May 20, 2013

● USFC Preliminary Round Cavan 1-15 Armagh 1-11

Forget about everything that happened during the course of this opening Ulster Championship match and reflect upon it as a contest between a team ready, prepared, able to execute a championship gameplan against a team that looked as if it had just been thrown together lacking any cohesion but above all any real intensity for what lay ahead.

Worse still from an Armagh viewpoint is that Cavan had already given Paul Grimley and his management team a preview of what to expect 5 months previously when they visited the Athletic Grounds for a Dr McKenna Cup match. Martin Dunne helped himself to 2-2 in a 3-9 to 1-11 win way back in January. The defensive set up from Cavan at the Athletic Grounds with Cian Mackey dropping back coming from deep and a 2 man full forward line in operation was mirrored to perfection and devastating effect at Breffni Park.

Cavan manager Terry Hyland handed debuts to Conor Gilsenan and Martin Dunne while his counterpart denied the services of Kieran Toner, Charlie Vernon, James Morgan, Niall McConville, Sean Clarke, John Kingham and Aiden Forker due to injury gave championship bows to Stephen Harold, Mark Shields and Ciaron O’Hanlon. Both managers were forced into late changes with Killian Brady in for Jack Brady in the Cavan attack as Finnian Moriarty replaced Brendan Donaghy in the Orchard defence.  A poor reflection on other panel members when a clearly unfit Donaghy was introduced to shore up a torn asunder defence against attackers who would have troubled him if he had been fully fit.

All the pre-match focus was on how Cavan would cope with the Jamie Clarke threat and the loss of influential midfielder Gearoid McKiernan while Armagh were not going to worry defensively as they were going to outscore their rivals through their all- out attacking style. With Clarke double tagged and held scoreless, Aaron Kernan confined to defensive duties especially after shipping what looked like knee damage following a second of the day high head challenge as brother Tony received the first one from Killean Brady who was very luck to only get a yellow instead of red, after only 6 minutes. Indeed this was the first of a number of incidents from referee Maurice Deegan, that did not go down well with the travelling supporters, but using the Laois official as the reason for this defeat is stretching any ones imagination. The only flattering feature of this match from an Armagh perspective was the scoreline as Cavan had been the better side throughout the 70 minutes, had they shown more composure in front of the posts  their winning margin would have been greater.

Of the championship debutants it was Martin Dunne who stole all the plaudits with the number 14 helping himself to nine points – eight from play and had he not missed a few simple frees could have easily accumulated the bakers dozen. Schoolboy Ciaron O’Hanlon like a lot of his more illustrious and seasoned playing colleagues wound up lost in what seemed to be a football playground tactical gameplan. Never an easy place to go and win, the faithful who went to Breffni would have been more let down with the manner of the performance than the actual defeat. One of the youngest (if not the youngest) Cavan Championship teams ever to take the field of play at this level were never in any real danger of affording Armagh their second ever championship victory at the venue as they dominated most sectors of the field.

Behind 1-6 to 0-4 at the interval Armagh did manage to cut the deficit to the minimum 1-10 to 1-9 when Ethan Rafferty rifled home the loose ball to the Cavan net on 58 minutes but it was another 10 minutes before Armagh produced their next score by which time the hosts had regrouped and sprinted 5 points clear. Wide open right through the middle during the National League Cian Mackey exploited this weakness as he soloed through from 60 yards out to slot past a helpless exposed Philip McEvoy on 21 minutes to give Cavan a 1-3 to 0-3 lead but more crucial the momentum to push on. The goal came moments after Ethan Rafferty had replaced Finian Moriarty who was at centre back.

A quick Clarke free after being fouled to Forker then to Dyas was offloaded to Tony Kernan and he opened the scoring in the first minute. Rafferty gave away a silly free and Dunne was not going to collect his second miss as he opened his account. Midfielder Damien O’Reilly pointed the hosts in front before Dunne increased the lead with what I thought was a cheeky goal attempt (McEvoy was off his line) that just dropped over rather than under the bar. Tony Kernan with a great point from a sideline reduced the deficit before Caolan Rafferty tied it up at 3 all on 17 minutes with a good point. Dunne and Forker exchanged points but before the half concluded McDermott and Dunne stretched the half-time lead to 5 points.

Armagh were out unusually very early for the second half given their first half performance. The impressive Eugene Keating another excellent target man extended Cavan’s lead with the first point of the second half two minutes after the resumption. Forker replied for Armagh but a McDermott free restored Cavan’s six-point advantage. Cavan were by far the more cohesive outfit and Dunne put them seven points ahead by the 42nd minute. Two minutes later Jamie Clarke had the ball in the Cavan net but the goal was controversially disallowed by referee Maurice Deegan who had blown his whistle, Stefan Forker kicked the free for a point. Raiding corner back Mark Shields was immediately in for a goal chance but scooped his effort over the crossbar as Armagh were building up to Championship fervour as a third point in a row, an Aaron Kernan free left it 0-8 to 1-9. Johnny Hanratty replaced O’Hanlon as Givney placed Dunne for another Breffni point. A foul on Clarke enabled Forker point for his last action as he was surprisingly replaced by Eugene McVerry. A fouled Aaron Kernan, although off balance, was given an advantage by Deegan  but he shot wide when the granting of a free, unlike the disallowed goal, was no advantage at all. McEvoy kept Armagh in the game with a super stop to deny Keating a certain goal and that save looked a real game changer when Rafferty rattled the Cavan net to leave the bare minimum between the teams. Surely after being on the receiving end for so long Armagh would rise to the occasion as out of nowhere the game was there to be won as there was 12 minutes plus to go. Not so because it was the dynamic duo Keating and Dunne, who tormented Armagh all day, once again stepped up to the plate when needed as they fired over points in response to the Armagh three pointer. Hyland introduced Brady and McCutcheon to steady his ship but his captain marvel for the day Dunne put the home support into seventh heaven with point number 7 for him and a 1-13 to 1-9 lead after 63 minutes. Caolan Rafferty’s last action before being replaced by Gavin McParland was to hit a wide with impressive half back James McEnroe stealing forward to get his name on the scoreboard with a point. Clarke and McVerry combined for the latter to reduce the deficit and an Aaron Kernan free made it 1-11 to 1-14. Back down at the troubled defensive end of the field McEvoy denied Cavan another goal and was given a deserved slice of luck as Man of the Match Dunne hit his ninth point that should have been a goal.

As the only Division Two team in the bottom half of the Ulster Championship draw Armagh were seen as clear favourites to reach the final. Management are always going to be judged on Championship performances and if a low had been reached in the qualifiers at Roscomnmon last year it has been surpassed with this latest shambolic display. Something was amiss, as many an Armagh team have had bad days at the office but the one thing you always got from them at some stage of a game was passion and commitment. Management on the sideline looked bewildered, the players standing round the field waiting for Cavan to re-appear for the second half looked bewildered but none more so than the supporters after the final whistle.

While anger at the referee was frustration it was more deserved for the minor referee who did actually rob Armagh of a deserved draw. The winning Cavan point came after the allocated time and followed a clear push on the Armagh defender before being scored. Also Cavan got 33 frees to Armagh’s 14 as they claimed a 13 to 1-9 victory.

The plan of playing an in-experienced full back line of Paul McKeown, Declan McKenna and Mark Shields  with no covering players in front of them totally backfired. Cavan full forward line 0-13 N McDermott (0-2), M Dunne (0-9), E Keating (0-2). How for 70 minutes the gap between the half and full back lines was not plugged is incomprehensible. The new dawn for Armagh footballers, with the experiment of allowing players play for their clubs coupled, with the experimenting throughout the McKenna Cup and National League has continued into the Championship with disastrous results as the counties mainstay players were left looking foolish.

Sat June 29 is the next day out for Armagh in the opening round of the qualifiers. Not too many looking forward to that experience I bet.

Armagh – P McEvoy; P McKeown, D McKenna, M Shields (0-1); A Kernan (0-2), F Moriarity, C McKeever; J Lavery, S Harold; C Rafferty (0-1), C O’Hanlon, K Dyas; T Kernan (0-2), J Clarke, S Forker (0-4). Subs: E Rafferty (1-0) for Moriarity, B Donaghy for McKenna, J Hanratty for O’Hanlon, E McVerry (0-1) for Forker, G McParland for C Rafferty.

Cavan – C Gilsenan; J McLoughlin, R Dunne, K Clarke; J McEnroe (0-1), A Clarke, R Flanagan; D O’Reilly (0-1), D Givney; C Mackey (1-0), K Brady, F Flanagan; N McDermott (0-2), M Dunne (0-9), E Keating (0-2). Subs: M Reilly for Brady, J Brady for McDermott, J McCutcheon for O’Reilly