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Greater reserves help to get Armagh out of trouble and escape Down shock


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Three late points from substitutes Oisín O’Neill, Aidan Nugent and Jason Duffy — the latter two the side’s only scores from play in the second half — enabled them to recover from the concession of goals either side of half-time and squeeze through by the narrowest of margins.

The Down players fell to their knees in despair when the final whistle sounded. They almost pulled off a shock win but ultimately their inability to score more points and a malfunction in free-taking cost them a famous victory.

The defeat condemns them to the Tailteann Cup for a third successive season. Once they lost the Division 3 final to Westmeath at the start of the month, this was their probable fate and they couldn’t defy the odds, though they made a gallant effort to do so.

A crowd of 12,116 — compared to 22,000 for last year’s semi-final between the counties — turned up in St Tiernach’s Park, a reflection of the lack of faith which the Down fans had in the chances of their team pulling off an upset. Midway through the second half, they were probably regretting their decision to stay away.

Defences dominated early on with both sides withdrawing every player behind the ball once they lost the possession. A third-minute point from Ryan Magill the only score in the first 10 minutes — though Down’s Pat Havern ought to have done better with a 35-metre free, dropping it short into the arms of Armagh goalkeeper Blaine Hughes.

There was a lot of early endeavour, but little in the way of end product though a free from Rian O’Neill levelled the tie after 13 minutes. A free from Shealan Johnston was fisted clear from under his crossbar by Ciarán Mackin and from the resultant counter-attack O’Neill scored Armagh’s first point from play in the 20th minute.

Armagh were showing a lack of ambition, relying totally on achieving turnovers to win possession. But they were caught in possession themselves when Miceál Rooney achieved a brilliant turnover and was fouled, but Havern ballooned the free wide.

The cost of the miss was emphasised when Armagh attacked from the kick-out and Aidan Forker hit an excellent point from range to give his side a 0-3 to 0-1 advantage.

Down’s woes continued with Havern, who has an unusual free-taking technique, missing a simple 30-metre free but he finally converted one at the third attempt four minutes from the break. Tempers became frayed as the hits became increasingly reckless with Armagh pair Conor Turbit and Andrew Murnin being booked.

But there was more urgency about Down’s play and they were rewarded when a sweeping move involving Odhran Murdock, Shealan Johnston, Pierce Laverty and Cellum Doherty found gaps in the Armagh rearguard.

Blaine Hughes saved Doherty’s shot but the ball rebounded off the retreating Paddy Burns for an own goal in the 35th minute. The concession stirred Armagh who hit two points in injury-time, through a Grugan free and a second from team captain Aidan Forker, to leave the sides level (0-5 to 1-2) at the break.

Grugan edged Armagh back in front immediately after the resumption with a free after a foul on O’Neill who ran straight through from the throw-in, and then the midfielder added a monster effort . But Down were soon back on level terms with points from Daniel Guinness and substitute Danny Magill. The contest took another twist when another sweeping move involving Doherty and Liam Kerr split the Armagh defence, though the first shot was smothered Ryan Magill hit the rebound to the net. Game on.

Down sub Kerr was making a huge impact and Down’s body language suggested they had started to believe they could pull off a shock.

It was nip-and-tuck down the final stretch with Armagh substitutes Oisín O’Neill and Aidan Nugent making significant contributions with the former converting a mark and Nugent hitting the side’s first point from play in the second half to wipe out Down’s two-point lead.

Then, two minutes into the allocated four minutes of added time, Andrew Murnin provided the assist for another substitute Jason Duffy to kick what proved the winning point. Down had a chance to send the game into extra-time but substitute Oisín Savage, the third Down player to take frees, failed to catch hold off his effort from near the stand sideline.

Armagh survived, just about.

Scorers — Armagh: R Grugan 0-5 (5f); R O’Neill 0-3 (1f); A Forker 0-2; O O’Neill (m), A Nugent, J Duffy 0-1 each. Down: R Magill 1-1; P Burns 1-0 og; P Havern 0-2 (2f); D Guinness, D Magill, R Johnston 0-1 each.

Armagh: B Hughes; P Burns, A McKay, P McGrane; J McElroy, C Mackin, A Forker; R O’Neill, B Crealey; S Campbell, R Grugan, O Conaty; C Turbitt, A Murnin, J Óg Burns. Subs: J Duffy for Crealey (47), O O’Neill for Óg Burns (52), D McMullan for Campbell (58), A Nugent for Conaty (63).

Down: J O’Hare; P Fegan, R McEvoy, C Doherty; M Rooney, P Laverty, S Johnston; J Flynn, O Murdock; D Guinness, R Magill, R Johnston; R McElroy, P Havern, J McGuinness. Subs: L Kerr for McGuiness (h-t); D Magill for Flynn (41), B O’Hagan for Rooney (50), O Savage for Guinness (58), S Annett for O’Hagan (inj, 63).

Referee: L Devenney (Mayo).

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