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Dynamic defender McKeever braced for challenge

By John Campbell

Twelve years ago Ciaran McKeever left the Kingspan Breffni Park playing arena to thunderous acclaim.

He had just skippered Armagh to the All-Ireland Under 21 title, their unexpected coup highlighted by a swashbuckling performance against Mayo in the decider.

Tomorrow the now Dublin-based McKeever will again stride that same turf only this time fired by a rather more modest twin hope - resurrecting his own championship career following a lengthy spell in the shadows due to injury and retrieving credibility for an Orchard county side that has already slipped into Division Three.

There is, too, the not inconsequential matter of a recent humiliating league defeat by Cavan (3-18 to 0-10) to be avenged.

It all adds up to quite a demanding agenda for McKeever but the dynamic defender, still holding the Armagh reins after all these years, is buoyed for the challenge.

"Obviously our Under 21 success in 2004 evokes pleasant memories but life moves on. Now we find ourselves going in against a Cavan side that has won promotion to Division One, gained huge success by winning four Ulster Under 21 titles in recent years and is maturing into a real force," says McKeever.

"The body is feeling good again and obviously I want to be part of an Armagh side that will try to get back to the level we were at the noughties when we won a number of Ulster titles."

A reluctant spectator because of his ongoing injury problems, he watched his side draw with Tyrone and Galway before beating Derry after that league collapse against Terry Hyland's men and this, he feels, has served to put fire in the bellies of his players for tomorrow's showdown.

"We did not maybe apply ourselves right in the first-half of the league but I assure you that we will be going flat out from the start tomorrow," says McKeever.

"We have to hold our hands up and admit in the league game against Cavan we weren't at the races. It will be different tomorrow. Our in-house matches lately have been more intense and competitive and this has helped to make the squad stronger."

"The boys have been pushing each other on in the quest for starting jerseys match and it's up to us as a unit to hit form."

McKeever's competitive nature is such that manager Kieran McGeeney quips "Ciaran is the kind of player that might get a card before he even goes out to play" but the player himself is strongly focused on what he hopes will be a disciplined performance.

"Discipline is the key in championship matches," says McGeeney. "They are played at a ferocious pace. You simply cannot afford to allow things to boil over otherwise you could lose two or three players."

A deep thinker on the game, McGeeney does not want to see any repetition of what he believes were fundamental flaws that blighted some of Armagh's displays during the league and which were particularly highlighted in the hammering received at Cavan's hands. McKeever has been named at left-half-back for tomorrow's game although the popular theory is that he might be asked to police Cavan playmaker Gearoid McKiernan who currently wields a massive influence in the side.

Aidan Forker may then be freed up to act as a link between defence and attack but the omission of Michael McKenna from the half-forward line is something of a surprise indeed as is the absence of the combative Aaron Findon from midfield.

Instead, Ethan Rafferty and Brendan Donaghy will form the engine-room with support from Forker while Rory Grugan will be expected to take control of the left flank.

McKeever's hunger to see Armagh regain its status as a football force is palpable.

"Three years ago we went to Breffni Park and got overturned so that gives us another incentive to come good tomorrow," hesays. "While the warm memories from 2004 remain, we have to live in the now and that means getting over this first championship hurdle."

  • Ulster SFC quarter-final: Cavan v Armagh, Kingspan Breffni Park, Sunday, 3.30pm

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