Orange blossom the perfect response

May 31, 2011

Ulster SFC Armagh 1-15 Down 1-10

The build up to the first Ulster championship match at the newly named Morgan Athletic Grounds was all about the counter-attractions and how they would affect the crowd, Armagh were going to be outnumbered by the Down support in their first home championship match since 1995 and with last year’s beaten All-Ireland team warm favourites to win things looked very bleak from an Armagh perspective.

With the focus off them Armagh went about their own business as they prepared to face a Down team which had 14 of the starting team which narrowly lost out to Cork last September. Armagh would give championship starts to former Mayo star Billy Joe Padden, Tony Kernan and Miceal O’Rourke all in attack. With James McCartan in one managerial corner up against Paddy O’Rourke his former All-Ireland winning Captain and former Down manager, the tactics game was always going to be a vital factor in deciding the issue.

There is no question that it was Armagh manager O’Rourke who won the day hands down. Paddy handed man marking roles to Ciaran McKeever (Martin Clarke) and Andy Mallon (Daniel Hughes) with both Armagh men winning their respective battles. Indeed the whole sextet of Armagh defenders and goalkeeper Paul Hearty excelled throughout the 70 minutes which gave Armagh a tremendous platform to perform from. Brendan Donaghy and Aaron Kernan had outstanding games with the half back covering every inch of the Athletic Grounds and Donaghy letting nothing past him and when it did got back to push the danger away.

Credit where credit is due as the under pressure Armagh boss partnered Charlie Vernon and Kieran Toner at midfield but it was his half forward line which ultimately proved his trump card. Miceal O’Rourke started in the centre and was very influential especially in the opening half. Tony Kernan worked tirelessly, set up the early goal for Jamie Clarke and popped over a neat point to extend his sides lead 1-12 to 1-10 at a vital stage of the game. Mayo’s Padden marked his Ulster championship debut with 3 points, two in the opening half and an insurance one 1-14 to 1-10 near the end of the game.

Goal machine Jamie Clarke revved up the Armagh engine on 5 minutes as he rattled the Down net for his side’s opening score after Mark Poland and Marty Clarke had pointed frees for Down which had them 2 points in front. Down would not regain the lead until the 45th minute through another Clarke free. Down had no answer to the elusive class of Crossmaglen ace Clarke who finished with 1-2 and had a hand in setting up scores for his fellow attackers as well as winning vital frees. Malachy Mackin was another who got through an enormous amount of work, showed well for the ball from Hearty and added 2 points to the scoreboard to go along with a lot of ball possession won. Armagh may have faded in their last couple of League outings in the final 10 minutes but it was Down who loked jaded in the wet, slippery conditions when the game was there to be won. Midfielders Vernon and Toner really came into their own in the last quarter. One to 15 every Armagh player had a telling spell and contribution to make in the game such was the all round team performance. If one was told prior to this match that talisman and major scorer for years, Stevie McDonnell would finish the game with only one pointed free to his credit no one would have forecast an Armagh victory.

Paddy O’Rourke, and his backroom team deserve all the credit for the way they had their team prepared. For the first time in a long time an Armagh side looked in full control of what they were doing. Lacking any negativity the football they played has certainly lit up the championship fare served in any of the provinces to date

As the rain poured down it did not stop over 13,000 from descending on the Cathedral City to see two of the game’s main rivals go head to head. Players made light of the slippery underfoot conditions to produce a thrilling first half which produced 16 scores in all, 2 goals and just 5 wides.

In the third minute Mark Poland put the Mourne County ahead from a free following a foul on Benny Coulter by Charlie Vernon. A superb Marty Clarke free off the ground with his trusty left boot doubled the lead a minute later. Already it was clear that any Armagh indiscretions were going to be ruthlessly punished. Armagh’s first foray, deep into Down territory, saw Tony Kernan on the end line pass the ball way back out the field and moments later Tony was on hand to lay off a Ciaran McKeever high delivery to Jamie Clarke and his Crossmaglen clubman made no mistake with a superb finish low into the corner of the Down net. From the kick-out Dromintee’s Kieran Dyas, operating out of centre back, stormed through a number of tackles to slot over a great point.

Jamie Clarke, who was causing huge problems danced through to pop over a majestic point: 1-2 to 0-2 before winning the next which drew a foul from beleagured defender Dan McCartan; Stevie McDonnell stuck it between the posts from his hands. Wing back Declan Rooney linked well with Poland before pulling back a Down point from play. Micheal O’Rourke played a terrific through ball to Billy Joe Padden who made it a four-point game with his first Ulster championship score. Gerard McCartan had been moved onto Clarke and he was immediately shown a yellow card for a foul, with Aaron Kernan tapping over the free from his hands: 1-5 to 0-3 after 15 minutes. Aaron also supplied the next score dropped over a lovely point from a tight angle to put Armagh six points clear.

Down needed a response and got it in style in the 22nd minute as Mark Poland jinked through the Armagh defence Messi style before shimmying to slot the ball past Hearty for a sublime individual goal that will take beating for the rest of the championship. That strike brought the Mourne men right back into it, but Armagh were not for letting their grip slip as Malachy Mackin struck a super point off his left foot before Padden floated over a nice point off his weaker left foot. With just over ten minutes remaining in the first half Armagh were 5 clear 1-8 to 1-3. Down introduced Conor McGinn for John Clarke and he helped cut the deficit to just 2 points at the interval as he won possession to set up scores. Clarke from a dubiously re-taken free after he had fired wide started the mini revival of 3 points in as many minutes before Poland set up Paul McComiskey for another Down score before Clarke completed the first half scoring to leave it 1-8 to 1-6 as the short whistle sounded.

One felt that for all their play Armagh should have been further ahead at the end of the first half and within 2 minutes of the second half those thoughts were vindicated as Down drew level. Points from Clarke (free) and McComiskey made it five-in-a-row to Down as Armagh had now gone 20 minutes without a score. James McCartan’s Mournemen took the lead for the first time since the third minute when Clarke drilled a hotly-disputed free between the posts from an acute angle. Armagh were on the ropes but far from on their knees. The superb Aaron Kernan clipped a 46th-minute over the bar to level 1-9 apiece. and punctured the Down run of scores. Armagh seized the opportunity to regain the lead when Poland’s free went wide off the outside of an upright and from the resulting kick-out Armagh swept downfield for Jamie Clarke to hit a great point from a McDonnell pass. Brendan Donaghy got away with a shove in the back on Coulter as he bore down on goals and unleashed his shot, which went straight to Hearty who cleared the danger.  Down replaced the injured Coulter with Ronan Murtagh as a fourth Aaron Kernan point put Armagh two in front before the well shackled Hughes whacked over a stunning point to halve the margin with 15 minutes to go.

Inside 2 minutes Armagh were three in front as the industrious Tony Kernan was on hand to collect the ball on the end line and stick it over the bar.

When Jamie Clarke’s attempted point dropped short. Malachy Mackin stroked over a 58th-minute point at the end of a flowing move: 1-13 to 1-10 with twelve minutes remaining. Armagh had responded to their barren spell with 5 points and equalled Down’s 6 in a row as Padden knocked over the insurance point from close range off his left foot with eight minutes on the clock. It was all Armagh who,despite a couple of wides, led by four with five minutes left plus stoppage time.

Aaron Kernan drilled over another superb point to cap an exceptional individual display. Down came looking for a goal Donaghy bravely fisted clear with Hearty beaten and in the follow up shot the ball squirmed under the dive of Paul Duffy but he had done enough to deflect it out for a “45” which was majestically fielded by Vernon when it was lofted in.. The final whistle sounded after two added minutes leaving Armagh with an Ulster semi-final date June 19 with Derry while it is the back door route for Down.

There is no getting away from it Armagh were superb in all aspects of their play, commitment, desire, hunger were evident in abundance as was quality, skill and a refreshingly positive attacking approach to the game. Let’s not get carried away as it is only May and there is a long way to go. I bet there are a lot of Orchard fans wishing that Monday was not a bank holiday so that they can get at their work colleagues to savour the win over the main rivals which is always sweet no matter when it comes. Throw-in the remarkable recovery by the Armagh minors and it is for opportunities like this that over 13,000 braved the weather and the counter attractions, true gaels.

The Armagh battle cry coming into this one must have been “Is Feidir Linn” long may it continue.

Armagh: P Hearty; A Mallon, B Donaghy, K Dyas (0-1); A Kernan (0-5), C McKeever, P Duffy; K Toner, C Vernon; T Kernan (0-1), BJ Padden (0-3), M Mackin (0-2); M O’Rourke, S McDonnell (0-1), J Clarke (1-2). Subs: B Mallon for O’Rourke (58), J Murtagh for Clarke (71).

Down: B McVeigh; D McCartan, D Gordon, B McArdle; D Rooney (0-1), K McKernan, G McCartan; P Fitzpatrick, K King; D Hughes (0-1), M Clarke (0-5), P McComiskey (0-2); J Clarke, B Coulter, M Poland (1-1). Subs: C Magin for J Clarke (23), R Murtagh for Coulter (53), A McArdle for Fitzpatrick (58), C Laverty for McComiskey (59), E McCartan for Poland.