Thursday 27 June 2019

Kieran McGeeney finally ends Ulster championship drought as Armagh squeeze past Down in extra time thriller

Armagh 2-17 Down 3-13 (After extra time)

Last Sunday's game between Down and Armagh came as a pleasant surprise
Last Sunday's game between Down and Armagh came as a pleasant surprise
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Kieran McGeeney was made to sweat for his first ever Ulster Championship win as manager but Armagh got there in the end after an absorbing quarter-final battle against Down in Newry.

The home side, reduced to 14 men for the second half after Caolan Mooney's red card, looked dead and buried in normal time until a late rally forced extra-time.

Back to 15 players, they forged three points clear before eventually, Armagh recovered momentum, inspired by substitute Andrew Murnin, who hit 1-1 in quick succession within five minutes of coming on at half-time in extra-time.

For the second time Armagh had put themselves in a strong position, four points clear, but once more they stuttered, allowing a speculative delivery from Paul Devlin, which slipped through Jarlath Og Burns hands, to find its way to the net to narrow the gap the minimum once more at the death.

McGeeney was seeking his first Ulster Championship win as manager, having lost quarter-finals to Cavan, Donegal, Down and Fermanagh in successive years.

The sides were level four times in a cautious opening half but Down had some daylight when Pat Havern got a deft touch on a Gerard Collins delivery in the 22nd minute for a goal to give them a 1-4 to 0-5 lead.

Both sides threw big numbers into defence and sought to break quickly but at times in the opening half there was stalemate, disengaging many of the 15,112 crowd.

When Armagh did get early ball into their full-forward line they looked dangerous, Riain O'Neill, on his championship debut, posting three points from play and Jamie Clarke squeezing over two.

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But they couldn't build on that momentum with frees dropping short and other opportunities spurned as Down's defensive ramparts, once they adjusted to the O'Neill threat, held firm.

At the other end the home side profited from direct ball too, first Connaire Harrison taking down a Kevin McKernan delivery to turn neatly and point before that goal.

Down were dealt a blow however when Mooney, whose pace had the capacity to open the Armagh defence, was sent off for an apparent head-high challenge on Armagh newcomer, Aidan Nugent.

From the free O'Neill added a fourth point ensuring all seven in the opening half were sourced in Crossmaglen. James Morgan, who replaced the injured Patrick Burns early on, was also on the mark.

Armagh looked set for the semi-final when, in a blistering five-minute spell midway through the second half, they went from one point down to five clear, points from an O'Neill free from 45 metres, Ryan Kennedy and substitute Stefan Campbell split by a Mark Shields goal on 54 minutes.

In between, Down lost goalkeeper Rory Burns to a black card after he took down Jemar Hall who had turned him over.

With an extra man, it was a matter of Armagh controlling it from here but they managed just one more point from another O'Neill free as Down threw everything into a salvage mission.

They were getting nowhere for a long time but the impact from their bench was felt, first when Cory Quinn, picking up a break from another long McKernan delivery, twisted and turned his way into a good position to offload to Donal O'Hare, who scored from a tight angle to reduce the gap to two points, and then from equalising points from Paul Devlin (free) and James Guinness, two further substitutes.

Armagh had chances to get ahead deep into injury-time but Clarke and Campbell spurned them, forcing a gripping two periods of extra-time that earned Armagh a first Ulster semi-final since 2014.

Scorers - Armagh: R O'Neill 0-8 (4fs), A Murnin 1-1, M Shields 1-0, R Kennedy, J Clarke, S Campbell 0-2 each, A Nugent, J Morgan 0-1 each.

Down: D O'Hare (0-2fs), P Devlin (0-2fs) 1-2 each, P Havern 1-1, J Guinness, R Johnston 1f) 0-2 each, B O'Hagan, C Francis, C Harrison, C Poland all 0-1 each.

Armagh: B Hughes; P Burns, A McKay, R Kennedy; A Forker, B Donaghy, P Hughes; C Vernon, J Og Burns; J Hall, R Grugan, A Nugent; J Clarke, R O'Neill, E Rafferty. Subs:  J Morgan for P Burns inj (7), M Shields for Vernon (30), J McElroy for P Hughes (44), S Campbell for Rafferty (46), S Sheridan for Kennedy (65), G McCabe for Hall BC (67), R Kennedy and C Vernon replaced Nugent and Forker at the end of normal time, B Crealey for Sheridan inj (76), A Murnin for McCabe (h-t, e-t), E Rafferty for Grugan (87).

Down: R Burns; D Guinness, R Wells, G Collins; K McKernan, D O'Hagan, R McAleenan; C Mooney, C Poland; C Francis, C Maginn, P Havern; J Johnston, C Harrison, D O'Hare. Subs: J Guinness for Wells (25), O McCabe for Poland (44), B O'Hagan for Maginn (48), M Hynes for Burns BC 51), C Quinn for Havern (61), P Devlin for Johnston (61), R Mallon replaced Mooney at the end of normal time, C Francis for J Guinness (83), P Havern for Mallon (86), J Johnston for O'Hare (89).

Referee: A Nolan (Wicklow).

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