Down booked their place in the Power NI Dr McKenna Cup semi-finals when they outgunned Armagh by four points at Pairc Esler in Newry last night, but manager James McCartan will surely be looking for much more conviction from his side when they take on high-flying Monaghan on Sunday.
The Mournemen had engaged cruise control even before the half-way stage had been reached yet conceded considerable ground and a litany of scores after the break that undid their comprehensive first-half display.
Indeed, Down’s early dominance which reaped half-a-dozen points, three coming from the mercurial Paul McComiskey, was even more emphatically underlined in the 20th minute when Kevin McKernan flicked home a goal after Paul McComiskey had played the ball into his path.
And trailing by 1-6 to 0-2, Armagh looked even more rudderless as they offered a limp, lifeless display triggering the belief among fans that some sort of inferiority complex was at work.
In contrast, Down were fluid and cohesive, confident on the ball, sharp in the tackle and markedly streetwise in their tracking back and covering.
So much so that Armagh were afforded only brief glimpses of their opponents’ posts and even then they fluffed their lines too often.
Points from Michael Stevenson and Stefan Forker complemented earlier scores from the latter and Gary McCooey, but these were mere pin-pricks in Down’s towering morale at that juncture. The only real surprise was that Down enjoyed a modest six-point lead at 1-7 to 0-4 given that they had claimed ownership of the ball for protracted spells.
Yet within six minutes of the restart that advantage had been trimmed to just two points after Forker, Stevenson and Ciaran McKeever were all on target in a concerted blitz that left the hosts reeling.
The introduction of McKeever from the substitutes’ bench had a stabilising effect on Armagh, but just when it seemed that they had banished their demons the wily Benny Coulter set up a second goal for man of the match McComiskey, elegant and authoritative in everything he did, to ease Down ahead at 2-9 to 0-8.
Once again the orchard county bounced back off the ropes, the accurate Forker piloting over two majestic long-range points — he landed five in all in a virtuoso performance — before defender McCooey, showing a marked penchant for joining the attack, drilled in a 66th minute goal that diluted the impact of the brace of points Conor Laverty had landed for Down minutes previously.
But Armagh’s laudable courage and commitment was not to bring a tangible reward. Down closed ranks, cleverly retaining possession in the closing moments as they set their sights on another match in the competition — something that manager McCartan will relish.
Down: M Cunningham; G McAnulty, B McArdle, R Boyle; D Rooney, A Carr, D McKibben; C Gough, K McKernan (1-0); D Turley, M Poland, B Coulter (0-1); L Doyle (0-1 free), C Harrison (0-2), P McComiskey (0-5, 0-2 frees).
Subs: C Laverty (0-2, both frees) for Doyle (23 mins), R Mallon for Rooney (50), D O’Hare for Poland (52), A McConville for Gough (54), K Quinn for McArdle (56). Yellow cards: McKernan (31 mins), Laverty (32).
Armagh: C McKeown; S Finnegan, K Toner, G McCooey (1-1); N Rowland, J Donnelly, D McKenna; J Lavery, B Loughran; C Rafferty, S Harold, S Campbell; M Stevenson (0-2), J Kingham, S Forker (0-6, 0-2 frees).
Subs: C McKeever (0-1) for Finnegan (22 mins), G McParland for Harold (25), D Carville for Kingham (46), E McVerry for Stevenson (60), Yellow cards: Lavery (61).
Referee: Sean Hurson (Tyrone).