DONEGAL 1-12 ARMAGH 1-11
REPORT BY CHRIS MCNULTY AT CROKE PARK
ONLY when Neil Gallagher rose in a crowded Hill 16 goalmouth to get his claws on Tony Kernan’s free that dropped short in the fourth minute of additional time could Donegal exhale in relief.
The feeling was a strange one after winning an uneasy and sometimes ill-tempered clash against a fierce Ulster foe, but it had been an utterly energy-draining contest and one that could have swung either way.
Donegal ultimately prevailed thanks to a brace of late scores by Michael Murphy and Patrick McBrearty, but not before their campaign hung by a thread when a fortunate goal by Stefan Campbell lifted Armagh ahead on the hour.
Odhrán MacNiallais – who scored a wonderful first half goal of his own – momentarily hoisted Donegal back onto a par only for sub Michael Murray to restore the lead for a determined Orchard side.
Donegal needed some magic and they found it deep within some of their big names. Murphy led the charge, sailing over a sweet left-footed point before McBrearty – who just turned 21 last Tuesday – provided the match-winner as he finished off a fine Donegal move.
Armagh had two chances to level it, both of them Kernan frees. His first drifted well wide and his second dropped dangerously, but Gallagher rose to take hold of it – and wasn’t letting go. The last free was awarded by Joe McQuillan after McBrearty, who had just been substituted, kicked a loose ball away when it went out of play, turning a sideline kick into a 45-metre free.
In the late drama Donegal could look to the likes of Gallagher for the inspiration. Michael Murphy played a real captain’s role, that point in the 68th minute providing a spur for the throngs of green and gold clad supporters, many of whom were now anxiously peeking through their fingers.
Frank McGlynn was another who came to the fore in those moments when the twine could have unravelled completely after Campbell’s goal, while Eamon McGee was outstanding and really stood up to the challenge. McGee is in a rich vein of form and here he was excellent for the 70 minutes, disciplined in the tackle and making a couple of skilfull dispossessions that could showcase what is a rare art these days.
Armagh, full of blood and thunder as might have been expected, were without their captain, Ciaran McKeever, but they drew a line in the sand in the ninth minute when tempers boiled over as Karl Lacey and Aidan Forker became entangled. Things escalated and in the ensuing shoving match Donegal team doctor, Mr Kevin Moran, was shoved to the deck by Aaron Findon, the Armagh midfielder, who clearly regretted his cowardice after cold reflection having telephoned an apology to the Donegal camp.
On the sideline, meanwhile, Eamon McGee wasn’t budging an inch as he came between Paul Grimley and Kevin Dyas, to whom the manager was attempting to give instruction.
Donegal have suffered at Armagh’s hands greatly at Croke Park in the past with defeats still ringing in the ears from 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2006. By the 20th minute here, Aaron Kernan was teeing up Forker for a point that put Armagh 0-3 to 0-1 in front.
Donegal had the opening point, a third-minute free by Murphy, but Tony Kernan, Aaron Kernan (free) and Forker had Armagh ahead with Donegal clocking up the misses.
They would end with an uncharacteristic fifteen wides, a statistic that will need drastic improvment ahead of a semi-final showdown with Dublin.
Donegal unhinged Armagh with a brilliant goal in the 23rd minute. Ryan McHugh’s popped pass found MacNiallais who turned instinctively onto his left foot. Findon was in close company, but MacNiallais was on the goal and the Gaoth Dobhair youngster’s effort for the near post caught out Philip McEvoy. MacNiallais’s shot crashed into the Hill 16 net off the inside of the post.
Campbell and Andy Mallon responded, but Donegal finished the first half well hit four points to take a two-point margin with them at the interval.
Two Murphy frees were followed by a point from the marauding Neil McGee, up from full-back to convert after a turnover was forced down the other end by Christy Toye on Aaron Kernan. Still, the wides kept clocking. Colm McFadden is one of the Donegal players who’s suffered most against Armagh and he was off-form on Saturday, although it was his free, in added time, that gave Donegal a 1-5 to 0-6 lead at the changeover.
Donegal’s traditional period is the third quarter and it was a similar tale here – only the shooting boots had been left behind.
Six of their attempts in that spell didn’t find the target, but with McFadden – following a break engineered by Eamon McGee robbing Dyas blind deep in Donegal’s half – fisting over and McBrearty drilling himself onto the scoreboard following a well-worked move from the back.
A McFadden free had Donegal a goal up, but Armagh just weren’t going out of sight. A 50metre Murphy free, after one from a slightly further distance was off target, ended a barren spell, but Armagh were galvanised when they stole back the arrears. Tony Kernan set the tone with a point and it wasn’t long before Andy Mallon was hooking the ball across goal for Campbell to palm goalward.
His effort came off the post, but after rebounding off the heel of the unlucky Durcan it crept over the line.
That they were able to shake their heads clear and respond to that goal says a lot about Donegal’s steely mind.
Donegal were composed, cool and collected when the worries rested over them, but they’ll need a huge improvement before they take on the all-conquoring Dubs in three weeks’ time.
DONEGAL: Paul Durcan; Eamon McGee, Neil McGee (0-1), Paddy McGrath; Anthony Thompson, Karl Lacey, Ryan McHugh; Neil Gallagher, Odhrán MacNiallais (1-1); Christy Toye, Michael Murphy (0-5, 4f), Frank McGlynn; Patrick McBrearty (0-2), Leo McLoone, Colm McFadden (0-3, 2f).
Subs: Rory Kavanagh for Toye (42 mins), Martin McElhinney for McLoone (56 mins), Darach O’Connor for McFadden (58 mins), Martin O’Reilly for McBrearty (70 mins).
ARMAGH: Philip McEvoy; Finnian Moriarty, Charlie Vernon, Andy Mallon (0-1); Mark Shields, Brendan Donaghy, Aaron Kernan (0-2, 1f); Stephen Harold, Aaron Findon; Aidan Forker (0-1), Kevin Dyas, Tony Kernan (0-4, 1f); Kyle Carragher (0-1), Stefan Campbell (1-1), Jamie Clarke.
Subs: Brian Mallon for Carragher (41 mins), Ethan Rafferty for Findon (45 mins), Rory Grugan for Dyas (55 mins), Michael Murray (0-1) for Forker (58 mins), Kieran Toner for Harold (65 mins)
REFEREE: Joe McQuillan (Cavan).