Division Two alongside their opponents Westmeath.

A below par display from Conor Laverty’s side saw them lose out in the end and although they bounced back with a four-point win over Antrim to kick-start their championship campaign, their performance was once again far from convincing.

“I was down at Croke Park for the league final between Down and Westmeath and having watched them that day, I suppose Down would probably be disappointed with their performance and would feel they have a lot to prove.

“That maybe makes them very dangerous coming into this game but if they don’t really raise their game then it’s hard to see how they’re going to even put it up to Armagh.

“Down would be the first to tell you that they’ll need to improve their performances for this weekend, and they’ll realise that Armagh are a step up from anything else they’ve faced this year.”

McNeice was impressed with how Armagh reacted to their one-point defeat to Donegal in the Division Two National League final as they travelled to Brewster Park two weeks ago and hammered their hosts Fermanagh in the Ulster Championship quarter-final.

A fast start was the key for the Orchard County that day as they rattled off three first-half goals, two coming in the ten-minute period when Ultan Kelm was in the sin bin, to effectively end the game before half time.

McNeice believes the opening few minutes this weekend could once again prove critical in how the game will pan out. Should Down get the brighter start, then they can ease their way into contention.

If like two weeks ago it’s Armagh who come bursting out of the traps in Clones, then it could be a long day for Down. Armagh rattled off four goals against the same opposition in last year’s final four meeting and majors will prove crucial once more.

“I’m sure too Kieran (McGeeney) and the rest of the boys there will have their heads right. They’ll not be going into this game under any false illusions or anything like that, they’ll be going in expecting a battle,” added McNeice on Armagh’s favourites’ tag.

“I think we saw that too in terms of how they went into the Fermanagh match and how they approached that first 15 or 20 minutes. They brought a flat out intensity and really put Fermanagh under the cosh.

“They got the benefit of that and that meant that they could manage the rest of the game really from there. I suppose the first 10 or 15 minutes of the game are going to be critical, if Down can stay in it and maybe get ahead, that could give them some belief.

“But on the other hand, if Armagh can get a bit of a run on them in the early stages the Down heads might drop and that would allow Armagh to then control the game.

“I’m hoping that’s how it pans out anyway and I’m hoping for an Armagh win. I won’t make any predictions just on the game, I’ve maybe said too much already.”

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