Banner lowered as promotion beckons
● ALLIANZ NFL DIV 3 Clare 1-11 Armagh 3-11
Like in all of their previous four National Football League Division Three games Armagh have produced a mixed bag performance wise and their latest instalment at Cusack Park, Ennis proved no different but the important stat that matters at the end of the day is that the League table does not lie. Armagh are top of the table unbeaten in 5 starts with 4 wins and a draw and are only 2 points away from promotion with two games remaining. Clare undefeated in the League at home were vanquished by the short whistle as the Orchard raiders came from two points down to lead by 10 at half-time but as has been the norm for Armagh they have shown a weakness in producing for the 70 minutes. The Clare “Shout” could be clearly heard as the home side cut the deficit to two points in the first 10 minutes of the second half but 14 man Armagh held the Banner to just two more points for the remainder of the half as they tagged on a second half tally of 1-3 to run out 6 point victors.
Armagh showed four changes to the team which started the drawn game with Fermanagh team Captain Ciaran McKeever, goalkeeper Niall Geoghegan, Jamie Clarke and Andrew Murnin were the players omitted, replaced by Paddy Morrison between the sticks, Mark Shields, Caolan Rafferty, Eugene McVerry. Clare lost their freetaker and main forward David Tubridy to a hamstring injury.
It was the Banner who got off to the better start with Gary Brennan leading the forward charge resulting in the opening point of the game from the big midfielder. On six minutes Jamie Malone doubled the Clare lead but they were rocked a minute later as Ethan Rafferty fielded superbly before advancing towards goal and calmly slotting the ball past Clare keeper Joe Hayes. Rafferty’s major kick-started the Armagh challenge as they tagged on another 1-5 without reply. Armagh plugged their early defensive gaps caused by the off the ball running of the home attack. McVerry off loaded to Andy Mallon who hit his sides first point from 35 yards out. It was McVerry’s turn to benefit from good play by Forker to make it 1-2 to 0-2 ten minutes into the game. A Tony Kernan point from a placed ball was followed by a brace from Forker as the visitors took complete control as Kernan latched onto the ball following a collision between a couple of Clare defenders. Tony did not look the gift horse in the mouth as he raised the green flag 2-5 to 0-2 on 19 minutes. Jamie Malone stemmed the tide with a Clare point following a costly barren 16 minute spell. After Miceal McKenna added point number six Armagh were dealt a big blow when the influential Ethan Rafferty picked up a silly Black card and was replaced by Andrew Murnin who immediately marked his introduction with a point from his first touch. Burke, who had earlier saw a goal effort just drift wide of debutant Morisson’s post, was seeking a penalty on the half hour but his appeals were not heeded by referee Michael Collins who went back down the field to wield a few yellow cards as the third official held up two minutes of added time. McVerry and Brennan traded points in the run-up to the short whistle when sounded had Armagh 2-8 to 0-4 ahead.
The Orchard were well on top and looked to have lowered the banner by the interval being 10 points up and heading comfortably for another brace of precious promotion points. After all lightening does not strike twice and the 8 point lead that evaporated the week before against Fermanagh was just a blip. If Armagh could hit an unanswered 1-5 in the opening half the Banner followed suit in the opening 10 minutes of the second half as they stormed back into contention. The difference in the half-time” tay” was telling as the home side came out all guns blazing and Armagh just switched off and went to sleep. Shane McGrath, within seconds of the restart, had a Clare point, half back Cathal O’Connor a second and then a Brennan free took the home tally to 0-7. McGrath who was making an impact found Burke with the ball, the returned Clareman fell to the ground but between him and Shane Brennan they managed to scramble a Clare goal out of nothing. Sean Collins grabbed another Banner point to leave a goal between the teams. Armagh had barely moved into the home half of the field as things got worse as top defender Andy Mallon received a Black card and was replaced by Ciaron O’Hanlon. Malone added Clare’s ninth point and the big lead had been whittled down to a mere two points 2-8 to 1-9.
Critical last week of Armagh management’s use of substitutes disrupting the play this week their introduction of Stephen Harold and Jamie Clarke was pivotal in them getting back control of what was becoming a very dodgy situation as the possibility of defeat briefly surfaced. Harold opened the Armagh second half account on 12 minutes with a terrific point but that relieving score was followed by immediate despair for Orchard followers as Mickey Murray (doing a super man marking job on the elusive Podge Collins) picked up a second yellow and Armagh were down to 14 men and a goal to the good. Cathal O’Connor pointed for Clare but just like the previous substitution Clarke marked his Armagh entry gaining good possession and then pointed a free as Forker was replaced by Gavin McParland. Armagh seeing more play in the Clare half, were slowly quelling the Banner fire and a Tony Kernan free stretched the lead to four points 2-11 to 1-10 on the hour mark. Former hurler Cathal McInerney pointed a Clare free, their first score for 10 minutes as the clock showed 5 minutes to go. Clarke, ever dangerous since introduced, found Rangers clubmate Tony Kernan who duly dispatched his second goal of the game to seal victory for Armagh. The game finished with 3 more Black cards issued by Collins in a match that was niggling rather than dirty.
Armagh remain unbeaten in the League with two rounds of fixtures left, a home game with Louth on March 28 and an away trip to Sligo to follow, with a win in either game guaranteeing promotion to Division Two.
Allianz FL3 P W D L Dif Pts
Armagh 5 4 1 0 +28 9
Fermanagh 5 4 1 0 +24 9
Tipperary 5 3 0 2 +21 6
Sligo 5 2 0 3 +12 4
Clare 5 2 0 3 +2 4
Louth 5 2 0 3 -22 4
Wexford 5 1 0 4 -32 2
Limerick 5 1 0 4 -33 2