McDonnell proves class is ageless in Armagh triumph
DIVISION 2 FINAL
MUCH has been made about the profile and regeneration of the Down and Armagh teams over the last few months. They’re both young, ambitious and being constructed with an eye to the long-term future.
Yet for all the prosperity and youthful exuberance that exists between these rivals, it was the most experienced and decorated player on the field who ultimately separated them.
Steven McDonnell is simply too long winning big games for Armagh at Croke Park not to have a subtle feel for the place. He took the game by the horns right from the off, measuring the flight of James Lavery’s free from the throwin to perfection, turning and arrowing over the opening point off his left foot just 13 seconds in.
This final was always mapped for McDonnell’s instinctive predatory talents. He finished with six points, four of which had the hallmarks of some of his greatest days here.
Down may have unveiled an impressive new defensive system during the group stages of the league that made them the meanest in all four divisions, but put them in Croke Park against a player of McDonnell’s class and the true depth of their progress can be measured much more accurately.
In that respect, James McCartan will have to revisit the drawing board. How much their unfamiliarity as a team with Croke Park – by comparison to quite a few of the Armagh players – told is difficult to assess. But this was only their third senior match at headquarters since the 1994 All-Ireland final, all three ending in defeat.
Of course there was more to McDonnell that just sublime finishing. There was the constant threat he provided, the preoccupation the Down defenders had of his movements.
When Armagh were tearing themselves apart over a replacement for Peter McDonnell, Steven McDonnell who was one of those brave enough to make the leap of faith across the border into Down and support the case for Paddy O’Rourke. He played here as if he had part ownership of that decision.
As they stepped up the pace in the last quarter the impact of all three substitutes – Malachy Mackin, Stefan Forker and Jamie Clarke – was wholly evident. But it was McDonnell – nonplussed by the absence of his old sidekick Ronan Clarke once again after suffering a recurrence of his troublesome heel injury – who pulled all the strings.
“He’s in better physical condition now and I must give that credit to Mike McGurn,” acknowledged O’Rourke afterwards. “He’s looked carefully at Stevie’s training. He might not always be asked to do what a 20-year-old is doing but we tried to keep him fresh and get him ready for games.”
McDonnell’s class apart, it was an eminently enjoyable game, full of vigour and hard graft, great movement and scores with both sides excelling into the execution of the tackle.
By comparison to the showpiece Division 1 final it was much more intense. The law of the jungle applied throughout. A player who found himself in isolation was highly vulnerable. Space was at an absolute premium and the number of turnovers was consequently very high. In any audit the conclusion would have to be drawn that Armagh were more dominant physically.
“Some of our guys were getting personal attention they are going to get in the Ulster championship. They are going have to get used to it,” admitted Down manager James McCartan afterwards.
“They didn’t like it today, some of them, but if we are going to survive at this level we must get over that.” It wasn’t until that last quarter that it opened up in any way and Armagh found the openings. There were a couple of ‘bottom lines’ that applied to this final and they were weighted ever so slightly in Armagh’s favour.
First was revenge. They had lost the group game in Newry quite easily (1-13 to 1-6) so their natural instinct would have to been to seek redress.
Second was the more recent historical element to it. Armagh have operated at a different level to Down for the last decade but their paths have rarely crossed. When they have, Armagh have had the edge. Thus they carry a superiority complex when it comes to Down football these days.
It was evident in the brisk start they made to this final, McDonnell’s point quickly followed up by an Aaron Kernan free and a McDonnell ’45 to frank their dominance. Gradually Down found a way into the game, adjusting to the settings of an environment they aren’t used to.
Kaolan King had a decent spell at midfield, Martin Clarke linked the play well and kicked his frees even better and Daniel Hughes and Paul McCumiskey threatened without ever really penetrating.
Armagh’s defence was resolute. Ciaran McKeever stepped back from the half-back line and played a sweeper’s role effectively, Andy Mallon and the ever-improving Brendan Donaghy were on top of everything behind him.
Still Down did manage to steal ahead as the break approached, Hughes landing an equaliser for 0-6 each before providing McCumiskey with the lead point on 32 minutes. But McDonnell wiped out the advantage in a sublime minute of extra-time action with two glorious points to send his side in 0-8 to 0-7 ahead.
For most of the second half, Armagh’s movement and understanding just had more to it. McDonnell’s fourth point from play on 43 minutes underlined that, with McKeever, Kieran Toner and Ryan Henderson stringing together the build up. Down’s response was a goal out of nothing from Benny Coulter, who met the flight of a probing Clarke ’45 with enough perfection and timing in the square to convince the umpires that it was legitimate.
But the advantage accrued from that, a 1-8 to 0-10 lead, was short-lived. Coulter would give them an advantage again later on with a point on 56 minutes but when McDonnell and Kernan exchanged to set up Stefan Forker for an impressive equaliser on 59 minutes they got a ‘bounce’ from it.
Mackin blazed through for two more points and earned a free for Kernan in a productive six minutes that had Down scrambling for a goal off a break from Dan Gordon. Their structure had disintegrated and to compound matters Daniel McCartan was red-carded at the end for an alleged stamp on Kernan.
SCORERS – Armagh: S McDonnell 0-6 (1f, 1 45), A Kernan 0-4 (4f), M Mackin, G Swift 0-2 each, S Forker, P Duffy, F Moriarty 0-1 each. Down: B Coulter 1-2, M Clarke 0-5 (5f), P Fitzpatrick, P McCumiskey, D Hughes, C Garvey, K King 0-1 each.
ARMAGH–P Hearty 6; A Mallon 7, B Donaghy 7, B Shannon 6; P Duffy 7, F Moriarty 7, C McKeever 8; J Lavery 6, K Toner 7; C Vernon 6, A Kernan 7, G Swift 7; B Mallon 5, R Henderson 5, S McDonnell 9. Subs: J Clarke 7 for Mallon (50), M Mackin 8 for Lavery (52), S Forker 7 for Henderson (56).
DOWN – B McVeigh 7; D McCartan 6, B McArdle 6, A Brannigan 6; K McKernan 6, J Colgan 6, C Garvey 7; P Fitzpatrick 6, K King 7;SKeraney5,MClarke7,DHughes7;PMcCumiskey6,JClarke 5, B Coulter 7. Subs: C McGinn 5 for Kearney, C Laverty 6 for J Clarke, D Gordon 5 for Fitzpatrick (47), R Murtagh for McCumiskey (65), K Duffin for McKernan (70).
REF – G O Conamha (Roscommon).