Need to stay grounded as Donegal beckon

August 4, 2014

All-Ireland Football qualifier: Armagh 0-18 Meath 0-13

The self-imposed media ban by the Armagh management team has been a major catalyst in the team reaching an All-Ireland quarter-final tilt against reigning Ulster Champions, Donegal next Saturday August 9 in Croke Park at 4pm. Since imposing the ban following the Cavan “Parade Row” Armagh management have let their team and their tactics do the talking, as they move within 2 matches of an All-Ireland final appearance, following their latest triumph a 0-18 to 0-13 victory over Meath.

Armagh supporters headed to Croke Park in the pelting rain, with their positivity rattled by the news that key component in the wins over Tyrone and Roscommon, team Captain Ciaran McKeever would be missing through injury. The beaten Leinster finalists were without Captain Kevin Reilly (hip) while Graham Reilly started on the bench, with Shane O’Rourke and Adam Flanagan drafted into their starting team. Mickey Burke and David Bray – both of whom were introduced as substitutes against Dublin – were also in from the start.

The siege mentality within the Armagh camp allows rumours to fill the media voids, with the main one centreing around the non-starting of Aaron Kernan in the previous two games.

But that “rumoured rift “was quickly grounded as management brought in Aaron to replace the injured skipper, with telling effect. Aaron had only started in the drawn game with Monaghan in the counties last 5 championship games but the camp unity and stability was there for all to see in Croker as all used 19 Armagh players gave sparkling performances in what was a very fluctuating, action-packed encounter with the atrocious weather conditions contributing to poor passing and shooting with some very bad decision making (especially in the opening half) thrown in for good measure.

But at the end of it all, a fully deserved first Armagh championship win at Croke Park for 6 years, was the outcome as the Orchard boys blossomed in the last 25 minutes of the match to outscore their opponents by eight points to three to seal a quarter-final berth. Armagh repeated the Roscommon feat by getting another 10 different players on the score sheet in defeating Meath. If anyone had suggested following the league defeat to Donegal 2-10 to 1-8 at the Athletic Grounds on April 6 that confirmed relegation to Division 3 for Armagh that the same two counties would meet 4 months later in an All-Ireland quarter-final they would have been a laughing stock. Such is the rise in Armagh stock over the last few months is that 10 of the players who started in that League defeat to Donegal, started in the championship win over Meath. An awful lot of hard work, thought and tactics from team management has gone in to getting Armagh where they are today- far from the finished article- but an improving product with every outing- with healthy competition for starting places amongst a very strong panel of players -that have bought into and believe in a system and style of play which has proven successful to date.

Following the throw-in by Clare referee Rory Hickey Stephen Harold recorded the first wide for Armagh and following a similar feat by Meath, Harold became the first player yellow carded all inside the opening 4 minutes. Andrew Torey opened the scoring 5 minutes in before a foul by Campbell was punished by Mickey Newman’s pointed free to double the lead. It was 8 minutes before Jamie Clarke opened Armagh’s account following a slip-up from Meath goalkeeper Paddy O’Rourke who was to exert a big influence on the game throughout. The keeper, who finished with 2 pointed frees to his credit, was key in setting up Meath attacks as he liked to progress from his goals with the ball and was given plenty of opportunity as at least 10 Armagh point attempts dropped short into his hands during the course of the game, something to be worked on for the next day.

Aidan Forker equalised in the tenth minute and Tony Kernan tapped over a free in the 14th minute to edge Armagh into a lead they would never relinquish. A second Forker point made it double scores at the midway stage in the first half, 0-4 to 0-2 but it could have been so different for Mick O’Dowd’s men as Newman’s blistering shot cannoned back off the crossbar with Armagh goalkeeper Philip McEvoy well beaten. A third Forker point followed and he was denied a fourth as the big goalkeeper pulled his effort from over the bar to safety but Kyle Carragher turned his marker to make it 0-6 to 0-2 after 27 minutes. Points 7 & 8 on the trot followed for Armagh from a Tony Kernan (free) and Stefan Campbell. Meath registered their first score in 24 minutes when Newman slotted an excellent free from a difficult angle to reduce the arrears to five points, 0-8 to 0-3. Midfield substitute Graham Reilly made an immediate impact as he helped transform the Royals domination in this sector of the field into scores. Damien Carroll and sub Reilly smacked over points with a David Bray free from a tight angle meant it was a two-point game heading into injury-time. After Tormey’s shot rebounded off an upright and deflected wide off Charlie Vernon, it was Newman who converted the ’45’   to reduce the deficit to the minimum 0-8 to 0-7 at the short whistle. What a first half as Meath, who dominated midfield, held a 2-0 lead before embarking on a scoreless 24 minute spell during which Armagh hit 8 unanswered points before Meath finished in a blaze of glory with 5 unanswered points of their own in the last 5 minutes of the half. The last think Meath needed to hear was the short whistle as they had wrestled all the momentum from an Armagh side that had looked like coasting to victory as their defensive system looked impenetrable by the Meath forwards, with the most impressive aspect of their display their ability to break at speed and take scores.

During the interval one would have thought that it was winter as opposed to summer with the rain continuing to spill and the floodlights turned on.  James Morgan was replaced by Mickey Murray for the start of the second half. The next 35 minutes would bring an end to one team’s summer as Meath continued where they left off upon the restart as Graham Reilly clipped over the equalising point within seconds. The Royal gallop was halted by an instant reply from Aaron Kernan to restore the Armagh lead with brother Tony doubling the lead as Dyas and Clarke combined to set him up. Shane O’Rourke and Aaron Findlon picked up yellow cards for an off the ball incident as Meath stormed back to parity through an exquisite David Bray finish and a stunning long-range free from goalkeeper Paddy O’Rourke – 0-10 apiece after 41 minutes.

For the second time in the half Aaron Kernan pointed Armagh back in front before fellow defender Mark Shields blazed over a great point under severe pressure that made it 0-12 to 0-10. The scoreless 9 minute spell that followed saw Meath accumulate three very bad wides to one from Dyas before they were punished by the tireless Campbell who notched his second point of the game to stretch the lead to a green flag. Dyas had his great work rate rewarded with a point quickly followed by a third for Campbell to open up a 5 point lead with 10 minutes left on the clock. Armagh were using their bench with Rory Grugan and Brian Mallon replacing Carragher and Forker.

A frantic period of play followed as Meath tried to get back into the game but they had costly misses from David Bray, Torey and Newman (free) before the industrious Campbell interjected with an important Armagh point. A minute later, as the match became more spread, centre forward Kevin Dyas finally got his name on the score sheet with a sweet strike from distance at the end of an expansive move – 0-14 to 0-10 with twelve minutes of normal time left. A terrific cross field pass from Tony Kernan to Campbell saw the Clan Na Gael player put five between the sides with an hour played. Paddy O’Rourke gave the Royals a crumb of hope when he nailed another wonderful free from long range but substitute Brian Mallon with his first touch finished a flowing Armagh move with a terrific point moments later – 0-16 to 0-11. Graham Reilly’s third point left four between the sides with seven minutes left but substitute Mallon added his second point following good work by Grugan. Goalkeeper O’Rourke stood firm to deny Shields a “coffin nailer” goal as a soft Newman free reduced the deficit to 4 points. Stefan Forker on for Tony Kernan got himself on the scoreboard with the game’s final point following a long accurate delivery of the ball from Aaron Kernan.

As the headline says Armagh supporters need to stay grounded ahead of the clash with the Ulster champions Donegal. The dour defensive style of Donegal will be a new challenge for Armagh to overcome. Hopefully playing conditions will be a lot better this Saturday than last as the pressure is on the champions to dispose of the challenge of an Armagh side that are brimming with confidence. The contrast of styles will make for an interesting battle but one thing for sure Armagh will need to fare better at midfield than they did against Meath. Proving no longer” over reliant” on scores from mercurial forward Clarke, the scoring threat from Armagh throughout the field has to be a worry to all teams. All 6 starting forwards scored against Meath as well as 2 sprung from the bench. Armagh clad supporters must be delighted with the strength and depth of the Armagh bench. The battle to get on that playing bench was further emphasised when Brian Mallon marked his 2014 championship debut with two great points when introduced as a sub. Management will have a very hard selection task ahead of them with a fully fit squad to choose from.

The obvious Donegal duel threat from Murphy & McFadden will be a big test for full back Charlie and company. Armagh overcame the burden of carrying the favourites tag against Meath and will be back to their underdog role for Saturday which suits them better. Armagh maybe in bonus territory in a lot of peoples eyes but they are there on merit and face a Donegal team who would probably have favoured a match with Kildare as opposed to their fellow Provincial challengers who understandably are on a high. Orangemen on the march are hard to halt at the best of times but silent Orangemen with purpose and intent are a breed apart as others have found out as Donegal will come Saturday evening.

Armagh – P McEvoy; C Vernon, A Mallon, J Morgan; M Shields 0-1, B Donaghy, A Kernan 0-2; S Harold, A Findon; S Campbell 0-3, T Kernan 0-3, A Forker 0-3; J Clarke 0-1, K Dyas 0-1, K Carragher 0-1. Subs – M Murray for Morgan, R Grugan for Carragher, B Mallon 0-2 for Forker, S Forker 0-1 for Kernan.

Meath – P O’Rourke 0-2; M Burke, B Menton, D Keogan; D Carroll 0-1, P Harnan, D Tobin; S O’Rourke, A Flanagan; B Meade, B McMahon, A Torey 0-1; D Bray 0-2, S Bray, M Newman 0-4. Subs – G Reilly 0-3 for Meade, E Harrington for Carroll, D McDonagh for S Bray, J Wallace for D Bray, P Gilsenan for McDonagh.

Ref – R Hickey (Clare).