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Armagh send Down into qualifiers

Armagh shocked last year's beaten All-Ireland finalists Down as the Ulster Football Championship finally burst into life last night.

The Mourne men were sent hurtling into the qualifiers, while Armagh booked a semi-final clash with Derry with a passionate performance that has renewed hope among their fans that they could be on their way back as a major force.

The first championship game played at the Athletic Grounds since 1995 attracted a decent crowd of 13,107, despite its clash with the Champions League final. Jamie Clarke stunned the Mourne men with a fifth-minute goal, finished with wonderful composure, after Tony Kernan had collected Ciaran McKeever's long delivery and slipped the ball neatly inside.

Down had started brightly with converted frees by Mark Poland and Marty Clarke, but it was Armagh who were now bossing a lively contest.

With Charlie Vernon getting through an immense amount of work in midfield, and Clarke a constant threat up front, they stretched their lead with points from corner-back Kevin Dyas, Steven McDonnell, Billy Joe Padden and two from wing-back Aaron Kernan.

Down struggled to break down an Armagh defence in which Brendan Donaghy, Kevin Dyas and Paul Duffy were excellent, but in the 22nd minute, a piece of Mark Poland magic did the trick.

He jinked his way past three defenders to slot home a wonderful goal, but Armagh responded with two points, from Malachy Mackin and Padden, to go five clear. Down finished the first half strongly with two points from Clarke and Paul McComiskey, to go in at the break trailing by 1-8 to 1-6.

But they were level within two minutes of the restart, Clarke and McComiskey both firing over stylish scores, and they were back in front in the 45th minute when Clarke majestically curled a free through the posts from just inside the sideline.

Armagh had just gone back in front through Jamie Clarke when Benny Coulter's ambitious attempt from a tight angle was kept out by Paul Hearty.

Danny Hughes broke free to shoot a superb long-range score, but Kernan quickly restored Armagh's two-point advantage. The ferocity of Armagh's tackling and chasing never waned, however, with Vernon stepping it up at a crucial stage

And they finished with a flourish, blowing Down's challenge away with a rash of late points. Kernan brought his tally to six with a marvellous effort from play, while Padden hooked over his third as the Mourne men wilted.

Scorers -- Armagh: J Clarke 1-2, A Kernan 0-5 (3f), BJ Padden 0-3, M Mackin 0-2, S McDonnell (f), T Kernan, K Dyas 0-1 each. Down: M Poland 1-1, M Clarke 0-5 (4f), P McComiskey 0-2, D Rooney, D Hughes 0-1 each

Armagh: P Hearty; A Mallon, B Donaghy, K Dyas; A Kernan, C McKeever, P Duffy; K Toner, C Vernon; T Kernan, BJ Padden, M Mackin; M O'Rourke, S McDonnell, J Clarke. Subs: B Mallon for O'Rourke (58), J Murtagh for Clarke (71)

Down: B McVeigh; D McCartan, D Gordon, B McArdle; D Rooney, K McKernan, G McCartan; P Fitzpatrick, K King; D Hughes, M Clarke, P McComiskey; J Clarke, B Coulter, M Poland. Subs: C Magin for J Clarke (23), R Murtagh for Coulter (53), A McArdle for Fitzpatrick (58), C Laverty for McComiskey (59), E McCartan for Poland

Referee: C Reilly (Meath)

Sunday Indo Sport