Orchard bloom as Down get the door
ARMAGH 1-15 DOWN 1-10
AARON KERNAN wasn't long putting down a marker after Armagh sensationally ambushed last year's All-Ireland finalists on Saturday.
"This shouldn't be the end of it," he said after playing a key role in knocking Down off their pedestal.
"We weren't given much hope because we hadn't given anyone too much reason for optimism, but today should just be a stepping stone," he stressed. Despite competition from the Champions League final, this Ulster derby provided those in attendance with the sort of hard-fought tussle and shock result that the home fans had hoped for.
There were some precedents here. Down hadn't beaten the Orchard County in a championship match since 1992 and had lost their last four meetings. They'd only beaten Armagh by a point in this year's NFL and the fact that this was a homecoming -- the first Ulster SFC game in the revamped Morgan Athletic Grounds since 1995 -- certainly slid another ace up Armagh's sleeve.
Such factors were all liberally quoted by Down boss James McCartan afterwards, noting that his side were teed up for a kicking by being made such heavy pre-match favourites, despite such historical imperatives.
But they had been well forewarned and history doesn't win matches. The big surprise was how Down, after trailing by six and making such a gutsy comeback, couldn't kick on.
They scored only one point in the final 25 minutes and essentially lost this in the final quarter when Armagh looked much hungrier, fitter and more composed when the game was there for the taking.
The home side were far stronger in midfield throughout and had far more options up front than their recent single touchstone. Steven McDonnell actually had a bad game by his vaunted standards and was well marshalled by Dan Gordon and Benny McArdle.
But Armagh's attacking slack was impressively taken up by the likes of Aaron Kernan and Jamie Clarke who proved again that he is the natural inheritor of Oisin McConville's crown.
And Billy Joe Padden proved he's a particularly useful new addition, giving a lie to the theory that Mayomen can't shoot straight with 0-3 from play in his impressive championship debut for his adopted county.
Being so heavily written off beforehand undoubtedly played into Armagh's hands. As their manager Paddy O'Rourke noted: "They were an easy team to motivate and these players have shown before that they're real championship players.
"We played a lot of the league without a big group of players from Crossmaglen and you saw what they did for us today," he added.
But what can we make of Down?
They were on the back foot after just five minutes when Ciaran McKeever and Tony Kernan combined to put Clarke through to goal. And 15 minutes later they were still staggering after Armagh, unerring and relentless until McDonnell shot their first wide on 20 minutes, racked up 1-6 without reply.
But then Mark Poland, with an early contender for Goal of the Year, stopped the rot and helped Down go in just two points down (1-8 to 1-6) at half-time.
It could actually have been closer as Kevin McKernan and Martin Clarke wasted chances just before the interval, but crucially Down kept Armagh scoreless for a full 21 minutes and the sides were level, for a second time, within ten minutes of resumption.
Then came the game's turning point. Poland kicked a free wide off the post, Danny Hughes dropped a shot short, Peter Fitzpatrick wasted another chance and Benny Coulter, admittedly pushed in the back, was blocked going for a goal when he should have fisted one over.
After wasting four consecutive scoring chances, Down then lost Coulter to injury and Armagh immediately seized back the initiative. They then completely owned midfield thanks to the brilliant work-rate of Andy Mallon, Charlie Vernon, Kevin Dyas and Malachy Mackin.
Clarke, whose scoring threat was lessened once Gerard McCartan took over marking him from his cousin Daniel, then provided some great cross-pitch passes to allow Armagh rack up 0-5 to 0-1 in the final quarter to close out victory.
Armagh full-back Brendan Donaghy made a goal-saving intervention in the final minutes and Kalum King shot the follow-up wide, but the game had already gotten away from Down.
Martin Clarke tried valiantly throughout, but his free-taking wasn't perfect and the close attentions of Ciaran McKeever meant he never got to boss the game. Down's two other All Star forwards -- Danny Hughes and Coulter -- were heavily subdued by Mallon and Brendan Donaghy respectively and apart from Paul McComiskey and substitute Conor Maginn, few others were able to match Armagh's trademark work-rate.
Down may have made maximum use of the back-door in 2010, but, as a glum-looking James McCartan admitted: "Obviously this is not the way you want to go and it's going to take a few days to try and get your head around it again, even though the qualifiers were good to us last year."
Scorers -- Armagh: J Clarke 1-2, A Kernan 0-5 (3f), BJ Padden 0-3, M Mackin 0-2, K Dyas, T Kernan S McDonnell (f) 0-1 each. Down: M Clarke 0-5 (4f), M Poland 1-1, P McComiskey 0-2, D Rooney, D Hughes 0-1 each.
Armagh -- P Hearty 7; K Dyas 8, P Duffy 7, B Donaghy 8; A Kernan 9, C McKeever 7, A Mallon 8; K Toner 6, C Vernon 8; T Kernan 7, BJ Padden 8, M Mackin 8; M O'Rourke 6, S McDonnell 6 (capt), J Clarke 9. Subs: B Mallon 6 for O'Rourke (59), J Murtagh for J Clarke (72).
Down -- B McVeigh 7; D McCartan 5, D Gordon 8, B McArdle 6; D Rooney 6, K McKernan 5, G McCartan 7; P Fitzpatrick 6, K King 6; D Hughes 6, M Clarke 7, P McComiskey 7; J Clarke 5, B Coulter (Capt) 6, M Poland 7. Subs: C Maginn 8 for J Clarke (24), R Murtagh 6 for Coulter (inj, 54), A McArdle 5 for Fitzpatrick (59), C Laverty 5 for McComiskey (59), E McCartan for Poland (66).
Ref -- C Reilly (Meath).