No Seventh Heaven for Armagh

August 11, 2014

• All-Ireland SFC Quarter Final: Donegal 1-12 Armagh 1-11

Ulster champions Donegal swooped late to bring to an end a super “silent” Armagh 2014 Championship run as their seventh game of the Summer narrowly failed to guide them to “seventh heaven” where an All-Ireland semi-final with defending champions Dublin beckoned. The old adage that Armagh lost nothing in defeat certainly rings true as they gave their all but the experience, craft and guile of their street wise opponents eventually swung things in their favour in a pulsating last 5 minutes.

Armagh will look back on this game as one that “got away” as they had the chances throughout the game to defy their “underdogs tag” and overcome a Donegal side that at times operated with 14 men in their own half of the field. Armagh trailed by 3 points with 15 minutes to go and had slightly lost their way as Donegal took control and seemed to be heading safely into the last four. Tony Kernan had reduced the deficit to 2 points when substitute Rory Grugan  found fellow substitute Brian Mallon close to the end line. Brian knocked the ball across goal with Stephen Campbell rising highest to punch the ball goalwards where it hit the upright before cannoning back off a sprawling Paul Durcan back into the net and the Orchard County led 1-10 to 1-9. First half goalscorer  Odhrán MacNiallais levelled for Donegal but a first championship point for substitute Michael Murray regained the lead for Armagh as the clock ticked down.

For me the main difference between the teams was Michael Murphy (Armagh had no forward to exert the same influence on the game especially when Murphy was moved to full forward eventhough he only managed one point from play) landed his fifth point of the game followed seconds later by a brilliant effort from an acute angle from Patrick McBrearty, and Donegal were back ahead 1-12 to 1-11. Armagh were not done yet and forced two long range frees. Tony Kernan elected to take the first one from his hands but was wide of the target, his second from the ground was literally the last kick of the game but it fell short under the posts leaving Donegal to face holders Dublin who hammered Monaghan 2-22 to 0-11 in the second Croke Park Saturday instalment.

Armagh trailed to an early Murphy free but a super point from distance from Tony Kernan was followed by one from a free from his brother Aaron. Things were looking good for Armagh when Aidan Forker put them 3-1 ahead on 19 minutes. For me it was in these opening 20 minutes where Armagh missed the boat in putting the Ulster champions under real pressure as they had accumulated a few very bad wides that would have pushed them further ahead before the score, in my opinion, that won the game for Donegal arrived. Armagh’s highly committed blanket defence had kept Donegal  scoreless for 20 minutes but was breached in the 23rd minute when Ryan McHugh sent MacNiallais in for a clinical angled finish to the net. Armagh goalkeeper Philip McEvoy will be disappointed at being beaten at his near post but the effort was skimming the upright with pace as it went into the net. Armagh responded to the goal in fine style with 2 points inside a minute from Stefan Campbell and Andy Mallon to regain the lead 0-5 to 1-1. Akin to the Meath game the last 5 minutes to the short whistle were very costly on the scoreboard as Donegal Murphy (2 frees), full back Neil McGee play and Colm McFadden (free) outscored Armagh 4-1 Kyle Carragher got Armagh’s sixth point of the half to see his team trail 1-5 to 0-6 at half-time.

The expected defensive battle had materialised but in that respect it was Armagh who were coming out on top as no Donegal forward had scored from play in the opening half whereas 5 of Armagh’s points total had come from play to 1-1 from Donegal. Finnian Moriarty (in for James Morgan from the start) and Charlie Vernon  were excellent in the Armagh defence but worryingly for the second match in a row  the midfield sector was playing second fiddle  in both the kick-out stakes and break ball possession. An early yellow card  for Aaron Findon may not have helped his cause as he seemed to be singled out for his shove “ on a doctor on call” whereas a lot more went unpunished in a near 2 minute melee some 8 minutes into the game.

Tony Kernan from a free following a foul on Andy Mallon reduced the deficit to the minimum as he opened the second half scoring. Brian Mallon surprisingly came in for Carragher in the Armagh attack as Donegal’s McFadden mopped up a punch from Armagh keeper McEvoy to increase the lead to 2 points. The punching habit of the Dromintee custodian hardly inspires confidence as did the one later in the game out of the arms of his full back Vernon. Tony Kernan shot a great point which was quickly cancelled by one from McBrearty.  A McFadden free put a green flag between the teams only for the other Kernan Aaron to reply after combining well with Dyas. Murphy restored the goal lead but it was the Kernan brothers who kept Armagh ticking over as Tony got his fourth of the game with 12 minutes left on the clock. Two minutes later the Campbell goal followed and the game unfortunately panned out in the way already detailed.

Armagh turned round a disastrous start to the year following relegation to Division Three with a very heartening Championship campaign. Pride in the Orchard jersey has been restored and more importantly they are back in the market as an up and coming formidable force. Team management must get a lot of credit for the change in the counties fortunes in the last 12 months. Whilst a lot may not agree with their “Media stance” following the Cavan game they stuck by their guns just as they did by their team and tactics. They have still a lot of work to do as can be seen by the sides still left in the 2014 race for Sam. Ironically the last four left in both the Minor and Senior All-Ireland are their respective Provincial champions which puts the value of the “back door” into proper perspective. Yet Armagh came within a whisker of snatching one of those last four spots.

Football nowadays is all a results game and Armagh got the results which has brought the county back into the reckoning. It may be only at the bottom rung of the ladder for now, with an awful lot of work still to be done but it is progress. The good thing from an Armagh point of view is that the top of the ladder is within reach and not that far away if progress continues in the same manner. The value of this narrow Croke Park defeat for what is relatively a young developing Armagh squad will not be seen until next year. The fact that the McKenna Cup and a Division Three League campaign cannot come quick enough for Orange clad supporters is proof that the graph is heading in the right direction. Who will spearhead the charge for 2015 might take a long time to filter through unless the “Ban” is lifted now that the present campaign has ended.

ARMAGH: Philip McEvoy; Finnian Moriarty, Charlie Vernon, Andy Mallon (0-1); Mark Shields, Brendan Donaghy, Aaron Kernan; Stephan Harold, Aaron Findon; Aidan Forker (0-1), Kevin Dyas, Tony Kernan (0-4); Kyle Carragher (0-1), Stefan Campbell (1-1), Jamie Clarke. Subs: Brian Mallon for Carragher (41), Ethan Rafferty for A Findon (45), Rory Grugan for Dyas (55), Michael Murray (0-1) for Forker (58), Kieran Toner for Harold (65).

DONEGAL: Paul Durcan; Éamonn McGee, Neil McGee (0-1), Frank McGlynn; Anthony Thompson, Karl Lacey, Paddy McGrath; Neil Gallagher, Odhrán MacNiallais (1-1); Christy Toye, Leo McLoone, Ryan McHugh; Patrick McBrearty (0-1), Michael Murphy (0-5), Colm McFadden. (0-3) Subs: Rory Kavanagh for Toye (43), Martin McElhinney for McLoone (56), Darach O’Connor for McFadden (58), Martin O’Reilly for McBrearty (72).

Referee: Joe McQuillan (Cavan).