● USF Championship Armagh 0-8 Donegal 2-11
Midway through the second half of this lopsided Ulster Championship clash at the Athletic Grounds I actually felt sorry for the Armagh players who were doggedly defending a 9 point deficit as Donegal played keep ball having put the outcome of the game put to rest before the short whistle. The gulf between the beaten All-Ireland finalists and reigning Ulster champions Donegal and newly crowned Division Three champions Armagh was there for all to see. Months of training, hard graft, selfless dedication to build up for this quarter final was dashed inside 3 minutes through Paddy McBrearty’s early goal which helped the champions establish a 1-9 to 0-2 half-time lead.
Kieran McGeeney and his players had a totally off day at the office, totally outgunned by a Donegal side with an established set way of playing the game, their style imposed at will on a home side that were left looking bereft of ideas and clueless in being able to get round the champions style of play.
Armagh actually outscore Donegal 0-6 to 1-2 in the second half and saw an early second half goal attempt come back off the upright and a terrific save from Paul Durcan deny them the goal they badly needed to give themselves a boost to try and claw their way back and make a contest of this one-sided affair.
Whilst the Donegal style of play may not be everyone’s cup of tea they have it off to perfection, apply plenty of pressure on the ball in the third quarter of the field with a huge degree of self-control, confidence, comfort on the ball and discipline. The game was 46 minutes old when Armagh were awarded their first scoreable free which was converted by Ethan Rafferty. The manner of this defeat will be very demoralising for Armagh but their spirits will have to be lifted for Saturday week when they entertain Wicklow who were beaten by Meath 2-19 to 3-12.
Both managers made changes to their selected teams as Finnian Moriarty replaced Michael Murray, Stefan Campbell came in for Mark Shields and Andrew Murnin in for Kevin Dyas on the home team as Donegal took in Mark McHugh for Anthony Thompson and Colm McFadden was replaced by Martin O’Reilly as a packed house drenched in sunshine waited in anticipation for what had been billed as a possible “physical confrontation” that would keep the man in the middle Meath Referee David Coldrick very busy.
Three minutes in, McBrearty gathered a long punt from Neil Gallagher over the head of marker James Morgan but his goal attempt was saved by surprise number one choice for Armagh Matthew McNeice but the Tir Chonaill player slid the loose ball into the net for the game’s opening score. The goal galvanised Donegal who took complete control as points from Neil Gallagher, Martin McElhinney and Murphy stretched their lead out to 1-3 to no score after 12 minutes and they threw in a few wides for good measure. Aaron Findon’s fisted over an Ethan Rafferty delivery to get Armagh on the scoreboard after 13 minutes but it was only a little respite as Donegal piled on the pressure. In the next 12 minutes Odhran McNiallais scored two, Murphy from 55metre free with McBrearty putting the visitors 1-7 to 0-1 ahead after 25 minutes.
Tony Kernan had slipped a few good deliveries to his inside forwards doubled Armagh’s tally on 26 minutes only for Karl Lacey to reply with a point leaving Murphy to close the first-half scoring with a magnificent free from the ground from close to the halfway line. Armagh had replaced Miceal McKenna and Finnian Moriarty on the half hour with Mickey Murray and Kevin Dyas.
Armagh who had spilled a lot of ball and got dispossessed very easily in the opening half would have to improve after the break? Would Donegal sit back and defend their huge 10 point lead? These were the interval thoughts filtering through the heads of a shell-shocked audience of both sets of supporters. Armagh supporters could not believe what they were seeing with Donegal bemused as to just how easy it all had been.
Anthony Thompson replaced Eamon Magee in the Donegal defence for the second half. Clarke who was forced to come deep to get his hand on the ball took off on a jinking run on the restart of the second half. In front of goals his half hit shot had beaten the keeper but hit the butt of the upright with Stefan Campbell firing the loose ball into the side netting. Donegal were sitting back taking it all in their stride, playing keep ball at every opportunity. Ciaran McKeever opened the second half scoring. Two minutes later Murphy as he did all day pushed through the Armagh defence found McGlynn who was coming off his shoulder and with the ball breaking free McGlynn hit it forward to an unmarked Martin O’Reilly who raced clear of the defence rounded the advancing keeper to put the final nail in the Armagh coffin as the raised green flag made it 2-9 to 0-3.
From O’Reilly’s goal to the final whistle Donegal just went through the motions frustrating home support with the cross field backward passing as they retained possession. Armagh plugged away with Caolan and Ethan Rafferty points a brace for Tony Kernan sandwiched in between was a pointed Murphy free. James Morgan landed an Armagh point but Odhran MacNiallais had the last say as he kicked Donegal’s only second-half point from play in injury time.
Champions Donegal go forward to a semi-final date with Derry, Armagh as already mentioned have got Wicklow in the qualifiers. The most disappointing aspect of the Donegal defeat is that there was never at any stage an indication that Armagh had devised any style of play to counteract the type of game everyone in the street knew that Donegal would take to the Athletic Grounds. The match was between a team with a well defined method of play which was disclosed in the same grounds by their minors over a week ago, yet from what was witnessed on Sunday it looked as if nobody had seen how Donegal play. True they are very hard to break down and play against but on the day for whatever reasons Armagh was totally flat never getting in a telling blow. No score from your full forward line, no score from your leading marksman tells of the dominance of the visitors. It is back to the drawing board for Armagh with the first reality to be grasped is that there is a long hard road of rebuilding to be done and the previous heady days for the County are but distant memories. Armagh have spent the last few years on a downward spiral with no one addressing the basic need of a team the ability to devise a way of playing that gets your marquee players on the ball in the right positions. Armagh minors, U-21’s and Seniors have loads of talent ability and dedication direction and a style of play is what is needed. Armagh are now where Donegal were when they left Crossmaglen in 2009.
Armagh: M McNeice; F Moriarty, C Vernon, A Mallon; J Morgan (0-1), C McKeever (0-1), C Rafferty (0-1); A Findon (0-1), E Rafferty (0-1, f); T Kernan (0-3, 1f), M McKenna, A Forker; A Murnin, S Campbell J Clarke.
Subs: M Murray for McKenna (28), K Dyas for Moriarty (30), C O’Hanlon for E Rafferty (49), B Donaghy for A Forker (56), E McVerry for Murnin (67), S Harold for Findon (BC, 69)
Donegal: P Durcan; P McGrath, N McGee, E McGee; M McHugh, K Lacey (0-1), F McGlynn; N Gallagher (0-1), O MacNiallais (0-2); C Toye, M McElhinney (0-1), R McHugh; P McBrearty (1-1), M Murphy (0-5, 4f), M O’Reilly (1-0).
Subs: A Thompson for E McGee (HT), H McFadden for McBrearty (50), D Walsh for Toye (56), G McFadden for McElhinney (65)
Referee: David Coldrick (Meath)