Saturday 16 December 2017

McBrearty's late point digs Donegal out of tight spot

Donegal 1-12 Armagh 1-11

Aaron Findon, Armagh, pushes Donegal team doctor Kevin Moran during an altercation in the first half
Aaron Findon, Armagh, pushes Donegal team doctor Kevin Moran during an altercation in the first half
Odhrán MacNiallais, Donegal, scores his side's first goal despite the attention of Aaron Findon, Armagh
Leo McLoone, Donegal, in action against Aidan Forker, Armagh

Damian Lawlor

IT was an ugly, boring slug-fest at the start but it turned out to be a decent game and although Donegal were nowhere near full throttle - and they won't get away with that again - they did just enough to get by Armagh and reach the All-Ireland semi-final.

And so an exciting finale to a game that failed to inspire for long stages.

There was no doubting that it was raw, intense and in a strange way compelling throughout but the first 20 minutes was like watching a wrestling match.

Armagh had two late chances to draw the game from placed balls but on a rainy night in Dublin they were just too far out of the excellent Tony Kernan's zone and no blame can be apportioned his way - he had a very good night otherwise.

There is no doubt now that Armagh have the makings of a fine young team. Players like Stefan Campbell and the two Kernans worked relentlessly last night, but they came up just a little short - kicking 10 wides didn't help them and they just lost their way in the middle third of the second half when they drifted a little.

Donegal kept their nerve but they have plenty to work on. They are in the last four but they looked leaden-footed at stages and their shooting was poor (15 wides). Much is made of the 16 or 17 players that Jim McGuinness likes to depend upon, but they brought on four subs last night and that helped them retain the sufficient tempo to cross the finish line.

Interestingly, Michael Murphy and Paddy McBrearty secured the crucial late scores to see them through - they were left up front for stages of this game but for much of it Murphy played right corner-back. Had he been left in the full-forward line for the entire 70 minutes maybe the game wouldn't have gone down to the wire. Coming into this game Armagh were clearly dependent on Tony Kernan and Jamie Clarke, who had scored 0-21 and 0-19 respectively in the 2014 championship.

Stefan Campbell, too, was in decent form with eight points from play and those three came in for extra attention from the Donegal defence. For long stages, though, Kernan was the best player in the park.

The opening stages of this game were dire, Donegal led 1-5 to 0-6 at the break but they looked flat for long stages of the half. Armagh were sharper but hit seven wides in the first half and so the sides were locked two points apiece after 20 minutes.

In fact, the greatest drama of the opening stages came when Eamon McGee, Kieran McGeeney and Paul Grimley were all involved in a shoving match. It got the crowd going, at least. Something had to.

Formation-wise, it was all very cautious. The sight of Michael Murphy and Jamie Clarke, two of most natural forwards in the game, being forced into continuous lung-bursting defensive runs instead of leading their attacks never ceases to disappoint.

Clarke was so wrecked after his defensive runs that he gave away two frees at the other end - both in scoring positions. Purists like him should be left in their natural habitat where they are most dangerous and beneficial to the team.

Anyway, once Donegal broke through and fired a fantastic goal through midfielder Odhrán MacNiallais in the 23rd minute, however, things finally started to open up. It was a lovely, left-footed finish from MacNiallais but Philip McEvoy will not be happy to have been beaten at his near post.

After that, Murphy went into full-forward and stayed there for a while. It gave his team-mates a target to aim for and over the next 15 minutes they sucked Armagh into four fouls which they converted.

Although they were edging ahead they didn't score their first point from play until the 31st minute. Armagh, although trailing, looked to have more zip when they attacked. It remained to be seen whether experience - or youth - would prevail in the second.

After 45 minutes, Donegal had inched three points clear; 1-8 to 0-8, with Tony Kernan hitting a class point for Armagh and Paddy McBrearty (after shooting three wides) nailing an equal thing of beauty moments later.

A series of substitutions were made as legs tired but 25 minutes to go it looked like the game was Donegal's. Aaron Kernan pulled one back with a class effort from his left foot - incredible to think that he had been left out of the team previously. But struggling to keep up their high-octane game, they went to the bench, took Kevin Dyas off and brought on Rory Grugan after 55 minutes.

Then a moment of magic. A raiding Armagh run down the right wing found Grugan, he fed Brian Mallon who centred for the on-running Campbell, a man with relentless energy. He palmed home Armagh's goal to put them a point up.

With excitement levels rising, Neil Gallagher, another who was enjoying magnificent spells at varying stages, replied with a great individual point.

With seven on the clock Michael Murray jinked, twisted and turned to find space and fire over a gem. It was tight and tense but the underdogs held the lead. At the other end Donegal hit their 10th wide of the half.

Michael Murphy finally notched his first point from play to level the scores and 20 seconds later McBrearty put them ahead again - two key forwards doing what they do best - scoring when it counted. In the space of a minute Donegal had gone from being one down to going one up.

Ultimately, that was enough.

Scorers - Donegal: M Murphy 0-5 (4f), O MacNiallais 1-1, C McFadden 0-2 (1f), P McBrearty 0-2 each, N Gallagher, N McGee 0-1 each. Armagh: T Kernan 0-4 (1f), A Kernan 0-2 (1f), S Campbell 1-1, A Mallon, K Carragher, A Forker 0-1 eachDonegal: P Durcan; E McGee, N McGee, F McGlynn; A Thompson, K Lacey, P McGrath; N Gallagher, O MacNiallais; C Toye, L McLoone, R McHugh; P McBrearty, M Murphy, C McFadden. Subs: R Kavanagh for C Toye (43), M McElhinney for L McLoone (55), D O'Connor for C McFadden (58), M O'Reilly for McBrearty (72)Armagh: P McEvoy; F Moriarty, C Vernon, A Mallon; M Shields, B Donaghy, A Kernan; S Harold, A Findon; A Forker, K Dyas, T Kernan; K Carragher, S Campbell, J Clarke. Subs: B Mallon for K Carragher (41), E Rafferty for A Findon (45), R Grugan for K Dyas (54), M Murray for A Forker (58), K Toner for S Harold (65)Referee: J McQuillan (Cavan)

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