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A Long Summer

June 20, 2016

● Qualifier Round 1: Laois 1-10 v Armagh 0-10

For the loyal Armagh supporters who travelled to O’Moore Park, Portlaois to outnumber the home support, it was a sad journey home left contemplating a long summer without championship football after seeing their team exit the championship 1-10 to 0-10.

A scoreless third quarter in a second half which yielded a mere 3 point haul was ultimately the turning point of a less than classic contest fought out in a defensively minded manner as both sought to extend their championship survival. In the end it was the one moment of exceptional class in the game which separated the sides at the final whistle as 16 minutes into the game Conor Meredith sprinted clear down the left of the field and unleashed a bullet left-footed shot to the top right corner past Patrick Morrison for an early contender in goal of the Championship.

Armagh made six changes from the Ulster Championship defeat to Cavan as Paul Courtney; James Morgan, Ethan Rafferty Ciaran O’Hanlon; Colm Watters and Gavin McParland were replaced by Paddy Morrison; Shea Heffron, Joe McElroy, Aaron Findon, Michael McKenna and Niall Grimley. Laois football manager Mick Lillis made four changes to his team as Kieran Lillis replaced Paul Cotter in the defence, Kevin Meaney was in for the suspended John O’Loughlin in the middle of the field as Niall Donoher and David Conway replaced Gary Walsh and Evan O’Carroll in attack  from the 15 that took the field against Dublin.

The home side opened the scoring through Paul Cahillane inside two minutes with a nicely converted free but 6 minutes later Mark Shields had Armagh level for the first of 5 times during the first half. Donie Kingston regained the lead for Laois only for Rory Grugan to reply and then Stefan Campbell edged Armagh in front with a free following a foul on Niall Grimley. Meredith’s goal in the 16th minute should have sparked Laois but it was the visitors who responded well to the setback as back to back converted frees from Stefan Campbell had them back to level terms at 1-2 to 0-5 by the 21st minute. Indeed Kieran McGeeney’s side will rue some poor shooting and shot selection during a dominant seven-minute spell which should have helped them regain the lead. They were duly punished for their wastefulness when wing-back Darren Strong, in yards of space following a quickly taken free fired over for the home side’s third point.

Aidan Forker was both hero and villain as he pointed Armagh back in front before giving away a needless free a minute later which saw Kingston raise his second white flag of the afternoon. The Maghery man then saw his goal chance well saved by Graham Brody, which would have been a game changer so close to the short whistle. Indeed, had Michael McKenna, well found by Grugan, been able to raise a green flag instead of fisting over to complete the scoring at 0-7 to 1-4 the course of the game would have been considerably altered.

Laois started with more purpose in the second-half and dominated the third quarter as Armagh, whether intentionally or due to the home sides efforts, set up a defensive screen operating with 13 men behind the ball, which was not the case in the opening half. Lillis’s men dominated the scoring stakes for 15 minutes after half-time, as Kingston (free) and David Conway kicked points before Kingston was fed by Meredith for his first point from play in the 49th minute putting them 1-7 to 0-7 ahead. Trojan Armagh defensive work and a couple of terrible Laois wides kept Armagh within touching distance. A second point of the afternoon from McKenna opened the Orchard second half account but “back in favour substitute” Gary Walsh marked his return with a superbly struck 50-metre free to keep the major score between them. Entering the final 10 minutes, with the game going down the pan Armagh launched a survival bid sparked by a Grugan (free) and one from sub Joe Feeney to leave the minimum between the teams with 8 minutes left on the clock.

Laois then erected their own 15 man defensive screen as they clung on desperately to their lead. Armagh spurned numerous opportunities to draw level both from open play and placed balls. With the game in added – on time, substitutes Jamie Farrell and Ross Munnelly secured victory for Laois. Farrell popped up with a brilliant point to  double the lead as Armagh battled for that elusive goal, veteran Munnelly sealed victory with the insurance point off the inside of the post to put the O’Moore County’s into the Round Two Qualifiers draw.

Relegation to Division 3 of the Allianz League, followed by Championship losses to Cavan and Laois makes it an extremely disappointing year for all concerned with Armagh. Naturally there will be many opinions on where to go and what to do. Defeats are not always the managers fault and he cannot cop all of the blame all of the time. Players have to stand up and be counted and held responsible for losses. Currently Armagh is playing a game where primary possession (midfield) and territorial concession (defensive set-up) is being deployed. The major fault with this system, no matter what team uses it, is that it requires a high percentage of scoring opportunities to be converted to get over the winning line. Armagh is not converting their chances as can be seen from their last two games. Armagh used 21 different starting players in two games, which tell you that the pack is being shuffled but the aces in that pack must be missing. A change of deck, a tactical addition to the dealers, and the full use of Division Three to give fringe players “a lot” of prolonged game time at the expense of the experienced tried and trusted who can be held in championship reserve and of course   “the rub of the green” can lift the football gloom that has descended for now.

Armagh: P Morrison; S Heffron, B Donaghy, J McElroy; A Mallon, M Shields (0-1), C McKeever; C Vernon, A Findon; T Kernan, R Grugan (0-2), A Forker (0-1); M McKenna (0-2), S Campbell (0-3), N Grimley. Subs: J Morgan for Shields (17), J Feeney (0-1) for Forker (45), G McParland for Grimley (45), J Hall for Kernan (54), T Kernan for McKenna (58).

Laois: G Brody; S Attride, M Timmons, G Hanrahan; D Strong (0-1), K Lillis, D O’Connor; B Quigley, K Meaney; N Donoher, P Cahillane (0-1), C Begley; C Meredith (1-0), D Kingston (0-4), D Conway (0-1). Subs: A Farrell for Strong (44), J Farrell (0-1) for Meaney (50), M Campion for Donoher (52), R Munnelly (0-1) for Conway (54), G Walsh (0-1) for Cahillane (58), G Dillon for Meredith (70).

Referee: A Nolan (Wicklow).

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