Armagh 1-14 Down 0-16
It is just as well that Armagh manager Paddy O’Rourke has long since grown accustomed to the fickle nature of sport.
That as much as anything else can perhaps explain while he was able to retain his cool and his integrity as arguably one of the most explosive weeks in the county’s sporting history reached a fairytale conclusion in this truly gripping showdown.
With skipper Ciaran McKeever’s controversial two-match ban rescinded just hours before the Morgan Athletic Grounds confrontation with the county which he himself captained to All-Ireland glory in 1991, O’Rourke could have been forgiven for thinking that the gods had finally deigned to smile upon him.
But when first Peter Carragher and then his replacement Rory Grugan were forced out of the action, the former in distressing circumstances on a stretcher with a suspected broken leg, it seemed that O’Rourke was again engulfed by demons.
Not so, though. In what was undoubtedly the game of the year at any level to date, Armagh reached for the stars and en route occupied an entirely new planet in terms of commitment, skill and absolute resolve.
No wonder the normally unflappable O’Rourke punched the air at the finish — he knew better than anyone that the will to survive in Division One within his side is not just alive but all-consuming.
“In what was admittedly a bad week for Armagh off the field I thought that the team showed immense character,” said O’Rourke.
“The manner in which the younger players performed was particularly pleasing and I thought that Michael Stevenson showed a tremendous level of confidence in taking his scores when he was given his chance in the absence of Aidan Forker.
“Obviously the injury which Peter Carragher incurred is very disturbing given that he has just come back from a broken leg.
“At the minute we have something like 18 players unavailable to us for one reason or another but there is still a great spirit within the side.”
Not only did the game provide Armagh with two precious points but it also cemented a plethora of plus-factors that could help sustain the team as the championship looms.
McKeever’s intrinsic value to the team, the clinical authority
of playmaker Brian Mallon, Stevenson’s emergence as a free-taker supreme and Declan McKenna’s growing maturity surely breed hope for the future.
Down boss James McCartan was disappointed but not totally surprised at the outcome.
“I said that Armagh would ask big question of us and they did just that.
“We had some of the answers but not all of them and we missed a couple of chances late on that might have given us the win,” said McCartan with typical candour.
Yet for all their bravado Armagh were fortunate to trail by just 0-9 to 0-8 at the interval.
By then, they had lost Carragher and Grugan, goalkeeper Philip McEvoy had made splendid saves from Ambrose Rogers and Eoin McCartan and the visitors’ half-forward line of Daniel Hughes, Mark Poland and Aidan Carr had hinted at wreaking havoc.
But tellingly young gun Stevenson had chalked up half of Armagh’s first-half scores from frees,
Mallon’s link work was top-class and the defence offered stoic defiance for the most part of an enthralling encounter.
Carr’s four points from frees helped to lubricate Down’s engine and when he landed a fifth to ensure stalemate at 0-10 each the notion that his team would mount their takeover bid began to form.
Instead, it was Armagh who struck a mortal blow, Mallon whipping home from the penalty spot in the 46th minute before McKenna launched a tornado from a long way out to help cement a 1-11 to 0-11 home advantage.
There was not the slightest sign of a white flag from Down, of course,
Hughes, Carr and Rogers landed scores before Caolan Rafferty nudged the hosts’ ahead only for Mark Poland to launch a brief but highly lucrative solo show that saw him plunder two spectacular scores from play to set Down up for what we thought was a glide to the winning post.
But in the week that was in it, conventional thought was a no-no.
Instead, villain turned hero McKeever guided over a majestic score from a position in which he could have shaken hands with the front row occupants in the stand before the ice-cool Stevenson came of age by pirating the last — and most important — score of an encounter that stands as a glowing advertisement for a sporting body which continues to dabble much too frequently in the murky underworld of self-harm.
Armagh: P McEvoy; A Mallon, D McKenna (0-1), F Moriarty (0-1); K Dyas, C Vernon, P Duffy; P Carragher (0-1), B J Padden; C McKeever, M Stevenson (0-6, all frees), A Duffy; C Rafferty (0-2), B Mallon (1-3, 1-0 pen, 0-2 frees), B Donaghy. Subs: R Grugan for Carragher (19 mins), D Lavery for Grugan (32), J Lavery for W J Padden (half-time), J Kingham for D Lavery (61)
Down: B McVeigh’ D McCartan, C Garvey, A Brannigan; N McParland, D Gordon (0-1), K McKernan (0-1); A Rogers (0-2), K King; D Hughes (0-2), M Poland (0-2), A Carr (0-6, all frees); C Maginn, E McCartan (0-2), C Laverty. Subs: B Coulter for Maginn (49 mins), C Reilly for E McCartan (59), K Quinn for Brannigan (62), A McArdle for King (63). Referee: David Coldrick (Meath).