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Murtagh keeps Down graph on upward curve

THE league doesn't matter? Try telling that to a downcast Steven McDonnell of Armagh or relieved Down manager James McCartan after a pulsating clash at Newry's Pairc Esler on Saturday night.

One point separated the sides at the end. Both teams created plenty of chances. Down hit the upright three times, but ultimately it's onward and upward for unbeaten Down -- two wins and a draw -- and some straight talking for Armagh.

"We had opportunities in the second half and I think it was almost 25 minutes we went without a score, so when you do that you certainly don't deserve to win any match," said McDonnell.

"I'm disappointed. Personally, of the three games so far, that was my worst outing. I'll have to look at myself and see how I can improve.

"But it's the same across the board. I think we all have to improve if we're to make the step up in Division 1. Certainly that type of football out there wasn't good enough."

Honest and straightforward comments from the Armagh player, and there was more of the same from McCartan.

"It was a strange sort of a game. I thought we were doing our best to lose it. We seem to have turned it around from the Mayo game, when we were living on 30 or 40pc of possession. Now we seem to be creating loads of chances and squandering them," he said.

McDonnell was being a bit hard on himself. His team-mates did their best to get him into space and he did much good work fetching, carrying, and doing all he could to create shooting chances.

But Dan Gordon at full-back was immense in shadowing McDonnell and hurled his body into three crunching blocks in the second half to deny goal chances for Finian Moriarty and two by McDonnell.

Down began without All Star full- forward Benny Coulter, who has a niggling hamstring injury. His replacement Ronan Murtagh had a fine game, scoring two points, and utilising his pace and determination to give Armagh problems.

Down also had a blow when 'keeper Brendan McVeigh suffered a knee medial ligament as he fell awkwardly when contesting for the ball with McDonnell after half an hour.

Substitute 'keeper Cathal Murdock did well, particularly when he got a vital touch to deny Rory Grogan in a one-on-one in the 66th minute.

Down were 0-12 to 0-9 ahead with Armagh pressing desperately over the closing minutes for an equalising goal. The excitement built as John Murtagh and Charlie Vernon scored points between the 67th and 69th minutes.

But Down had just enough coolness to hold on for a win that enhances the anticipation for their Ulster championship clash in Armagh on May 28.

Down set the early pace with points by Conor Laverty and Daniel Hughes inside the first three minutes. By the sixth minute the sides were level as Ciaran McKeever and Vernon replied.

Marty Clarke's elegant left foot despatched the ball over the bar for the game's most spectacular point, a huge booming kick from near the sideline about 40 metres out, in the 19th minute.


Down had to battle for every half-chance but after that Clarke point, scores by Daniel Hughes, Mark Poland and Clarke (free) put them ahead -- 0-7 to 0-4 -- with eight minutes to go to half-time.

The Mourne men messed up a breakaway deep in Armagh's half and the play reverted quickly to the other end, and McDonnell finished off a four-man move after 32 minutes. A Grogan free brought the Orchard men to 0-6, but a late Down score by centre-back Kevin McKernan left the half-time score 0-8 to 0-6.

Armagh started the second half brightly and within five minutes led for the first time -- 0-9 to 0-8 -- courtesy of points by Kevin Dyas, McDonnell (free) and Grogan.

The excitement ramped up over the next 12 hectic, incident-packed minutes until finally Conor Maginn broke the scoring drought with a point for Down to level the scores at 0-9 each.

In the 61st minute, a six-man Down hand-passing move resulted in Ronan Murtagh firing over the bar. Deadlock broken. Three minutes later, Clarke scored again from a free and Murtagh got another point in the 65th minute for 0-12 to 0-9.

Armagh did all they could, but despite those late scores by John Murtagh and Vernon, it was Down's night -- just.

Man of the Match: Ronan Murtagh (Down)

Scorers -- Down: M Clarke 0-3 (2f), R Murtagh, D Hughes, M Poland (1f) 0-2 each, K McKernan, C Laverty, C Maginn, 0-1 each. Armagh: S McDonnell 0-3 (2f), C Vernon, R Grogan (2f) 0-2 each, K Dyas, J Murtagh, C McKeever, B Mallon 0-1 each.

Down -- B McVeigh 6; G McCartan 7, D Gordon 8, L Howard 7; A Brannigan 7, K McKernan 7, D Rooney 7; P Fitzpatrick 7, K King 7; D Hughes 7, M Poland 7, C Maginn 7; C Laverty 7, R Murtagh 8, M Clarke 8. Subs: C Murdock 7 for McVeigh 30; J Colgan 6 for King (52); P McComiskey 6 for Laverty 52; R Sexton 6 for Poland 58; C Garvey 6 for Brannigan 58

Armagh -- P McEvoy 7; A Mallon 7, B Donaghy 7, F Moriarty 7; K Dyas 7, C McKeever 7, P Duffy 7; K Toner 7, C Vernon 8; R Grogan 7, M O'Rourke 6, B Mallon 6; BJ Padden 6, G Swift 6, S McDonnell 7. Subs: J Lavery 6 for Padden 52; J Murtagh 6 for O'Rourke 63; C Watters 6 for B Mallon 63; C Clarke for Grogan 68 (not on long enough to rate)

Ref -- P McEnaney (Monaghan).

Irish Independent