Experience wins out for Down
THE close to 6,000 attendance in Pairc Esler could have been forgiven if it all got a bit confusing in Newry yesterday, as despite the winter chill, there was plenty of cross-pollination between the two camps.
Former Down star Paddy O'Rourke wore the Armagh bainisteoir bib.
Another O'Rourke and Armagh All- Ireland winner, Aidan, acted as a Down selector, and on the field Conor Gough was making his senior inter-county debut for the Mourne men -- having lined out for the Armagh minors just six months ago.
There was the usual amount of experimentation associated with these early-season outings. Charlie Vernon spent the 70 minutes at full-back for Armagh and initially struggled on another regular midfielder, Kallum King, who had the run of the place. Ryan Brady was the main beneficiary of King's dominance, with his 1-1 tally in the first half coming directly from passes from the Bryansford man.
Down's man-for-all-seasons Dan Gordon impressed at wing-forward, perhaps chosen there to ease Gough's passage into inter-county football. Afterwards, though, manager James McCartan admitted that with no time-scale on Damien Rafferty's recovery, so Gordon could yet be deployed at full-back for 2012. Gordon has also regularly operated at full-forward and midfield for the Mourne men.
"That's a question I don't know the answer to," said McCartan. "Dan did very well today and caught a lot of ball. But we're not overloaded with corner-backs and a full-back. We had two backs on a yellow card and we had no-one in the squad to come on.
"So it might be just a game-to-game thing. Dan spent the last 10 minutes at full-back anyway -- he saw there was danger and he didn't need us to switch it, he read it and tidied up a few balls for us."
Brady's opening goal came after 15 minutes to put Down three points to the good -- a lead they never relinquished.
They looked the slicker side throughout and might have been further ahead but for some good goalkeeping by Niall Geoghan, but Armagh also let a number of gilt-edged chances slip by.
Stefan Campbell had the misfortune to hit both posts with successive free-kicks, and in the second half, Michael O'Rourke's placed-ball hit one post and bounced onto the crossbar before hitting the other post and eventually being cleared by Down.
It was a sign of Armagh's problems that they called for Ciaran McKeever as early as the 24th minute, but by the time the impressive Marcus Miskelly kicked his second point of the day, the home side took a five-point lead in at the break, 1-7 to 0-5.
The second half went along similar lines, with Down on top in most areas.
Liam Doyle made a good fist of the left-footed free-taking duties following Martin Clarke's departure to Australia, while Danny Hughes took over the An Riocht man's role as conductor-in-chief and was probably the game's most influential player.
Armagh's youngsters grew visibly heavy-legged as the game wore on and substitute Conor Laverty took full advantage, helping himself to the game's second goal as well as a point as Down eased to victory, with Paddy O'Rourke acknowledging afterwards that he had asked a lot of his young players.
"Down had probably more seasoned players," he said. "We tried nine fellas that haven't played much football at this level and some of them came up a bit short, but it was probably a bit unfair to put so many of them in at once.
"Maybe that's something that we shouldn't have done. But it was still a good workout. It's not something we'll get too worried about yet. We have a lot of players that will come back in over the next couple of days."
Ronan Clarke continues his battle for fitness but Armagh hope he could feature in the league, while Steven McDonnell isn't expected to return until after the birth of his child, due in March.
"Stevie won't play until after the child is born and we are happy enough with that," said O'Rourke.
"It makes other fellas stand up and maybe grow up a wee bit. Stevie is not going to be about forever. I'm confident that he will be back at the right end of the season and that's all we are really concerned about at this time."
SCORERS -- Down: R Brady, C Laverty 1-1 each, M Miskelly 0-3, A Carr, L Doyle (2f) 0-2 each, D Gordon, D Hughes, B Coulter 0-1 each. Armagh: M O'Rourke 0-3 (2f), B Mallon, BJ Padden 0-2 each, A Forker, S Campbell, R Rafferty 0-1.
Down -- B McVeigh; N Brannigan, D McCartan, D Turley; D McKibben, L Doyle, K Quinn; P Turley, C Gough; D Hughes, A Carr, D Gordon; M Miskelly, K King, R Brady. Subs: A Brannigan for McKibben (h-t), C Laverty for Brady (52), K Duffin for Doyle (52), B Coulter for Gough (60), A McConville for Hughes (63 ).
Armagh -- N Geoghan; A Conlon, C Vernon, D McKenna; D Lavery, A Mallon, M Shields; A Duffy, E McDonnell; A Forker, B Mallon, M O'Rourke; S Campbell, BJ Padden, E McVerry. Subs: J Kingham for Conlon (22), C McKeever for Shields (24), R Rafferty for McDonnell (h-t), P Gribben for Forker (53), S Moore for McKenna (63).
Ref -- M Sludden (Tyrone)