Armagh up next in repeat of 2022 McKenna fixture


Damien Donohoe

Tonight (Wednesday, 7.30pm) marks Cavan’s first home game of the 2023 season as Mickey Graham’s side welcome Armagh to Kingspan Breffni. This is the second year in a row that the Orchard county travel to Cavan for their away Dr McKenna cup game and last year the game came down to the wire with an injury-time goal putting the gloss on a hard-earned Armagh win. Cavan followed that up with an eye catching 15-point win over Tyrone but the chance to progress was ended when Armagh bested the reigning All-Ireland champions in Omagh.

This is an important game in ways for Cavan as it is their only guaranteed match against a Division 1 side in 2023, although it is most likely that Cavan will face Armagh in the Ulster Championship later this year. It is also a chance for Mickey Graham to make his first McKenna Cup semi-final as a manager and Cavan’s first semi-final since 2016.

Neither Cavan nor Armagh have a good recent record in the pre-season competition with Cavan’s last win coming in 2000 and Armagh’s even further back in 1994. Maybe that says more about how the counties have approached it in that time than anything else as they have both been in the top division and won Ulster Championships in the intervening period.

On Sunday, Mickey Graham handed out four starting debuts to John Cooke, Tiarnan Madden, Brandon Boylan and Enda Maguire and two more off the bench to Ryan Donohoe and Tristan Hoffman. This tells a bit about his approach to the competition as he had players with a lot more experience on the bench and used them at the end of the game only.

To be able to give so many lads an opportunity and still come away with a win is a luxury. It will be interesting to see does the line-up for Armagh follow the same approach or will the team selection say, ‘we want to win this one’.

A look through Armagh’s line-up against Antrim suggests Kieran McGeeney is looking to go one better than last year’s semi-final place. There was no doubt that Armagh wanted to win the McKenna Cup last year as they fielded a strong team for all games and only lost out on penalties to Monaghan in the end.

Nine players from Armagh’s Ulster Championship defeat at the hands of Donegal last year played against Antrim last Wednesday night. Alongside names like Rafferty, Burns, Forker, Grimley, Campbell, Hall and Turbitt, they introduced two forwards that caught the eye in Cian McConville and Joe Sheridan.

Ethan Rafferty played the first half in his now normal sweeper-keeper role, locating himself at midfield while Armagh had possession of the ball. It’s a risky tactic but one he and Armagh seem happy to persist with as he is given the time on the ball to pick off passes and is always available in the pocket for a save-ball when a player is in trouble.

Armagh played a high press in open play at the start of the Antrim game, and it paid off handsomely. After six minutes they led 1-2 to 0-0, with two of those three scores coming from turnovers inside the Antrim half of the field.

After 15 minutes, Armagh had added another three points and, impressively, had a 100% shot conversion rate. In all in the first half Armagh scored 1-10 from 14 shots and over the 70 plus minutes had a conversion rate of 73%.

While Antrim, as against Cavan, were very wasteful in front of goal, they were put under a lot of pressure because the Armagh forwards continued to work right back to their own defensive area when needed. Armagh’s defence held Antrim scoreless from play in the first half with two of their four points coming from attacking marks.

Armagh, when defending a laboured Antrim attack, brought back two sweepers located either side of the D which worked well, resulting in numerous turn-overs. Their counter-attack was swift and effective but they also managed to navigate their way through Antrim, who regularly brought all 15 players behind the ball.

From looking at both Cavan and Armagh’s performances against Antrim, it looks like Armagh are ahead of Cavan and will come down as favourites. Cavan made too many handling errors in Portglenone and were unable to punch holes in attack with the same efficiency as Armagh did. While Armagh’s winning margin was better, Cavan could have won by more but for a super display by the Antrim goalkeeper Michael Byrne.

A big plus for Cavan was the clean sheet kept by Liam Brady. The Ramor man looked composed with his kick-outs and made light work of his one scoring attempt. Cavan’s half-back line is now looking like a formidable unit with Ciaran Brady and Dara McVeety’s energy on both sides of the ball looking impressive for this time of year. The absence of so many starting players for Mickey Graham is a chance for others to step up but two or three of those starters back would be a major boost going into tonights game.

You can never win too many games. Winning becomes a habit and confidence in a team is a very powerful element. While this game will have very little effect on the possible meeting of the sides in the championship, it’s still an opportunity for Cavan to make a statement and sow a seed of doubt in Armagh. Cavan will need to start the strongest team possible to get over Armagh and will need a big improvement on Sunday’s performance also but it’s doable.