Donegal show they care with dramatic fightback
Donegal 1-10 Armagh 0-11 Dr McKenna Cup
So much for Donegal not caring too much about this competition.
By the end of this second-round match in Armagh's Athletic Grounds, which they needed to win to preserve their interests in the competition, they had nine 2012 All-Ireland final starters on the field. Every one of them had their sleeves rolled up and bailing water from the decks.
Jim McGuinness has consistently spoken of getting game time into players coming back from injury to work them back to full fitness.
But deep into the fourth quarter they trailed to the home side by five points, 0-10 to 0-5, and were heading for a concerning fourth competitive defeat in five games, dating back to last year's Ulster final against Monaghan.
Whatever else was important the win was, and the reaction of their players in that final quarter to turn around the situation reflected that more than any words could ever disguise it.
Most of their primary players made important contributions. Colm McFadden got the goal on 62 minutes after an epic goalmouth scramble that saw him thwarted with three successive interventions, once by goalkeeper Philip McEvoy and then twice by Stefan Campbell on the Armagh goal line.
With Kieran Toner being lost to a knee injury in the midst of the same scramble, whatever momentum to see out the game was probably lost by Armagh in those frantic moments.
But there were other key pointers to Donegal's state of mind in the conclusion. Michael Murphy had quite a battle all day with makeshift full-back Charlie Vernon but eventually wrestled control with the equalising point (0-10 to 1-7) and then the lead from a sideline kick.
Karl Lacey's surge to help create Odran MacNiallais' insurance point after Robbie Tasker had pulled one back for Armagh was reminiscent of what he did at the end of the 2012 All-Ireland quarter-final against Kerry and certainly underlined his improving fitness after a most difficult 2013.
But what Donegal need most is decent back-up to cover for the effects of the attrition that clearly caught up with them last year.
The breadth of their choices, even by comparison to Armagh, is limited. MacNiallais fired over those two late points while Darach O'Connor was also on the mark, though he struggled in the conditions, but none of their other peripheral players made the desired impact.
"The bottom line is we came here to get a good workout. We got a good workout and we got the result. That's the big positive for me looking forward to the next couple of weeks. We've four or five men coming back into the fray again, men who haven't been in the jersey in a while," said McGuinness.
Neil Gallagher, Neil McGee and David Walsh were back in action for the first time this season while Lacey's only previous exposure was a brief show against Roscommon in a challenge match.
McGuinness suggested in Ballybofey after last year's relegation, courtesy of the final-round draw with Dublin, that Division 2 wasn't the worst place his team could be in 2014 and, given the shallow depth of his squad and the fragility of some of his players, he hasn't shifted much from that view.
"We're in Division 2 and that's the place we are. We have a lot of injuries who are not fit enough for high-intensity football but we want to integrate them between now and the end of the league. We want to bring them up to a level for the summer. Division 2 is a tough place to be."
Against a strong wind in the opening half, Donegal really struggled at midfield where Ethan Rafferty and James Lavery were much more productive for Armagh, especially on Dongeal kick-outs.
Four unanswered points before the break from highly impressive half-back Mark Shields, Oisin MacIomhair, Stefan Forker and Robbie Tasker gave Armagh a 0-7 to 0-3 interval lead which was a good reflection of their dominance.
Armagh, who introduced Jamie Clarke for the last 10 minutes just hours after he had got off a plane from Florida, where he had been on holiday with Crossmaglen Rangers, held their line throughout the third quarter, especially after Donegal had shaved two points off that half-time lead.
And when Shields carved open the Donegal defence once more to lay the foundation for a Eugene McVerry score, they had a healthy 0-10 to 0-5 lead on 51 minutes.
The level of commitment was best underlined by Finian Moriarty's wholeheartedness in pursuit of possession on 52 minutes, when he took man (MacNiallais) and ball in a shuddering collision with his opponent. Within minutes the ferocity of his effort had forced him off.
But Armagh boss Paul Grimley could still be very pleased with the grit shown by his players in such difficult conditions against a much more hardened team.
Vernon and Moriarty did well in opposition to Murphy and McFadden while Shields glided effortlessly across the ground at times. Tasker has always had a sublime touch but Campbell showed why he can offer something in the months ahead too.
"It shows you that the gap is not as mighty as some would say," suggested Grimley. "I was proud of the way we played, particularly in the second half. I can't fault them.
"They did everything to try to win the game. The commitment they showed in the last number of weeks in training came out in the second half.
"Whatever we do in training we could never replicate that last 35 minutes.
"It's a learning curve so hopefully it'll stand to us for when Donegal come back here again in three months' time. Hopefully we'll be better prepared."
Grimley acknowledged the goal had a more unsettling effect on Armagh than just the erosion of three points off their lead.
"I don't think that we really did get over it," he said. "Losing the two boys (Moriarty and Toner) on top of that was just another shot."
Scorers -- Donegal: C McFadden 1-1 (0-1f), M Murphy 0-4 (3fs), O MacNiallais 0-2, David Walsh, G McFadden, D O'Connor 0-1 each. Armagh: R Tasker 0-3, S Campbell, E Rafferty ( 1 '45') 0-2 each, O MacIomhair, M Shields, S Forker (f), E McVerry 0-1 each.
Donegal -- M Boyle; E McGee, Declan Walsh, E Doherty; L McLoone, K Lacey, T McKinley; R Kavanagh, M Smyth; O MacNiallais, D Molloy, F McGlynn; C McFadden, M Murphy, D O'Connor. Subs: David Walsh for Molloy (h-t), L Thompson for McKinley (h-t), N McGee for Doherty (h-t), N Gallagher for Smyth (48), G McFadden for Kavanagh (55), S McLoughlin for O'Connor (62).
Armagh -- P McEvoy; A Mallon, C Vernon, F Moriarty; M Shields, K Toner, C Rafferty; E Rafferty, J Lavery; O Mac Iomhair, K O'Rourke, S Campbell; R Tasker, S Forker, N McConville. Subs: E McVerry for O'Rourke (28), M McKenna for MacIomhair (45), P Hughes for Moriarty (55), J Clarke for Forker (59), G McCooey for Toner (65).
Ref -- E McHugh (Tyrone).