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Armagh's Ciaran McKeever throws down the gauntlet to Red Hands

By Declan Bogue

He may be a fine athlete whose talents as a ball-player are only receiving belated acknowledgment, but you sense Ciaran McKeever might have missed another vocation as he heightens the expectation on Tyrone's visit to the Athletic Grounds on January 4 to open the McKenna Cup. It takes a bit of work and imagination to picture a McKenna Cup group game as a must-see fixture, but McKeever has already turned it personal as they seek to keep bragging rights over the Red Hands following their commanding win over their Blackwater rivals in the qualifiers earlier this year.

"Tyrone have been doing plenty of talking in the papers since the Championship," said McKeever. "I am sure they will be coming out with all guns blazing and it will be a good atmosphere in Armagh that day."

Evidently, he is referring in parts to Tyrone secretary Dominic McCaughey's comments to county convention, when he accused Armagh of instigating a pre-match scuffle.

He is also touching on references to that Healy Park defeat by Tyrone captain Sean Cavanagh, who said last week: "The defeat this year to Armagh was probably as tough as I've ever seen because I was captain of the team.

"You have that responsibility to lead the team and to lose in that manner, unexpectedly and particularly at home against our biggest rivals, was gutting.

"You can ask my wife, when I went home after the game I was in tears for hours. I couldn't comprehend it. I've lost All-Ireland semi-finals, I've been lucky that I haven't lost too many finals, but I've lost big games."

McKeever warmed to the theme, adding: "They are entitled to their opinion, and Sean had plenty to say about us after the Cavan game. He was stuck on the radio talking about what happened between Armagh and Cavan.

"That hasn't gone unnoticed by these Armagh players and there has been plenty of talk in the papers since that, so I am sure, we will see on January 4. We will definitely be going out to win it."

For all the progress of Armagh in 2014 however, it feels like a lifetime since these two attracted a crowd of 18,000 to witness a McKenna Cup semi-final just under a decade ago.

The 31-year-old was around for the height of that rivalry, and alongside him in defence was Kieran McGeeney. Now that McGeeney is manager, he is not expecting any old pal's act.

"It's different compared to these past couple of years," he says of the new regime.

"With Geezer, you know what to expect. Every man has to be pushing at the same level. If you aren't putting the effort and the time into your training, you won't be picked."

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