A lot to admire in League Title Win

April 27, 2010


When you take where Armagh have come from in the last 12 months there is an awful lot to admire as the Orchard County claimed their first Allianz National League title since 2005 by beating neighbours Down by 0-17 to 1-12 in an exciting decider at Croke Park.

Following last year’s championship exit and subsequent resignation of team manager Peter McDonnell and the farcical carry-on in appointing his successor, Armagh football was at a low ebb. The post mortems all carried the same message, a team in decline with their best days behind them.

Despite this picture emerging, out of the blue came one man who saw the picture differently and in spite of what others saw as a hidden agenda came across the divide between Armagh and Down to take on the job as manager.

Having captained Down to All-Ireland glory and then failed to reach the same standards when manager of his native county, Paddy O’Rourke took on the poisoned chalice as Armagh manager with many of the Orchard faithful willing him to drink from that said same chalice.

But as Steven McDonnell, the man who captained the Orchard County to the league title five years ago, climbed the steps of Croke Park those said same supporters were hailing the achievements of the Burren native and his Armagh heroes. Some 80 minutes earlier the Orchard captain was the sole survivor from the 2002 All-Ireland winning team still in the starting Armagh line-up and his performance against Down showed his liking for the big Croke Park stage as he once again led the line finishing with 6 points to his credit.

Down, undefeated throughout the league campaign, had blitzed Armagh in the opening minutes in their earlier meeting in Newry. It took the most experienced man on the field just 12 seconds to stamp his class on the occassion as he spun and clipped over the game’s opening point you knew then that Armagh were going to be a different breed of animal.There were late changes to both teams as Armagh started Ryan Henderson at full forward instead of Ronan Clarke, while Down boss James McCartan had to start without their captain Ambrose Rogers at midfield, with Peter Fitzpatrick coming in. Damien Rafferty also failed to shake off his injury in time to play, so Aidan Brannigan started at left corner back for the Mourne men.

Aaron Kernan doubled the lead with a converted free following a foul on Stevie. It was all Armagh as they attacked the Canal End. A Stevie effort dropped short but Garteh Swift beat Brendan McVeigh in the Down goal to the punch but the ball was scrambled away fast the expense of a “45” which was converted by McDonnell and it was 3-0 to Armagh inside four minutes.

Benny Coulter, who gave Andy Mallon a torrid time in the first half, opened the Mourne County’s account in the sixth minute, with a beautiful finish. A foul on Paul McComiskey enabled Martin Clarke score his first of four pointed frees in the opening half. A patient build up by Armagh against a packed Down rearguard saw Finnian Moriarty pop over his team’s fourth point. A second Clarke free for another silly shirt pull left it 4-3 on fourteen minutes.

The two-point cushion was restored by Gareth Swift before Clarke drilled over his third free from the ground after Andy Mallon was harshly penalised for a shoulder on James Colgan. Stevie proved he is fallible by squeezing a goal chance wide of the posts before setting up Paul Duffy for a point to make it 0-6 to 0-4 on 27 minutes. Down gradually began to get on top, especially at midfield, as Clarke replied with a routine free following a foul on Coulter, who had a brief goal chance

Henderson had a wide at the end of the next industrious Armagh attack with the Down defence working demonically to close down the space. In the 32nd minute, Daniel Hughes curled over the levelling point after collecting a quick sideline kick from Clarke. McComiskey immediately missed a great opportunity to put his side ahead for the first time, but atoned a minute later as he popped over the lead point five seconds from the end of first-half normal time. Some terrific work by Ryan Henderson saw him set up Stevie who levelled and within seconds, the Killeavy ace knocked over his second point inside 30 seconds to give the Orchard County an 0-8 to 0-7 advantage at the break.

The scoreline failed to accurately reflect the story of the first half as Armagh had the bulk of the possession but they failed to convert that surfeit of good ball into points on the board. The big question was yet to be answered would they pay the price for wasted possession?

James McCartan, the Down manager, was clearly unhappy with his players’ efforts in the first half as he made two changes during the break. Conor Maginn came in for Stephen Kearney, while Kevin Duffin replaced centre-back, James Colgan, who was injured in the first half.

Coulter forced a foul out of McKeever in the second minute of the second half but McComiskey missed the shot from his hands. Three minutes after the restart midfielder Fitzpatrick kicked a great Down point to tie the scores up at 0-8 each. A foul on Swift allowed Aaron Kernan regain the lead for Armagh from the free.

Conor Garvey picked up the first yellow card of the afternoon for fouling Aaron Kernan off the ball and Mourne full back Benny McArdle also went into the book within seconds for backchat. A quick Ciaran McKeever free to Toner who transferred the ball to Stevie and it was 0-10 to 0-8. The disaster struck for Armagh in the shape of a Down goal.  Armagh full back Brendan Donaghy conceded a 45, which Martin Clarke drove goalwards from out on the right wing. Armagh keeper Hearty, always suspect under the high ball with bodies in the vicinity, remained rooted to the line as Coulter outjumped everybody to fist to the net and Down were ahead for the first time in the match. Manager McCartan wanting to hit home the advantage made a double substitution – introducing Conor Laverty and Dan Gordon – as they now strived to maintain the initiative. A mistake by Armagh back Paul Duffy presented Coluter with possession in a dangerous position in the 49th minute and the Mayobridgeman made no mistake: 1-9 to 0-10.

Armagh manager Paddy O’Rourke introduced Jamie Clarke for Brian Mallon and the newcomer to the panel, following u-21 duty, was involved immediately in setting up Gareth Swift for a point. Down midfielder Kalum King received a yellow card for a late tackle on Moriarty which could just as easily have been red as McDonnell tipped over a free from the hands following a foul on Vernon to tie it up at the start of the final quarter, 1-9 to 0-12.

Armagh introduced Malachy Mackin for Lavery and the much meligned St Patrick’s man went on to inspire an Armagh victory.

Ciaran McKeever blocked down a shot from Clarke and Stevie saw his shot go inches wide after he had fended off McCartan and ran half the length of the pitch. Martin Clarke’s 50-metre free restored Down’s lead as Colgan’s left-footed shot flew badly wide, Stefan Forker came on for Henderson. The intensity was stepped up with the full-time whistle getting closer and McDonnell and Kernan combined to place substitute Forker, who whacked over the levelling score with eleven minutes remaining.

On the hour, Gordon seemed to have sent Down back ahead but his ‘point’ was ruled out after he was deemed to have picked the ball directly off the ground. Clarke and Moriarty both saw yellow for an off-the-ball tussle and Armagh went back in front when Kernan tapped a free over from 20 metres following a foul on raiding sub Mackin – 0-14 to 1-10 with eight minutes left.

Wing back Conor Garvey landed an outrageous equalising point with his left foot on 64 minutes but Mackin replied with a wonderful left-footed effort at the other end. Hearty caught Clarke’s free beneath his crossbar to relieve the pressure on his defence and Mackin wisely fisted an Armagh point after being placed by fellow replacement Jamie Clarke and in one on one with keeper McVeigh Down sub Conor Maginn picked up a yellow card and Kernan stroked over another point from a moved up free following great work by Andy Mallon in the final minute to stretch the gap to three. With Down needing a goal, McKeever took a yellow card for a foul on Coulter. Down tried to work a goal but after prizing open a little gap, midfielder King drove a shot high over the bar in the first of two added minutes.

Three minutes into added time, Dan McCartan was shown a straight red card for stupidly walking on Aaron Kernan’s chest and there was one more late scare with a goalmouth scramble before the final whistle signalled victory to the Orchard County.

As outlined in the headline there was a lot to admire in this Armagh win. The character they showed to fight back when Down went in front, the physical fitness displayed as they outscored Down 0-5 to 0-1 in the last 10 minutes. The growing maturity of the younger players and the togetherness in the squad. Management must also take credit for the way the team lined out and the changes that were made to curb the influential Down players who were causing early problems. The three Armagh substitutes all made telling impacts. While Armagh are far from the finished article and no world beater, the belief that Down were the coming side and Armagh on the wane will certainly have taken a different slant. However, we all know that it is in Celtic Park in three week’s time that this team will be judged. But a league win over Down in a Croke Park Final is something to bring back an early Orchard bloom and smiles all round for a job well done.

Armagh: Paul Hearty; Andy Mallon, Brendan Donaghy, Barry Shannon; Paul Duffy (0-1), Ciaran McKeever, Finian Moriarty (0-1); James Lavery, John Toner; Charlie Vernon, Aaron Kernan (0-4), Gareth Swift (0-2); Steven McDonnell (0-6), Ryan Henderson, Brian Mallon. Subs: Jamie Clarke for B Mallon, Malachy Mackin (0-2) for Lavery, Stefan Forker (0-1) for Henderson

Down: Brendan McVeigh; Daniel McCartan, Brendan McArdle, Aidan Brannigan; Kevin McKernan, James Colgan, Conor Garvey (0-1); Peter Fitzpatrick (0-1), Kalum King (0-1); Stephen Kearney, Martin Clarke (0-5), Daniel Hughes (0-1); Paul McComiskey (0-1), John Clarke, Benny Coulter (1-2). Subs: Conor Maginn for Kearney, Conor Laverty for J Clarke, Dan Gordon for Fitzpatrick, Ronan Murtagh for McComiskey, Kevin Duffin for McKernan.