Supporters will have to Grim and bear it

February 4, 2013

Allianz football league Division II Laois 0-20 Armagh 1-10

Manager Paul Grimley and his backroom team saw his new look side well beaten at Portlaois in the opening game of the National League. The meeting of the two sides who were relegated from Division I last year saw Laois field 13 players that started last year’s All-Ireland quarter-final defeat to Dublin while Armagh went in with an experimental new look full back line of Mark Shields, James Donnelly and Gary McCooey and Grange youngster Ethan Rafferty starting in attack.

Indeed it was one of the positives from defeat the impressive Ethan Rafferty who opened the scoring with the first of his 3 point total inside 14 seconds. The constant thorn in Armagh’s side throughout the match and the games top scorer with 7 points Ross Munnelly levelled from a free. By the sixth minute Armagh were 3-1 ahead followings points from Gavin McParland and a free from Stefan Forker. A second Munnelly free and a first of two from impressive half back Darren Strong had the home team back level before the comeback kid Donie Kingston put Laois into a lead that was never to be relinquished. Armagh got back on level terms almost immediately as Stefan Forker converted a free following a foul on himself. A quarter of an hour gone and the match all square at 4-4. Nobody could foresee that when abject referee fellow Claremen Rory Hickey sounded the short whistle that it would be a 9 point game with the home team 0-13 to 0-4 in front.

Driven on by the  midfield pairing of Brendan Quigley and Colm Begley Laois upped the tempo and blew Armagh away with a barrage of points and luckily threw in a couple of wasted goal chances otherwise the last 20 minutes of the opening half would have been a complete rout. Munnelly (0-2), Kingston, Clancy, Boyle, Strong, Quigley, Sheehan (2) all pointed for a superb finish to the first half from Laois. Armagh, following a bright start, were totally overwhelmed by the physicality and change in gear generated by Justin McNulty’s charges. The loyal Armagh following looking for a performance rather than a result were left pondering second half annihilation during the course of the interval. The only first half relief was being able to let off steam at the Banner official as he made his way to the dressing room.

Armagh had made one change during the first half with Stephen Harold in at midfield in place of James Lavery. Management kept faith with the players they had on the field in their same positions for the second half. When Munnelly, from a free, made it a 10 point game on the re-start the journey home was beginning to look very bleak. But management’s belief in their team was rewarded as they mounted a stirring comeback that saw them leave just a kick of the ball between the teams as they hit 1-4 without reply. Brian Mallon pointed for Armagh for their first score in 25 minutes quickly followed by a point from raiding corner back Mark Shields. Substitute Harold got in on the act with a third Armagh point as a rattled home side saw top man Munnelly yellow carded. On 44 minutes Ethan Rafferty left it 0-14 to 0-8 and 2 minutes later the match was amazingly back in the melting pot and all to play for. A speculative point attempt from Stefan Forker was plucked out of the air by Brian Mallon who shot to the net past a hitherto untroubled Eoin Culliton. A vociferous travelling support were in full throttle as the stunned home crowd could not believe the turnaround. With 22 minutes remaining a Munnelly free stemmed the Armagh onslaught but the Orchard men through Forker made it a green flag game but alas that was as good as it got with Laois re-affirming their authority in the final 20 minutes.

Two Sheehan frees stretched the lead to 5 points with Armagh’s last point coming with 12 minutes to go through Ethan Rafferty. Laois were not finished though and despite hitting 4 wides on the trot followed by 3 in a row from Armagh the O’Moore County added three further points for a 0-20 to 1-10 victory. The Divisional title favourites were off to a winning start while Armagh were left to take the positives from a very unbalanced performance with their fitness level in comparison to their opponents a glaring difference.

The most obvious difference between these two teams, their starting 15, must be taken into account when assessing this match form. Justin and his Laois team are loitering with intent with regards to a quick return to the top division. Counterpart Paul is trying to build a different Armagh without a full deck to play from. Armagh must be credited with a gutsy comeback when it was easy to give up the ghost. Cleaned out at midfield and in the half back line the inexperienced full back line with two regular forwards as corner backs were left exposed time and again by a big gap between them and their far more experienced outside line. Young James Donnelly at full back can be more than satisfied with his handling of the vastly experienced Padraig Clancy.

The plusses from Portlaois extend to the forwards where I thought Aidan Forker was the first Armagh number 11 to play that position as it should be played and was quite effective. I was surprised that he was withdrawn but maybe he was injured or his exuberance on a yellow card led to his removal. Stefan at number 14 fulfilled his McKenna Cup promise with Brian Mallon showing that given a proper supply of the ball he can score. For me the real find of the night was Ethan Rafferty who finished with 3 points and contributed and linked well in play. While not wanting to gloss over that everything in the orchard should be rose tinted one has to question management, in a team that conceded 20 points, served up 4 to 5 goal chances (thankfully none taken), brought on 5 subs, but none in defence and took off two players Aidan Forker and Brian Mallon at a stage when they were both influencing what was then a tight match.

Next up are Wexford at the Athletic Grounds next Sunday at 2pm. The Model County staged a second half rally to get their campaign off to a winning start with a narrow 2-8 to 1-10 win over visitors Longford. Galway beat Derry 1-15 to 0-15 and Westmeath beat Louth 0-16 to 2-9 in the other 2 games in the division.

Armagh: P McEvoy; M Shields (0-1), J Donnelly, G McCooey; K Dyas, C McKeever, F Moriarty; J Lavery, K Toner; C Rafferty, A Forker, E Rafferty (0-3); G McParland (0-1), S Forker (0-3), B Mallon (1-1). Subs: S Harold (0-1) for J Lavery (29), A Duffy for A Forker (51), E McVerry for B Mallon (59 mins), J Kingham for G McParland (60), S Campbell for S Forker (70)

Laois: E Culliton; K Meaney, P O’Leary, C Healy; D Strong (0-2), J O’Loughlin, C Boyle (0-1); B Quigley (0-1), C Begley; R Munnelly (0-7), D Kingston (0-4), B Sheehan (0-4); G Walsh, P Clancy (0-1), C Kelly. Subs: D O’Connor for C Kelly (47 mins), A Doran for G Walsh (58 mins)