People involved in sport experience the highs and lows of the particular sport that they are involved in, as it goes with the territory. Armagh players, management and supporters at Brewster Park on Saturday night experienced a real low point as they crashed out of the Ulster championship 2018 on foot of a comprehensive 0-12 to 0-7 beating by their buoyant hosts Fermanagh who bossed the match from start to finish.
Outfought, out thought and tactically destroyed by Fermanagh’s game plan, warm weather acclimatized, Armagh froze on the night and completely fluffed their lines playing like a team that had been thrown together just before throw-in. The evidence of who benefitted most from their recent Allianz Division Three League final meeting in Croke Park which was won by Armagh was all too plain to be seen all over the pitch as Fermanagh comfortably dealt with, by what in large was as poor a championship performance by an Orchard County team for a long, long time.
No score from play for an hour of championship football and a return of just 7 points overall (5 frees) to match their total from their last visit to Brewster in the league which that time earned them a share of the league points on offer is abysmal. Tight pitch, defensive counter attacking side were what everyone knew for months that faced Armagh yet there was no semblance on or off the pitch as to how to deal with those issues as Fermanagh were tuned in to deal with Armagh’s kicking style game.
Fermanagh manager Rory Gallagher is recognized as a very good football coach who gets very animated and vocal on the sideline and his management style produced a totally different Fermanagh level of performance than that shown by the Ernsmen in losing to Armagh in the first round of championship qualifiers twelve months ago. Fermanagh were comfortable in possession and were in no hurry to part with the ball, they also had their sweeper system in place but it did not hinder them as an attacking force and nullified the direct route to Andrew Murnin.
Armagh manager Kieran McGeeney needed leaders on the pitch to get his transitional side over this tough opening championship hurdle but unfortunately on the night there were none to be found. The late withdrawal of team captain Rory Grugan, replaced by Ethan Rafferty might have been unsettling as the 46th minute introduction of the skipper sparked some life into his team’s performance as he ended up his team’s top scorer with 3 pointed frees.
Niall Grimley who got a red card early in the second half.
Ryan McShane also replaced Colm Watters from the selected 15 but Fermanagh were set up to deal with his pace which had caused them trouble in Croke Park when he was introduced in their last meeting.
Armagh management can point to the fact that they can only use the players that are currently available to them but there has to be something amiss when only 4 Senior teams – Armagh Harps, Maghery, Ballymacnab and Dromintee are represented on a starting Armagh championship team. There were 6 Senior Clubs and 9 Intermediate Clubs represented on the pitch starting against Fermanagh. No Pearse Og, Crossmaglen Rangers or St Patrick’s representatives nor any from Intermediate Football champions Killeavy. Is it a case that players cannot commit to the demands of inter-county football or is the Orchard commitment too demanding?
Armagh had the aid of a strong breeze in the opening half at Enniskillen and hit the first of a 15 wides total as Rafferty was wide of the mark. The opening incident of note followed immediately as Blaine Hughes brilliantly saved from Seamus Quigley after the ball had come back off the upright from his brother Sean’s point attempt. We were then treated to 6 points in an 8 minute spell as the games top scorer Seamus Quigley, in his first Ulster championship start, opened the scoring with the first of a 6 point haul. Declan McCusker doubled the lead before Mark Shields opened the Orchard account on 8 minutes. Another Fermanagh brace from Barry Mulrone and Ryan Jones stretched the lead to 4-1 as the visitors hit back with two from Ethan Rafferty, the first a free and the second from play following good work by McShane, a one point game after 16 minutes.
A misplaced Hughes over the sideline kick-out was punished as Ryan Jones doubled the lead with the hosts first score for 11 minutes. After notching their sixth wide Armagh were back within a score as Gavin McParland pointed a free following a foul on Murnin. Niall Rowland (unlucky not to start) replaced Crealey on the half hour but the last score of the half came from the boot of Quigley to give his team a 6-4 interval lead, with Armagh 7-6 ahead on the wides count.
An already miss-firing Armagh were dealt a severe blow two minutes after the restart as Niall Grimley picked up a Red card for a late head high collision with Sean Quigley. The Quigley brothers Seamus and Sean (one of 4 sets of brothers on the team) via a free and play stretched the Fermanagh lead to double scores 8-4 followed by the point of the game from defender Lee Cullen before Quigley grabbed his fourth of the match leaving it 10-4 on 47 minutes.
The introduction of the injured captain Grugan ignited Armagh’s 10 minute dominant spell as he converted two frees and set up chances for others which were spurned or wrong options taken (a feature of Armagh’s play throughout the game). Perhaps the most important point of the match arrived from the fist of Quigley as he bore down on goal but wisely decided to take his point to settle his wilting side after Armagh had applied the pressure. Seamus completed his scoring feat on 66 minutes with his sixth point to put six between them. In added time Grugan pointed his third free for the last score of the game just before he was issued with a black card for a late challenge on the goalkeeper.
The easier and traditional route to the “new Super 8’s” is no longer an option for Kieran McGeeney who is still seeking his first Ulster Championship win following four attempts. Kieran will be hoping that the qualifier route to the new format will be as successful as 12 months ago but on the evidence of Saturday night’s performance that looks a long way off at the minute. Still there is until June 9 to rectify things which is when the first round of qualifiers take place
ARMAGH: Blaine Hughes; Patrick Burns, Connaire Mackin, Aaron McKay; Charlie Vernon, Gregory McCabe, Aidan Forker; Brendan Donaghy, Niall Grimley; Ryan McShane, Mark Shields (0-1), Ben Crealey; Gavin McParland (0-1), Andrew Murnin, Ethan Rafferty (0-2).
Subs: Niall Rowland for Crealey (31), Joe McElroy for Mackin (44), Rory Grugan (0-3) for McParland (47), Jemar Hall for McShane (51), Eamon McGeown for Rafferty (61), Aaron Findon for Grugan (BC – 74).
FERMANAGH: Patrick Cadden; Kane Connor, Che Cullen, Michael Jones; Barry Mulrone (0-1), James McMahon, Lee Cullen (0-1); Eoin Donnelly, Ryan Jones (0-2); Paul McCusker, Declan McCusker (0-1), Aidan Breen; Sean Quigley (0-1), Conall Jones, Seamus Quigley (0-6).
Subs: Ciaran Corrigan for Sean Quigley (57), Daniel Teague for P McCusker (63), Eamonn Maguire for Breen (66), Cain McManus for Connor (72), Tom Clarke for C Jones (74).
REFEREE: Paddy Neilan (Roscommon).