Armagh are down and out
● USFC Down 0-15 v Armagh 2-7
A hungrier more determined Down were left celebrating their first Ulster SFC victory in four years and their first over Armagh since 1992 after dominating the second half against favorites Armagh who had won the last 5 championship encounters between the near neighbors. At a sun drenched packed Pairc Esler it was the often much maligned Down manager Eamon Burns who won the tactical battle hands down and was able to restrict the much vaunted Armagh starting forward line to just two scores from play. Burns was also able to get his defence to blot out the opening half Armagh goal threat (2 scored, another half dozen squandered) to one half chance for Forker that flew into the side netting.
Armagh manager Kieran McGeeney will be left wondering how his team turned in such a poor performance. Down led 4-0 before Armagh opened their account on 13 minutes with a Mark Shields goal and a minute later his team were level as Aaron McKay pointed a second goal opportunity as he was very quickly closed down by goalkeeper Cunningham. On 22 minutes Cunningham was on hand to deny Campbell a goal but the ball broke to Andrew Murnin who scored Armagh’s second goal which gave them a 2-1 to 0-6 lead. Murnin was denied a second goal by a touch from defender Doherty which deflected his effort onto the post and then cleared to safety. Aidan Forker was the only Armagh forward to score a point in the opening half as defenders Mark Shields (1-0), Paul Hughes (0-1), Aaron McKay (0-1) and midfielder Stephen Sheridan (0-1) had added to Murnin’s goal to give Armagh a one point interval lead 2-4 to 0-9.
Similar to the start of the game, Down were quickest out of the blocks, had missed a pair of convertible frees before hitting four unanswered points per Darragh O’Hanlon (two), Caolan Mooney and Conor Maginn to take a 0-13 to 2-4 lead. Substitute Anto Duffy opened Armagh’s second half account a minute later than the first half score and it would be another 25 minutes before another substitute Gavin McParland pointed a free to cancel out a home score from full-forward Barry O’Hagan. Down, despite the loss of midfielder Niall Donnelly and a black card for debutante Anthony Doherty continued to dominate with Armagh’s first half playmaker Jamie Clarke restricted to a cameo role until the last seconds of the game. A clearly injured, struggling Kevin McKernan took one for the team by cynically taking down McPartland in front of the Down goal which led to a lot of pulling dragging and scuffling before McKernan was Black carded and 4 other players yellow carded. Armagh supporters will be wondering where this sudden ugly burst of manliness had come from after watching 70 minutes of seeing their team being bullied and harassed all over the field by the men in black and red.
Clarke fired the free high over the bar to reduce the deficit to two but once unsung hero, Down full-back Gerard McGovern not for the first time broke up Armagh’s last attack lenient Cork referee Barry Lane blew time to set the home support into raptures.
The opening half of the match was very open and entertaining as it was riddled with mistakes but as the second half progressed there was always only going to be one winner. The only cause for concern for the home team was that they left Armagh in with a chance right up to the final seconds.
Down head for an Ulster semi-final meeting with the winner of the Monaghan v Cavan match. Armagh head for the qualifiers as a means of redemption leaving their manager still seeking his maiden Ulster championship win. All the talk of Armagh doing a lot of gym work is certainly not reflecting on the team bulking up as Down bossed them from the off. When Down and the teams in Division Three in the league carried the ball at the heart of the Armagh defence they cut through them with ease. You cannot take a schoolyard football approach into the championship, there has to be a system in place that suits the players at your disposal. It’s been a while since Armagh have had a structured way of playing football to a system that suits their players. There are plenty of talented individuals coming through the system but no teamwork. Whilst the bottom line is that the “buck” stops with the manager there are a lot of Armagh players who for one reason or another let their boss down today in the “White heat “of championship battle. The facts, the facts you cannot dispute and they were certainly there for all to see.