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Opportunity knocks for Ulster’s sleeping giants

Armagh finally ended their Ulster championship drought under Kieran McGeeney – can they or Cavan rise above everyone in the incredibly competitive province?

Before Sunday’s Ulster championship quarter final between Down and Armagh you couldn’t move for the brandishing of one particular statistic by every conceivable GAA media outlet. So here it is one more time, just in case it didn’t manage to embed itself on your brain: ‘Armagh haven’t won a single game in Ulster since Kieran McGeeney became their manager in 2015’. The Orchard players were forced to fend off questions left and right about the unwanted record in the build up to the tie at Pairc Esler. Their captain Rory Grugan said he was “sick of hearing about it” and that “it’s about time we played our football, put in a performance on the day, and hopefully that’s enough.”

Whilst their performance in the qualifiers under McGeeney haven’t been the worst and with their NFL trajectory generally pointing upwards, for a county like Armagh – who won seven Ulster titles in the decade between 1999-2008 – this recent dearth of Ulster championship victories has been like a famine. In the decade since that last title, they haven’t even reached an Ulster Final. So, Sunday presented them the chance to get the Ulster monkey off their backs.

And that they did. Eventually.

Grugan wouldn’t have expected what transpired in the Marshes. An Ulster quarter final for the ages; a game that ebbed and flowed from start to finish and contained a multitude of subplots that kept us enthralled in between – a harsh red card for Caolan Mooney, a black card for Down’s goalkeeper, goals aplenty, James Guinness’ last-ditch equaliser, the emergence of classy Armagh forward Rian O’Neill, Andy Murnin’s fisted winner and one or two bouts of neighbourly ugliness – in the end, the Orchardmen emerged victorious by a single point after extra time (2-17 to 3–13).

It was fascinating Sunday evening viewing, but Armagh only had eyes for the win. The captain was on hand again to speak to the BBC after the match, describing the contest as a “rollercoaster” from which they were just “happy to get over the line”. His side have been accused of an inability to see games out; a quality they put on display again in Newry. Perhaps they just needed to somehow get the win in a crazy game like this, to shake off the affliction.

Back in 1998 – after a number of years in the championship wilderness – Armagh had a famous win over Down in an Ulster quarter final. They didn’t win the Anglo Celt that season, but they went on to dominate the subsequent decade. I’m not saying their win in the Marshes is the start of that same level of dominance, but it could certainly be the catalyst they need to announce themselves on the national stage once again.

Standing between McGeeney’s men and that coveted spot in the Ulster decider is Cavan. They haven’t appeared in the final since 2001 (the longest of any Ulster county) and their Anglo Celt crown in 1997 is their only one in 50 years. Considering they had won 36 titles until that point and have five All Ireland titles to their name, it’s fair to say the Breffnimen are in the middle of a famine of their own, and it makes Armagh’s look like a mere hunger pang.

Their win over Monaghan on Saturday night came as a shock to many, but Monaghan’s general high-intensity style relies on a siege mentality that is difficult to muster when they are expected to win. The home side subsequently made hay at Breffni Park. They started like a train and caught Malachy O’Rourke’s men on the hop. Playing with a tempo and confidence that allowed them to be simulataneously direct and efficient in front of goal, and suffocating in defence, they eventually secured a 1-13 to 0-12 victory against their bitter rivals.

The Farney outfit never scored from play in the first half – their attacking output as close to zero as you’re likely to find. The lads on Sky Sports put it down to Monaghan not matching Cavan’s workrate, but that does a disservice to the fabric of the Breffnimen’s performance – woven by Martin Reilly’s playmaking skills and Gearoid McKiernan’s midfield power. Seven points down at the break, it was always going to be difficult for Monaghan to overcome such a deficit against a team made in their manager Mickey Graham’s likeness – lively, tenacious and with a keen eye in front of goal.

Just like Armagh, it’s much too early to be flagging Cavan up for potential honours, but they have at least broken a hoodoo. The semi-final between the two sides in early June will be a truer test of which of these is more likely to take the next step. And by the end of it, one of the province’s sleeping giants will be in a long-awaited Ulster Final – just one game away from the Super 8s and the national attention they crave.

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