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Rampant Armagh push for return to Croke Park

By John Campbell

Armagh 8-13 Leitrim 0-10: Two successive qualifier wins against the most feeble opposition imaginable with an astronomical 10-34 recorded in the process normally earns any side nothing more than a stark entry in the record books.

But suddenly Armagh have regained their right to dream – an option that they appeared to have surrendered following their meek exit from the Ulster Championship at the hands of Cavan.

And today, manager Paul Grimley's aspirations of seeing his side yet perform at Croke Park will come into rather sharper focus when the draw for the third round of the qualifiers is made today.

If Wicklow were out of their depth in the first round at the Athletic Grounds, then hapless Leitrim were mere cannon fodder at Carrick-on-Shannon where the Orchard County hardly broke sweat despite the searing heat in further cementing their rehabilitation.

But their term of residence on easy street is over. It's back to the hurly burly of real championship action from now on and no one is more acutely aware of this than Grimley himself although faith and confidence have now replaced apprehension and uncertainty.

"I would love to see this side get the chance to play at Croke Park," reflects Grimley, a clear indication that he believes an All-Ireland quarter-final place is within their gambit.

"That's where every team wants to be in August. But our focus must be on the third round of the qualifiers for now. We served up a sunshine performance against Leitrim alright but going into the game we were edgy, cagey and had our guard up.

"I'm told its over thirty years since Armagh last scored eight goals but I'm not putting too much store by what we actually scored on Saturday. Rather, I am more concerned with our performance and the way in which the game plan was brought to fruition."

And his assertion that "football is cruel" will have particular resonance in Leitrim although his own side have had to endure the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune this year.

"To be honest, I felt sorry for Leitrim. But they have had their problems and I hope that people will understand the issues they are facing," says Grimley. "Football is cruel but I think that Leitrim can bounce back from this setback."

By half-time, Armagh had confirmed their passage into the third round; Eugene McVerry, Tony Kernan, Kevin Dyas and then McVerry, for a second time, having plundered the goals that gave their side an unassailable 4-8 to 0-4 lead.

"We got a grip on the game early on and once we got into the groove and settled, the scores started to flow," reflects Grimley.

With Jamie Clarke at the heart of Armagh's adventurous strategy, McVerry collecting a hat-trick of goals, Ciaran McKeever and Aaron Kernan overseeing a slick defensive operation and Kevin Dyas and Tony Kernan continuing to enhance their CVs, Armagh functioned in top gear throughout.

When man of the moment Clarke embroidered his exquisite contribution with two stunning second-half goals and Mark Shields underpinned his new-found status as a first-choice player by thundering through for another, Armagh had soared into the stratosphere.

But despite his team's avalanche of scores, manager Grimley's feet remain rooted to the ground.

"The hard work starts here," he raps. "There are eight decent sides in the third round of the qualifiers and the prospect of some really tasty ties now looms.

"Only by getting through the third and fourth round of the qualifiers will we have any chance of making it to Croke Park. That's the incentive for us."

They may have finished easing up against Leitrim – Kevin Conlon posted eight of the losers' points – but Armagh's freewheeling progress faces more demanding circumstances.

Armagh: P McEvoy; P McKeown, B Donaghy, J Morgan; A Kernan (0-4, all frees), C McKeever, M Shields (1-0); J Lavery, S Harold (0-1); C Rafferty, K Dyas (1-0), E Rafferty; J Clarke (2-3), T Kernan (1-5, 0-3f, 0-1 '45'), E McVerry (3-0). Subs: S Campbell for Rafferty (27 mins), C O'Hanlon for McVerry (48), F Moriarty for Shields (53), A Forker for C Rafferty (56), S Forker for Clarke (63).

Leitrim: C McCrann; F McMorrow, C Egan, S McWeeney; D Beck, G Reynolds, B Prior; D Sweeney (0-1), B Brennan; P McGowan, J Glancy, P Brennan; A Croal, R Lowe, K Conlon (0-8, 0-7f). Subs: R Gallagher for McGowan (6 mins), R Cox (0-1) for Croal (half-time), C Clarke for Beck (45), G Reynolds for McMorrow (56).

Referee: Fergal Kelly (Longford).

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