Saturday 20 October 2018

Armagh's deliverance

Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Kernan leads faithful to promised land ARMAGH 1-12 ; KERRY 0-14 WHEN deliverance came, it was even more emotional than Armagh ever thought possible.

Over a century of disappointment and unfulfilled ambition disappeared into the evening sky as Croke Park was turned into an orange bowl, with fans swarming down from stand and terrace to join their heroes as Armagh captured the Bank of Ireland senior football title for the very first time. Tears flowed openly as supporters saluted the heroes who had provided the county with its greatest ever day.

Armagh became the 18th county the fifth from Ulster to win the All-Ireland title, following in the footsteps of Donegal and Derry who made the breakthrough inside the last decade.

The post-match scenes were reminiscent of 1992 and 1993 when Donegal and Derry reached the promised land, although Armagh would argue that given the depths from which they had to haul themselves, theirs was a greater achievement.

Many of the Kerry players sportingly remained on the pitch to watch Kieran McGeeney hoist the Sam Maguire Cup and while they were too numb to take it all in, manager, manager, Páidí Ó Sé may have spotted the ghosts of 1982 dancing in the background.

Seamus Darby's killer goal for Offaly 20 years ago came much later in the game than Oisin McConville's priceless 55th minute strike but there were other similarities which will leave Kerry feeling that the fates had decided all along they were due another heart-breaker.

As in 1982, Kerry were odds-on favourites and seemed to have built a solid platform for a 33rd All-Ireland title when they took a four point lead (0-11 to 0-7) to the dressing room at half-time.

Armagh really were looking up a steep slope, having played with the wind, lost John McEntee with concussion and missed a penalty.

The penalty miss appeared the most significant of all as it came just a minute before the break. McConville was hauled down by Declan O'Keeffe, who was left exposed by his defence, but to Armagh's dismay, McConville's poorly hit penalty was beaten away smartly by the 'keeper.

It was the worst possible end to a half for Armagh who had seen Kerry grow in efficiency and fluency after recovering from an early 0-3 to 0-1 deficit. With Darragh Ó Sé and Donal Daly winning most of the important ball at midfield and Michael Frank Russell, Dara Ó Cinnéide and Colm Copper running adventurous lines into exciting channels, Armagh were regularly stretched to the very edge of breaking point.

Kerry could have had a goal in the 25th minute but Russell's shot was deflected over the bar as Armagh grew increasingly desperate in defence.

Having scored 14 goals in their previous five championship games, it really did look like only a matter of time before Kerry increased their yield.

Armagh hung on in the hope that something would turn their way but their prospects looked grim as they headed in for the half-time break. They remained in the dressing room far longer than Kerry, who clearly couldn't wait to return for what they might have thought would be a second half demolition job.

As Armagh manager Joe Kernan sifted through some recovery options he would have emphasised the fact that his full-forward line of Steven McDonnell, Ronan Clarke and Diarmaid Marsden had done well off limited possession.

McDonnell found previously unspotted openings against Michael McCarthy, Clarke took up where he left off against Dublin while Marsden regained the menacing touch of a few years ago. Ultimately, the deadly trio would each contribute three points, which was a match-winning return against a Kerry side who gave a truly awful second half display.

Not even the most optimistic Armagh fan could have believed at half-time that a 1-5 return in the second half would be enough to steer the side to victory. That left Kerry with a target of 0-5 to win, a tally which they had notched confidently between the 20th and 25th minutes.

Even when Kerry kicked four wides in the opening ten minutes of the second half, their fans weren't unduly worried as they felt that, if required, an injection of power and poise would sort things out. However, Kerry seemed to switch off, while Armagh organised their survival powers into a strong, positive army.

McGeeney was the commanding officer and got powerful support from Paul McGrane and John Toal, who broke Kerry's midfield dominance, McConville, who showed his character by putting first half disappointments behind him, Aidan O'Rourke, sub Barry O'Hagan, plus the inventive full-forward line.

Still, when Ó Cinnéide steered a 53rd minute '45 over the bar to put Kerry 0-14 to 0-10 ahead, it really did look as if Armagh's growing momentum still wouldn't be enough to make up for the second quarter wipe-out.

Amazingly, Kerry failed to score again while Armagh, ignited by McConville's goal, raised their game to new heights. McConville's strike, which he largely crafted himself with some help from McGrane, was hugely significant, not just in cutting the margin to a single point but also in convincing Armagh that the prize was ready to be plucked if they pressed on.

They needed no second invitation and a point by Clarke in the 59th minute was followed by another from McDonnell in the 63rd minute to put them ahead for the first time since the 20th minute.

It seemed inconceivable that neither side would score again but as the tension soared to unbearable levels the climate became more suited to defenders.

Both sets of backs got in important tackles and blocks but the crucial advantage rested with Armagh who threw themselves into every exchange with passion and courage. It was as if they were inspired by the spirit of all the county's great players who had toiled in vain in their pursuit of All-Ireland glory over the years.

Still, when Eoin Brosnan got into a good scoring position in the 70th minute, Kerry seemed set for a reprieve but his shot drifted just left of the posts to complete a miserable second half in which they had scored a mere three points, one from play.

It seemed unthinkable that a Kerry attack which had hit 14-90 in their previous 390 minutes of football would be restricted to 0-3 in the final 35 minutes yesterday.

But then, perhaps they were the victims of a destiny which had decreed that Armagh's time had come.

Manager, Joe Kernan, who has now added county glory to the three All-Ireland club titles he presided over with Crossmaglen, always believed that to be the case and he was proved right in the most dramatic circumstances.

Nobody, least of all Kerry, will begrudge Armagh their long overdue All-Ireland title but the post-mortem will still continue for a long time as the Kingdom undertakes a forensic analysis of how they came to lose their first All-Ireland final from seven outings since 1982.

SCORERS Armagh: O McConville 1-2 (1f, 1 '45), S McDonnell, D Marsden, R Clarke 0-3 each, J McEntee 0-1. Kerry: D Ó Cinnéide 0-5 (3f, 1 '45), MF Russell 0-3, L Hassett, C Cooper 0-2, E Brosnan, E Fitzmaurice 0-1 each.

ARMAGH B Tierney 8; E McNulty 7, J McNulty 7, F Bellew 7; A O'Rourke 7, K McGeeney 9, A McCann 7; J Toal 8, P McGrane 8; P McKeever 5, J McEntee 7, O McConville 8; S McDonnell 9, R Clarke 9, D Marsden 9. Subs: B O'Hagan 8 for J McEntee (24), T McEntee 7 for McKeever (44).

Booked: E McNulty (30), A O'Rourke (37), P McGrane (47).

D O'Keeffe 9; M Ó Sé 5, S Moynihan 7, M McCarthy 6; T Ó Sé 7, E Fitzmaurice 8, J Sheehan 7; D Ó Sé 8, D Daly 7; S O'Sullivan 6, E Brosnan 7, L Hassett 7; MF Russell 8, D Ó Cinnéide 8, C Cooper 8. Subs: A MacGearailt 7 for O'Sullivan (48), T O'Sullivan 7 for M Ó Sé (57), J Crowley for Hassett (63), B O'Shea for Daly (72).

Booked: T Ó Sé (55), L Hassett (62).

REF J Bannon (Longford).

Attendance: 79,500

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