Clarke goal lifts Armagh over line
In his report to the GAA's Annual Congress last month, Director General Paraic Duffy took issue with the now almost yearly criticism of the 'slow burn' start to the championships.
To emphasise his point he drew parallels with other drawn-out sporting competitions. The FA Cup doesn't exactly start with glitz and glamour either, nor does the rugby World Cup.
There was a chance, however, to pan those critics in Celtic Park yesterday.
Derry and Armagh began the day very much as Ulster championship winning hopefuls and their prominence in the All-Ireland betting suggested that any momentum could help build on promise successfully. The consensus was that this match had prospects.
Hope springs eternal, but it can also be quickly smothered and killed off without resuscitation, as it was here yesterday. Lights, camera and action for the 2010 championship, it most certainly was not as it descended into a free- fest -- 67 in all -- though not with the cynical undertone of last year's Celtic Park battle between Derry and Monaghan.
There were only 10,224 paying customers and into the bargain a driving cross-field wind and cold rain made life difficult for the players.
Referee Maurice Deegan's strict enforcement of the new hand-pass rule contributed to the absence of fluency.
Nothing, however, strangled them more than the defensive orientation both teams leaned towards throughout. The fear of losing was all too palpable, the absence of real expression all too acute. But then that's 'wonnin' football, as we are often reminded in these parts.
Another indication of the low-entertainment level was the digest of scores. Armagh posted three of their 10 points from play, Derry managed just two from seven. The spread of scorers from both teams was limited to just eight.
The Armagh captain Steven McDonnell would argue afterwards that whatever expressive tones were sounded came from orange shirts, but it was a case of splitting hairs.
Derry brought Sean Leo McGoldrick back to half-back to allow Gerard O'Kane sit in front of McDonnell from the start and Armagh consequently allowed Ciaran McKeever to do likewise with the Bradleys. From these positions the parameters were set and both sides advanced cautiously.
Derry were so pronounced, so predictable in their approach work that Armagh had time to filter as many men as they liked back to defend, often deploying 12 outfield players to cordon off the area behind their own '45' line.
It worked, impressively so, given the muted contribution of Paddy Bradley, who was on hand for Derry's goal, but found himself drifting into positions too deep for a predator of his ability.
Beside him brother Eoin had more latitude and was beginning to get the better of his marker Andy Mallon when he needlessly felled Aaron Kernan in the 54th minute to earn his second yellow card and instant dismissal.
Within a minute, young Jamie Clarke, only on the field a few minutes, had reached above Kevin McGuckin, perhaps with the help of a gentle nudge into McGuckin's back, to claim McDonnell's delivery and score Armagh's all-important goal for a 1-10 to 1-6 lead.
From that position Armagh, with numerical advantage, should have kicked on and won with style, something Armagh manager Paddy O'Rourke suggested afterwards could have happened.
But instead they retreated and relied on that well-organised defence to preserve them, which it did until referee Maurice Deegan adjudged that Finnian Moriarty caught Paddy Bradley in the head before he got the ball on 65 minutes and awarded a penalty.
So, the first 11-metre spot kick in championship football was handed to Derry captain O'Kane, a gilt-edged opportunity to throw Derry a lifeline they scarcely deserved. His shot, however, drew a great save from the much-maligned Paul Hearty and with that any prospect of a revival was gone.
Derry were a big disappointment, the biggest criticism being their pedestrian build-up to every attack. Could that apparent lack of urgency be taken as an absence of desire? They looked like a team that accepted their fate much too early and only the penalty reminded them that they were still in the frame.
The scars of five consecutive Ulster semi-final defeats to five different opponents has clearly taken its toll and the optimism surrounding Cassidy's appointment has evaporated for now.
Armagh do appear to be on the right road, but they won't be entirely satisfied with this performance.
Aaron Kernan worked well in defence, and attack when he had to, and McDonnell's cameo just before the break when he scored three points (two were from difficult frees into the wind) to cancel out Paddy Bradley's goal underlined his hunger. But to progress further they will need to distract future opponents with the presence of Ronan Clarke, who remained on the bench throughout.
They were thwarted early when Derry 'keeper Barry Gillis advanced promptly to deny Brian Mallon, and, given the direction of the wind, they were in prime position for much of the half until Mark Lynch's driving run lanced open their defence and Fergal Doherty's pass across the goalmouth was batted home by Bradley on the half-hour mark.
The response was quick and impressive, however, with McDonnell leading the charge as he eventually found space away from his double-guard patrol.
Charlie Vernon's move to midfield gave Armagh new momentum for the second half and with Lynch losing his way at the heart of the Derry attack Armagh looked much more likely.
Eoin Bradley's dismissal and Clarke's goal hardened their conviction in a two-minute spell should have sealed it.
But it still took the collective nerve of Kernan, Brendan Donaghy, Moriarty, Paul Duffy and Ciaran McKeever to steer them to dry land.
Scorers -- Armagh: S McDonnell 0-5 (0-4f), J Clarke 1-0, A Kernan 0-3 (0-2f), C Vernon, R Henderson 0-1 each. Derry: P Bradley 1-2 (0-2f), M Lynch 0-4 (3f), E Bradley 0-1.
Armagh -- P Hearty 8; F Moriarty 7, A Mallon 7, B Donaghy 7; P Duffy 8, C McKeever 7, C Vernon 8; K Toner 7, J Laverty 6; M Mackin 6, A Kernan 7, G Swift 6; B Mallon 5, S McDonnell 7, R Henderson 6. Subs: V Martin 6 for Lavery (34), J Clarke 7 for Henderson (49), K Dyas 5 for Swift (56), M McNamee for Mackin (71).
Derry -- B Gillis 7; K McGuckin 6, D McBride 6, B Og McAlary 7; S L McGoldrick 5, G O'Kane 6, B McGuigan 5; M Bateson 6, F Doherty 6; P Bradley 7, M Lynch 7, D Mullen 6; R Wilkinson 5, P Bradley 6, E Bradley 7. Subs: B McGoldrick 6 for McGuigan (24), J Kielt 5 for Wilkinson (50), M Craig for Bateson (59), J Diver for Doherty (64), E Muldoon for SL McGoldrick (70).
Ref -- M Deegan (Laois)