Cavan’s forward step

Cavan 1-15 Armagh 1-11

Cavan’s forward step

This was end-to-end football between two youthful sides, one determined to pour forward at all costs while the other decided attack was a better strategy when performed on the counter.

Guess who won.

Those observers who tend to turn to matters GAA only after the championship’s traditional opening in the Bronx will perhaps be shocked to hear it was Armagh who were the ones throwing caution to the wind.

The reality, of course, is that Paul Grimley and his side had announced their intentions to all who cared to look and learn during a Division 2 league campaign in which their carefree philosophy was there for all to see.

They swept forward in waves yesterday but their ambition, and ambitions, were crushed on the rock of realism which Cavan presented and by the home side’s superior defence and shape.

That in itself was enough to give Terry Hyland’s side a fighting chance. It was their use of the ball that took them still further with Martin Dunne, on his senior championship debut, and Eugene Keating terrorising the Armagh defence from first whistle to last.

Spare a thought for Paul McKeown, the Crossmaglen corner-back who was left trailing in Dunne’s slipstream for the entire day despite the fact that the nippy forward finished the occasion with eight points from play.

Keating’s directness and robustness may have only earned him two points of his own, but his destructive effect was almost as significant and left Declan McKenna, and then Brendan Donaghy, languishing.

And yet to single out those two defenders would be to convict without context for they were left completely exposed by tactics and a marauding half-back line that allowed Cavan send ball after ball into their terrible twosome.

In fairness to Cavan, too, the quality of the service was exemplary. Time and again they struggled to break beyond Armagh’s high line of ‘defence’, but once they did it was a case of German panzers behind the Maginot Line.

Throughout it all, Grimley stuck to his principles.

His only deviation from the pre-prepared plan was to take off centre-back Finnian Moriarty 19 minutes in and replace him with Ethan Rafferty, who was pushed forward onto Cavan’s sweeper.

It didn’t do much for them when, three minutes later and midway through the first half, Cian Mackey trotted unchallenged from the halfway line into the Armagh red zone before resting the ball in Philip McEvoy’s net.

The only wonder, on reflection, is that it was the only time Cavan managed to raise a green flag, but that didn’t appear to matter at half time when they had 1-6 chalked down to Armagh’s measly four points.

Little changed on the resumption. Cavan were 1-9 to 0-5 ahead after another five minutes and with the empty green swathe where Armagh’s half-backs should have been still sticking out like a sore thumb.

And then it turned.

Maybe it was a classic case of a young team seeing the finishing line and knowing nerves for the first time, or just Armagh’s glut of midfield possession finally paying dividends, but the 2002 All-Ireland champions found a footing. Jamie Clarke, well-shepherded all day by Jason McLoughlin, but dangerous enough to win a handful of scoreable frees for others, turned for goal 45 minutes in and found the net despite the desperate fouling of his constant companion.

The Crossmaglen man had previously zeroed in on Conor Gilsenan’s goal early in the first half, but was called back then by referee Maurice Deegan when impeded and the same sinking fate awaited him second time round.

Armagh howled their indignation and yet the resultant free from Stefan Forker launched a comeback that was embellished by Rafferty’s scrambled 59th-minute goal and which took them to within a point with 11 minutes to go.

A finale of epic proportions seemed imminent, but then Keating and Dunne rattled off two points in response and the bravura was sucked from Armagh, who couldn’t reel them in again even when David Givney was sent off for a second yellow card.

Armagh may not be the scalp they once were, but this is a significant step forward for a county building on three successive U21 provincial titles and one that yesterday claimed its first senior victory in Ulster since 2009.

For Armagh, it may be back to the drawing board. Or maybe that should be the tactics board.

Scorers for Cavan: M Dunne 0-9 (1f); C Mackey 1-0; E Keating 0-2; N McDermott 0-2 (1f); J McEnroe 0-1; D O’Reilly 0-1.

Scorers for Armagh: S Forker 0-4 (2f); E Rafferty 1-0; T Kernan 0-2; A Kernan 0-2f; M Shields 0-1; C Rafferty 0-1; E McVerry 0-1.

Cavan Subs: M Reilly for Brady (47); J Brady for McDermott (64); J McCutcheon for O’Reilly (65); M McKeever for Mackey (68).

Armagh Subs: E Rafferty for Moriarty (19); B Donaghy for McKenna (32); J Hanratty for O’Hanlon (50); E McVerry for Forker (55); G McParland for Rafferty (66).

Referee: M Deegan (Laois).

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