Ulster Hurling Final: Armagh aiming to step up
Armagh have waited 65 years to make an appearance in the Ulster senior hurling championship final.
And when they take the field against Antrim at Casement Park on Sunday the match will have huge significance for long-serving Ryan Gaffney in particular.
Gaffney knows all about league disappointments and Championship heartbreak. But he has become rather more familiar with success in more recent times.
Last year Armagh won the Nicky Rackard Cup and reached the Ulster Minor and Under 21 finals — major progress by any standards for a county that had been viewed as one of the also-rans in Ulster hurling for a long period.
It’s in his role as a full-time schools coaching officer Keady Lamh Dhearg clubman Gaffney has been doing excellent work in helping to promote hurling, and he knows that a good performance against hot favourites Antrim on Sunday would be seen as yet another shot in he arm for the sport in the orchard county.
When Armagh beat Down in the semi-final to copper-fasten their place in this decider, the result was a seismic shock given that the peninsula men had been regarded as home and dry even before a sliothair was pucked in the contest.
But while Gaffney recalls that win with satisfaction he is fully aware that his side face a titanic challenge on Sunday.
“Antrim will be going for their 10th title on the trot and that speaks for itself.
They have a fantastic record in Ulster and some excellent players but this is the type of challenge we need to be facing if we ourselves are to improve further,” insists Gaffey.
While Antrim manager Dinny Cahill has made a number of changes to his side following their recent wins over Westmeath and Carlow, Gaffney believes that this will in no way weaken their strategy or their resolve.
“Antrim have rich resources. They have a lot of players just anxious to prove themselves and they will be keen to make the most of their opportunity against us,” adds Gaffney.
Along with Paul McCormack, Declan Coulter and Paul Breen he has helped to underpin the Armagh side for several years.
The team is drawn from five clubs and this in itself reflects the spread of the game within the orchard county.
While Antrim’s experience, fitness and hunger will cushion their drive for an extension of their reign on the Ulster throne, Armagh will bring fiery commitment, unrelenting energy and marked pride to the Casement Park table.
Saffrons’ manager Cahill is essentially fielding a second-string side, with Chris McGuinness, Kieran McGourty, Simon McCrory and Eddie McCloskey the only players to retain their places from the qualifier win over Carlow.
James McCouaig replaces Cormac Donnelly in the full-back line and there is an all-new half-back line comprising Kevin McKeague, Matthew Donnelly and Ciaran Herron while Barry McFall partners McCrory at midfield.
Joey Scullion and Thomas McCann are drafted into the half forwards. Paddy Doherty, Colm McFall and Karl McKeegan form an entirely-new full-forward division.
Antrim: C Cunningham; C McGuinness, K McGourty, J McCouaig; K McKeague, M Donnelly, C Herron; B McFall, S McCrory; J Scullion, T McCann, E McCloskey; P Doherty, C McFall, K McKeegan.