First Blood Armagh as Down fight-back not enough
Tuesday, 24 January 2017
IT'S 131 days (from Tuesday) until the sides meet in the Ulster Championship but if Wednesday night's clash is to be any sort of indication then Pairc Esler will be rocking in the summer.
Of course there is the small matter of the National League to contend with first but considering the second half of the League lasts as long as most people have their Christmas tree up, June 4 won't be too long coming around.
The result mattered little, although Armagh will claim the bragging rites. Played in front of a loud 4320 fans in the Athletic Grounds, the cheers, groans, arguments and laughs proved that the rivalry between the neighbouring counties is in a healthy state.
Both teams may look considerably different come June, but on Wednesday there was enough to suggest that the Championship encounter will be a titanic battle.
It had heavy hits, some nice scores, too many poor wides and numerous raids and counter-raids.
While it took the Mourne men time to adjust to the riggers of the contest, they showed that they could mix it and deal with a physical Armagh side.
In truth, the Orchard County should have been out of sight before Down registered a score but they squandered too many goal chances, but when it mattered they delivered the knockout blow.
Ethan Rafferty fired over the opening point and by the third minute Anto Duffy missed a goal chance from close-range but his shot did go over after slamming off the crossbar.
Armagh dominated midfield with Ben Crealey looking comfortable in only his third outing, while Stephen Sheridan gave his best display in an Armagh jersey and recaptured some of that talent he possessed as a youngster.
Oisin Mac Iomhair and Sheridan pointed before Down's Alan Davidson played a beautiful measured pass to Saval's Pat Havern but Carrickcruppen's John Magill made an excellent block to deny Havern a goal. Rory Grugan's converted free, Sheridan's second point and a fisted point from Niall Grimley gave Armagh a seven-point lead and they looked like coasting.
But the tide quickly turned and Armagh were forced to wait 20 minutes before they next scored as Davidson's converted free on 23 minutes got Down's ball rolling.
Caolan Gallagher has been an excellent footballer for Bosco but his debut was brief he was replaced by Glenn's Shay Millar before half-time.
Mayobridge's Cathal Magee and another Davidson converted free shorted Armagh's lead (0-07 to 0-03) at half-time but it took until the 43rd minute until Grugan grabbed the first score of the half.
Between the scores, some of the tackling was exceptional, with both sides being dispossessed time after time. It was frustrating on the pitch but made fantastic viewing.
Jamie Clarke's arrival after the break ensured an enthralling battle with Clonduff's man-marker Darren O'Hagan.
Two further points from Davidson narrowed the gap but the busy Rory Grugan replied with a nice score.
Davidson then took a quick free and picked out Havern who made a great catch and with no hesitation slipped the pass to Darren O'Hagan and he rattled the net for a cracking goal.
Armagh led by a point and the industrious Joe Murphy had a chance to level the score but kicked narrowly wide. Grugan and Barry O'Hagan traded points. Rafferty struck over his second point and Grimley's free went over after clipping the inside of the post as Armagh led 0-12 to 1-06.
Down's Niall Donnelly was unlucky to be black carded but two further points for Grimley looked to be sending Armagh on the road to victory.
Down needed something special and Caolan Mooney accepted the challenge and with his burst of pace he stormed through the middle before stroking his effort between the posts.
Danny Savage converted a free and just as four minutes additional time was announced Davidson rattled the Armagh net to put the Mourne men ahead for the first time.
The Down fans were ecstatic, while the Armagh supporters had a sour taste in their mouths.
Then came a wonderful pass from Jamie Clarke, who had given O'Hagan the slip, to big Aaron Findon who blasted home from six-yards.
In a matter of seconds the tables had turned and then were spun around again. That bitter taste had switched to the smell of victory, while the Down faithful were sick at the final whistle.
With Derry's superior score difference, they progressed to the semi-final of the Dr McKenna Cup, but for Armagh and Down, their attention turns to the National Leagues, however the build up to Sunday, June 4, has already begun.
ARMAGH: Paddy Morrison, John Magill, Charlie Vernon, Oisin Lappin, Aidan Forker, Niall Rowland, Conor Higgins, Stephen Sheridan (0-2), Niall Grimley (0-4, 2f), Ben Crealey, Conor White, Rory Grugan (0-4, 3f), Anto Duffy (0-1), Ethan Rafferty (0-2), Oisin Mac Iomhair (0-1).
Subs: Jamie Clarke for White (ht'), Joe McElroy for Higgins (41'), A Findon (1-0) for Crealey (50'), Jemar Hall for Mac Iomhair (52'), Simon McCoy for Rowland (62'), Niall McConville (0-1) for Grugan (63').
DOWN: Michael Cunningham; Ryan McAleenan, Gerard McGovern, Darren O'Hagan (1-0), Ryan Mallon, Conaill McGovern, Benny McArdle, Niall Donnelly, Johnny Flynn, Caolan Gallagher, Cathal Magee (0-1), Joe Murphy, Alan Davidson (1-4, 2f), Barry O'Hagan (0-1), Pat Havern.
Subs: Shay Millar for Gallagher (28'), Caolan Mooney (0-1) for Mallon (34'), Connor Maginn for Magee (44'), Aidan Carr for Donnelly (black card 60'), Danny Savage (0-1, free) for Havern (63').
Referee: Sean Hurson (Tyrone).
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