Acid test at Breffni Park

May 13, 2013

• USFC Preliminary Round, Cavan v Armagh @ Kingspan Breffini Park, 2pm, Sunday 19th May

The McKenna Cup, Division Two National League campaigns have been completed and are out of the way so new manager Paul Grimley now faces the acid test upon which his spell in charge will be judged, as Armagh make the journey to Kingspan Breffni Park to take on Cavan in the Preliminary Round of the Ulster championship at 2pm on Sun May 19. Armagh minors will be involved in the curtain raiser against Cavan which has a 12-15pm throw-in.

True to his promise when given the job Paul trawled the county for new blood and a lot of new faces were given plenty of play time leading up to this championship encounter. Indeed the manager has allowed the county players to play for their clubs right up to this weekend and will be hopeful that there will be no new injuries to add to those already ruled out of the Cavan game. Kieran Toner, touted as a possible number 6 following the very successful deployment of Ciaran McKeever as a half-back, is a major doubt and the Granemore man is not expected to feature at Breffni. Another not expected to feature is Charlie Vernon who has been plagued by injury all year. The featured in the last league game with Galway but then found out that surgery was needed on his foot which rules him out for at least 8 weeks. Better news for Paul is that Jamie Clarke marked his return with a hat-trick of goals when coming on as a substitute against Louth.  That game also saw the return of the impressive Kevin Dyas and also saw Rory Grugan back in county colours.


As already mentioned Ciaran McKeever has been operating in a wing-back role this season with Kieran Toner, Brendan Donaghy, James Morgan, Aidan Forker, Declan McKenna and Finnian Moriarty all experience the number 6 role but who will be given the task against Cavan? Toner is out, Donaghy will probably be handed the number 3 shirt, with Morgan beside him at corner back leaving it a straight shoot-out between two very attack minded defenders McKenna and Moriarty. The manager could revert to using McKeever in that central role. Either way the traditional blanket defence previously adopted by Armagh looks like being discarded as they adopt a more attacking adventurous approach which originates from the defence.  Eleven score minimum return during the league campaign v Galway 0-21, v Westmeath 0-16, v Louth 1-10, v Derry 0-16, v Longford 3-08, v Wexford 3-08, v Laois 1-10 which was a pretty good return from what were ever changing personnel.

The non- deployment of an out and out stopper in the centre of defence has led to a lot of problems for Armagh over the course of the league as they were constantly exposed to runners straight through the middle. Can Armagh afford the all-out attacking approach from defenders for the championship or will it be a case of the first job of a defender is to mind the house at all costs. Defensive frailties and the concession of too many goals are not features you associate with Armagh down the years.

The age old problem of who will play at centre half-forward, again poses a problem for Armagh management. Vernon, Aidan Forker, Dyas, Hanratty, Tony Kernan, McParland and of late Grugan have spent time at number 11. Dyas is impressing as a half-forward with Tony Kernan operating better in the roving role. Aidan Forker, following a bright start, was not helped by the spell away with the U-21 side and is now an injury doubt for Breffni but played in the last championship defeat at Roscommon in the first round of the qualifiers. Hanratty has mixed the good and the bad in his showing to date in the county colours but certainly provided valuable strength to the position. Grugan has always carried the class for this position.  Whether he has had sufficient time to get up to speed only management will be able to judge.

Dromintee’s Philip McEvoy will be between the sticks with Donaghy, McKeever and Aaron Kernan making up 3 of the sextet of defenders. Paul McKeown, James Morgan, Declan McKenna, Finnian Moriarty are tried and tested while newcomers this year James Donnelly, Mark Shields and Gary McCooey have done their starting hopes no harm at all, particularly Shields.

The find of the league has undoubtedly been midfielder Stephen Harold. The Carrickcruppen player has matured with every outing and gave a superlative display of high fielding and no mean point taking ability against Galway. Stephen’s likely partner at midfield is James Lavery where the duo will probably face a trio of Cavan midfielders as team manager Terry Hyland likes to use the very talented David Givney as a third midfielder. Cavan, though, will be forced to change their tactics as they lost one of their most prominent players, towering midfielder Gearoid McKiernan to a cruciate ligament injury. His regular midfield partner Tomas “Mossy” Corr is expected to be able to take his place after nursing an injury that ruled him out of their final league game.

As with the defenders three Armagh forwards can safely look forward to starting against Cavan. Talisman Jamie Clarke, league top scorer with 1-23, Stefan Forker and Kevin Dyas following a prolonged injury free spell delivering on his potential that warrants automatic inclusion. It is the makeup of the other three Armagh forwards which has supporters guessing. In the qualifier defeat to Roscommon it was Aidan Forker and Anto Duffy who manned the half-forward line alongside Dyas with Caolan Rafferty and Gavin McParland in the full-forward line with Clarke. Orchard management have used a lot of different forward combinations which have produced some good scoring. The trick is now to get the right combination that will unlock a tight home defence. James Reilly will probably retain the Cavan goalkeeping slot as his understudy Chris Gilsenan has let in two last minutes goals which will have harmed his chances. Jason McLoughlin will be given the onerous task of marking Jamie Clarke. Full-back James McEnroe has adapted well to the number 3 jersey with Hyland facing the option of going for the experienced Ronan Flanagan ahead of Oisin Minagh in the other corner. Armagh have several options for the vacant corner-forward spot alongside Jamie and full-forward Stefan Forker. Tony Kernan in the corner, given a roving role, Gavin McParland, Caolan Rafferty, Eugene McVerry, Brian Mallon or using Kingham at 14 flanked by Clarke and Forker, are other options. Three of the aforementioned for the berth in the full-forward line also offer a half forward option with Ethan Rafferty, Aidan Forker, Johnny Hanratty, and Rory Grugan also thrown into the mix.


One cannot help but notice when going through the options available to management that they are not short of options, with plenty of talent available to them. While the choices may be many and varied it’s getting the right blend to maximize the effect our key players will have on the game. League fare and championship fare as we know are two entirely different breeds of animal. 2007 is the last time Armagh have won the Ulster title following a replay win over Fermanagh but on their way to that title they accounted for Cavan 0-17 to 0-13 the last times these counties have met in the championship.

Rival Cavan manager Hyland has led the county to U-21 success. Just recently Cavan captured their third Ulster title on the trot at U-21 level. Supporters are now expecting him to deliver at senior level and he too is faced with the dilemma of getting the right blend, more so between youth and experience as he sets about getting Cavan football back on the map. Cavan went out of the Ulster championship in the Preliminary round last year to eventual All-Ireland champions Donegal 1-16 to 1-10 and it is 1997 since they last got their hands on the Anglo Celt Cup.

Losing McKiernan is a massive blow to Cavan with Hyland gaining a little compensation with the fact that he has had plenty of time to prepare without his star man and come up with alternatives. Alan Clarke is a very good number 6 for the hosts and is likely to be flanked by the experienced Fergal Flanagan and Damien O’Reilly. When Cavan came to the Athletic Grounds for a 3-9 to 1-11 McKenna Cup win earlier this year two forwards really caught the eye, half-forward Cian Mackey and in the corner Martin Dunne. Dunne was Cavan’s leading marksman in the league amassing a total of 3-18 but just like Armagh, Hyland has a choice of players to supplement his two main attackers. Jack Brady, Mark McKeever, Eugene Keating, U-21 star Enda O Reilly, Martin Reilly, Barry Reilly, Killian Clarke and Rory Dunne will all be pushing hard for a starting place giving their manager plenty of selection headaches.


Since the draw for the Ulster championship was made 6 months ago Armagh have been perceived as potential Ulster finalists because of the half of the draw in which they have been placed. Supporters should need no reminding that a kind draw is only done on paper and cuts no ice when it comes to play time. Armagh’s championship pedigree has slipped over the last 5 years so Cavan, Fermanagh, Monaghan or Antrim, who make up the half of the draw, will all see the “kind draw” which sees all the so called big guns confined to the other half of the draw as their opportunity to feature in the July 21 Ulster Final showpiece.

The bottom line for Grimley and Hyland and their respective supporters going into Sunday’s game is to be preparing their charges for a June 16 quarter final with Peter Canavan’s Fermanagh come 4 pm after their Breffni match. How it will be done or achieved will be soon forgotten by supporters as its championship and all that matters is progress, with continuing room for improvement to look forward too.

Cavan will know well going into the game that Brendan Donaghy, Aaron Kernan, Ciaran McKeever and Jamie Clarke are the leading lights and the foundation stone upon which the Armagh challenge will be launched. Team manager Grimley will be hoping that a few of his lesser lights will stamp their authority on the game and show that as a collective, and a work in progress with a bit of luck in running that Armagh will be a force to reckon with not just in Ulster but throughout the Summer.

The acid test begins at Breffni where the homeside will be a tough nut to crack. Defensively Armagh will have to tighten up with regards to conceding sloppy goals if they are to be a force in the championship. The Ulster championship could get off to a cracking start with both teams opting for an open game of football, with getting enough supply of good ball to their respective forward divisions the priority for both teams. Armagh, while embarking on a new style of play, should have enough in the tank and from the bench to come away with a winning result in a high scoring encounter.