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Stunning Super 8 from Armagh

● Round 3 All-ireland Armagh 2-16 v Clare 1-15

Armagh produced a stunning super 8 last minutes of football to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat over Clare in sweltering heat at the Athletic Grounds to bring themselves to one match away from qualifying for the “Super 8” format introduced this year for the last 8 teams left in the race for the Sam Maguire.

Armagh looked to have literally paid the penalty for amassing an eighteen wides total when David Turbridy netted a penalty at the second time of asking after his initial effort was saved by Blaine Hughes to put Clare 1-15 to 1-11 ahead on 67 minutes, but to their credit the Orchard boys refused to wilt in the searing sun with elimination staring them in the face, Armagh, inspired by their 5 second half substitutes, with team captain Rory Grugan also to the fore, ran the Banner Boys ragged as they shot 1-5 without reply to completely turn the game on its head and book a place in Monday morning’s live draw against one of the Provincial Finalists losers.

As a crowd of over 5,000 basked and baked in glorious sunshine conditions for the players on the field must have been as tough as they would have ever experienced, with fitness levels going to be tested to the full. Armagh started with a prevalent opening half trend, a brace of wides before Clare’s go to man Jamie Malone opened the scoring from play. A foul on target man Andrew Murnin enabled Niall Grimley open the home account and was followed up by a brace from play from Grugan who then made it 4-1 with his third point from a free following another foul on Murnin, who would have been even more influential as the delivery of the ball to the Armagh inside line in the first half was very poor with a lot over-hit which helped bring the halves to 11 wides for the hosts to a half dozen for Clare.

With Clare midfield duo, skipper Gary Brennan and Cathal O’Connor beginning to dominate the visitors came at Armagh straight through the middle with telling consequences as they rattled off 5 unanswered points which began with one from half back Pearse Lillis followed by the entire full-forward line of Eimhin Courtney, Keelan Sexton and David Tubridy finding the target before a second point for Malone steered Clare into a 0-6 to 0-4 lead after 22 minutes. A Grimley converted free, following a foul on Forker ended a 12 minute barren scoring spell for Armagh with the speedy Ryan McShane restoring parity for the third time but it was short lived as Courtney pointed Clare back in front before Murnin got on the score sheet to level things at 7 all some 2 minutes before the short whistle. Just before the Murnin leveller, Armagh goalkeeper Blaine Hughes made an excellent diving save to prevent Malone’s ground shot from finding the corner of his net. Clare finished the half the stronger as Erin Bleary and a superb point from the impressive Malone gave the Banner a 9-7 half-time lead with all of the leaders 9 points coming from play.

It was plain to be seen that Armagh needed to shore up a defence that was as wide open as the mouth of the Shannon in the first half. Armagh management introduced Niall Rowland for midfielder Connaire Mackin as Clare replaced yellow carded corner-back Eoghan Collins with Kevin Harnett. Both substitutes made an instant impact at the start of the second half as they both were yellow carded in their first separate involvements in the play. From an Armagh point of view Rowland’s card signalled that Clare were not going to be given as much leeway in the second half and so it proved as Armagh closed up that defensive gap which had existed.

Three minutes into the second half Armagh veteran Charlie Vernon, who was very prominent opened the scoring as Ryan Owens replaced Aaron McKay in the Orchard defence. Lillis play and Cleary free both doubled their point totals as Clare forged 11-8 ahead when they lost towering goalkeeper Robert Eyres with a knee injury. Eyres was a late replacement for named starting keeper Eamon Tubridy and he in turn was replaced by Killian Roche. A second Armagh U-20 star Ross McQuillan joined Owens on the field of play as a replacement for Jemar Hall. A sublime point from Tubridy followed by one from midfielder O’Connor left 5 points between the teams 0-13 to 0-8. A Grimley free reduced the deficit as Joe McElroy replaced Stephen Sheridan as Armagh tried to gain a foothold in a game that was slipping away from them.

A very smart swivel and finish to the net by Murnin raised the home temperatures even higher with a quarter of an hour remaining as it was now a one point game. Clare, via a Tubridy point off a Brennan pass doubled their lead. It certainly looked that it was not going to be Armagh’s day as Grimley failed to convert a simple free in front of the posts and Clare came down the other end from the kick-out with Cleary leaving a green flag between the sides 0-15 to 1-9 with 10 minutes left on the clock. McQuillan, to Murnin, to Grugan a two point game suddenly reduced to the minimum as Grugan fired over. Clare roared back from the kick-out won by O’Connor whose long delivery into the square was misjudged by Owens who subsequently fouled Courtney for a penalty to Clare. Tubridy blasted his spot kick which was kept out by Hughes but the ball rebounded into the Clareman’s hands and he had the simple task to net for a 1-15 to 1-14 lead in the 67th-minute and the Banner name was hovering over the fourth round qualifier pot, waiting to drop.

Armagh heads were not for dropping either as they threw caution to the wind and a Grimley free left a goal between them. Substitute McElroy was the hero of the hour as he calmly slotted home the equalizing goal as Armagh went for the kill as they swarmed all over Clare who looked leg weary and shattered. With the bit between their teeth and their superior fitness coming to the fore points flowed from Grugan, McParland, McQuillan and Forker as the frenzied home support defied the heat to raise the roof in celebration of what was one of Armagh’s greatest ever comeback feats. It was a long long way back to Clare with plenty of time to reflect on one that they will feel certainly got away from them as they looked likely winners for long periods but two well timed Armagh goals certainly derailed their chances.

The under fire Armagh management and players from their opening 2018 Championship display against Fermanagh have certainly redeemed themselves with a gutsy ‘never say die’ attitude which saw them keep plugging away to gain the ultimate award, a place in the last 12 of the All-Ireland series. Armagh are far from the finished article but the unity and spirit displayed plus an improving disciplined defensive display (Clare only 1 point from a free) will be pleasing to the management team. Improved shooting (despite a 2-16 haul) for the next day out could land a second successive quarter-final appearance for the Orchard County regardless of which ever opponent the draw throws up.

ARMAGH: Blaine Hughes; Patrick Burns, Aaron McKay, Gregory McCabe; Mark Shields, Brendan Donaghy, Aidan Forker 0-1; Charlie Vernon 0-1, Connaire Mackin; Rory Grugan 0-6 (2fs), Jemar Hall, Niall Grimley 0-4 (4fs), Ryan McShane 0-1, Andrew Murnin 1-1, Stephen Sheridan

Subs: Niall Rowland for Mackin (HT), Ryan Owens for McKay (42), Ross McQuillan 0-1 for Hall (50), Joe McElroy 1-0 for Sheridan (55), Gavin McParland 0-1 for McShane (65), Jason Duffy for Shields (70, BC).

CLARE: Robert Eyres; Gordon Kelly, Cillian Brennan, Eoghan Collins; Cian O’Dea, Aaron Fitzgerald, Pearse Lillis 0-2; Gary Brennan, Cathal O’Connor 0-1; Ciaran Malone, Eoin Cleary 0-3 (1f), Jamie Malone 0-3; Eimhin Courtney 0-2, Keelan Sexton 0-1, David Tubridy 1-3.

Subs: Kevin Harnett for Collins (HT), Killian Roche for Eyres (50), Conal O hAinifein for O’Dea (57, BC), Gearoid O’Brien for Fitzgerald (63), Gavin Cooney for Sexton (65).

REFEREE: Fergal Kelly (Longford.