Armagh back on big stage after strong finish puts Down away
Armagh 1-17 Down 2-12
You could hardly doubt the satisfaction in Sylvester McConnell's smile as he stood in the middle of the Inniskeen pitch, describing the stirring Armagh comeback.
"Look, there's great spirit in this team, they're something special, they're a great bunch of lads, they train very hard and there's an honesty about them," he began.
"People talk about Armagh being physical - we played a very manly game there today."
It has put them into a provincial decider for the second consecutive year against Antrim and has copper-fastened their superiority over Down, which pains the Ardsmen who were so prominent back in the mid-90s when they ruled Ulster.
Manager Marty Mallon could not make the game, having difficulty finding cover for his butcher's shop in Portaferry. Instead, the familiar face of Gary 'Gazza' Savage was manager for the day. It was a day that they will want to forget, given that they were delayed coming to the ground when the team bus could not get underneath a low bridge.
"It's hard to take to tell you the truth," said Savage afterwards.
"We were three points up with five minutes to go and we were a man down. We thought we had done enough, but maybe a bit of tiredness in the end told."
Down actually looked better placed for most of the game, Malachy Magee's two goals courtesy of his own precise finishing and some sloppy defending from his marker Artie McGuinness, the former Down player.
But they were to suffer a cruel blow midway through the first half. Cahal Carvill broke his own hurl in making a block.
Chasing after the play he picked up Cailan Bailie's which had fallen to the ground. When Bailie went to retrieve his equipment there was a coming together. Referee Colum Cunning dismissed him on a seriously harsh red card.
The 14 men worked hard to stay in front and four consecutive points in six minutes in the third quarter might have appeared enough.
But Carvill - who had been ordered to keep Down's play maker Conor Woods quiet - was pushed up into the inside line and tortured his marker Sean Ennis, winning a series of frees for his brother David to convert, and tipping over a trio of second half points himself.
"Cahal is one in a million. He is a damn good player.
"He gives it everything in his heart and soul," said his fellow Middletown clubman McConnell.
"We could ask Cahal to play goals next week and he will pull on the jersey. There is never a problem with that."
He continued, "Conor Woods had to be marked today and Cahal did that job at centre-half forward and still contributed to the team with scores."
Armagh may have lost Declan Coulter to Donegal over the winter, but McConnell was keen to state how many young players are coming through the system, with Keady youngster Dylan McKenna catching the eye with a contribution of 1-3.
His goal on 47 minutes was pure opportunism as he capitalised on Down goalkeeper Stephen Keith's only mistake of the match, a mishit clearance that McKenna drilled to the net.
"Young Dylan McKenna is a fresh player out there today, he got two or three scores in his first real full start," said McConnell.
"You are starting to see the stuff that is coming through from the minors this last couple of years. Tiernan Nevin, a good steady game from him today.
"We had six under-21s on there today.
"It shows that as much as people don't think there is a wild pile of hurling in Armagh, there are hurlers coming from somewhere."
ARMAGH: Doherty; Clifford, Curry, Bridges; Corvan 0-1, McGuinness, Nevin; Carvill 0-4, Devlin 0-1; Carvill 0-6f, Bradley 0-1, Corvan 0-1; Magee, Gorman, McKenna 1-3
Subs: Gaffney for McGuinness (half-time), Curry for Bridges (42), Keenan for Gorman (54), McKearney for Magee (59), Gaffney for Devlin (67)
Yellow cards: McKenna, Bridges (35), Clifford (52)
Red cards: 0
DOWN: Keith; McManus, Hughes, Ennis; Egan 0-1, Woods, Ennis 0-1; Bell, McManus; Mageean 0-1, Magee 2-1, Bailie; O'Prey 0-4, 3f, Sheehan 0-3f, Toner 0-1
Subs: G Johnston for Sheehan (50)
Yellow cards: Ennis (6), Bailie (9), Bell (70), Ennis (72)
Red cards: Bailie (26)
Referee: Colum Cunning (Antrim).