Ulster Senior Football Championship semi-final
Armagh v Cavan
Sunday, Clones, 4pm
PAST masters will attempt to take a step towards former glories when Armagh and Cavan rock up to Clones this weekend.
Take the Breffni county for example. If you were you to combine the Anglo Celt wins of the last three provincial champions – Donegal, Tyrone and Monaghan – their tally of 40 would be just three above Cavan’s 37.
Then there is Armagh, the county that won their first seven Ulster titles in the 92 years between 1890 and 1982 and added another seven in the 10-year period beginning in 1999 and ending in 2008.
That ’08 final is significant because it’s the last time either of these counties have made an appearance on Ulster final day when Armagh defeated Fermanagh in a replay. Cavan’s last showing came all the way back in 2001 when they lost to Tyrone.
To put that into context, every other Ulster county has been in the final since either of these two showed their faces. Antrim have been there in 2009, Down have been there twice, Derry too in 2011.
That should change this weekend though (barring a draw after extra-time) and if the weather holds, we could be set for an old-school St Tiernach’s Park battle when the old ground seems to take on a life of its own.
That fans will bring colour to the stands and the terraces but it will still need the players to set the tone. Given what happened in the quarter-finals, there is a real possibility of a fine game of football breaking out.
That’s mainly because the pressure has been released for both after significant wins last time out.
Mickey Graham did his part for his county during his playing days and a first championship win over neighbours Monaghan was a fine way to mark your first Ulster game as Cavan manager.
More eyes were trained on Kieran McGeeney ahead of Armagh’s short trip to Newry.
Losses to Donegal, Cavan, Down and Fermanagh meant that he hadn’t won an Ulster game in his first four years, but they got past the Mourne county even if they did require extra-time.
It’s hard to say that Armagh played well in that quarter-final clash. Instead they replied on some superb debuts from Rian O’Neill and Jarly Og Burns and the odd flash of brilliance from Jamie Clarke and substitutes Mark Shields and Stefan Campbell.
Their room for improvement is massive and if more players are in form then they have more than a chance of upsetting the odds on Sunday.
Even though there were a lot of below-par performances, McGeeney is unlikely to change his team too much. Paddy Burns is out for a few weeks and James Morgan will step in. Stephen Sheridan, who came off the bench before injuring ligaments in his knee, is not expected back until the end of June.
Niall Grimley could come into the reckoning though as he continues his recovery from a hand injury. If the big Madden man is fully fit, then he has to start.
That will be as much to try and limit the influence of Cavan midfielder Gearoid McKieran who excelled against Monaghan.
The Swanlinbar man grabbed three points from play, something of a trademark of his, and if he gets space – especially down the left flank – Armagh will be in trouble.
McKiernan broke through at ease against Armagh in their eight-point win in 2016 with Ciaran McKeever the only man seemingly checking his runs. Brendan
Donaghy will have to perform a similar role to shore up a central defensive channel that has too often been wide open this season.
Cavan will also hope that Martin Reilly and Dara McVeety can exploit Armagh’s looseness in that area.
Reilly was Man of the Match against Monaghan and may have Morgan for company while Paul Hughes could pick up McVeety.
Those match-ups could be important, but probably not as vital as the two main ones at the other end of the pitch.
Padraig Faulkner looks a good fit to pick up Rian O’Neill while Jamie Clarke should be watched by Jason McLoughlin.
If those pair are kept quiet then it’s hard to see Armagh’s attack being sharp enough to rack up the points needed to progress.
However, if McVeety and Reilly struggle, Cavan seem to have more scoring options. They may not have superstars but they have a wide range of efficient shooters.
That should prove decisive in what could turn out to be a very good game of football. Cavan by three or four points.