Thursday 20 June 2019

Dick Clerkin: 'Cavan and Armagh serve up the latest helping of top-class entertainment'

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Conor Cox. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Conor Cox. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Dick Clerkin

Gaelic Football is on the rise again, and I have seen enough evidence over the past few weeks that should see this trend continue into the summer and beyond. As protectors of the current structures dwindle by the week, a second-tier competition once finally adopted, will put an end to many of the unsightly mismatches we have had to witness. Outside of these anomalies, there have been some outstanding contests across all provinces so far this year. So much so that former Limerick Hurling great Ollie Moran conceded on the radio during the week that the football Championship has outshone that of the hurling so far. Who would have thought?

In St Tiernachs Park yesterday, Cavan and Armagh served up yet another gripping contest. Even if the quality failed to match that of Castlebar the previous weekend, there was no escaping the captivating atmosphere that engulfed the storied Clones venue for over 90 minutes action.

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Closely fought matches will always bring their own level of entertainment regardless of the style of football being played. However what has been most encouraging this summer, is the return to prominence of the traditional kick pass and a generally more expansive approaches by many teams.

Ulster football is slowly starting to cast off its ugly image, with Tyrone and Donegal's reinvention in recent seasons well documented.

Yesterday in Clones, Armagh and Cavan had a throwback Ulster semi-final feel to it, with both counties arriving to St Tiernachs Park on the back of positive and progressive quarter final wins over Down and Monaghan respectively. Roscommon are preparing for their Connacht final with a high approval rating following their expansive display against Mayo. The progress of these three teams in particular is thanks in large part to the more positive approach taken by their respective managers with pivotal scores coming courtesy of long incisive kick passes that were a joy to watch.

In the fourth minute in Castlebar last Saturday night, Roscommon's Shane Killoran directed an inch perfect pass into the hands of the on running Cathal Cregg. Turning instantly to drop his shoulder and take on his marker Higgins, Cregg created the space from which he finished spectacularly.

Conor Cox was my Man of the Match, but his contribution would have been minimal had he not benefited from precision service out the field. At key stages during the game, Conor Hussey, Shane Killoran (again) and Niall Kilroy, each had the confidence and breath of vision to search out an on-running Cox (below) who finished with an accuracy befitting of the pass that preceding it.

Cavan's upset against Monaghan was underpinned by a willingness to use every inch of the Breffni pitch. Martin Reilly's radar like accuracy set up Conor Madden to win their penalty in the fourth minute and again in the 39th minute to leave the teams at seven points a piece at the break.

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Over the past few years, Cavan supporters had begun to generate a steady level of apathy towards their county team. Bemused with an overly defensive style of play, attendances had plummeted, and the lustre of a once great tradition looked forever dulled. The thousands that flocked to Clones yesterday is a clear indication that Mickey Graham is steadily winning the approval of the Breffni supporters.

Similarly Armagh supporters, were slowly being drained of the residual feel good factor from their all-conquering noughties team. Kieran McGeeney is revered on a par with God Almighty in Orchard football circles, and it is hard to imagine any other manager being afforded the patience he has been in recent years.

Conviction

To McGeeney's credit, he has persisted with developing a young team with a progressive style of play over recent seasons. Whilst it hasn't always delivered results there have been enough green shoots to cement his conviction on the path he has chosen.

I wrote with glowing praise in this column last March, about the attractive style of play they produced in their Division 3 league final win over Fermanagh. Long direct ball used at every opportunity, it was aesthetically pleasing on the eye, and further pointed towards McGeeney's intent.

Considering the prize on offer in Clones yesterday, and relative inexperience of both sides, it is understandable that both teams tightened up with the finishing line in sight. The extra game will do both young teams the world of good, and further add to what has in general been a very good football Championship to date. Certainly in Ulster anyway.

With competitive finals in all Provinces a real possibility in the coming weeks, it could very well be footballs time to shine again. And all thanks to some old traditional values!

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