Armagh 4-15 Antrim 0-14
It would be a stretch to say that Antrim were doing anything but kind of clinging on by fingernails come half-time, but it still required a rocket in the dressing room by Armagh manager Kieran McGeeney to inspire a strong third quarter when they blitzed the Saffrons 1-5 to 0-2 to put the result to bed.
“I thought it was very calm,” said McGeeney having been informed afterwards that a player had said there were choice phrases used at the break, when Armagh were just 1-6 to 0-7 up.
“You get disappointed when they are not showing what they can show,” explained McGeeney.
“But Armagh has had that problem for as long as I know. People build you up and tell you you’re a good forward or a good defender and the next thing you start believing it.
“You’re always good after a game but never before it. And if you remember that then you can go a long way but I thought we didn’t put in the work rate they are capable of and they changed it. And the fellas that came in showed that’s what happens if you don't there are fellas there that will.”
After the first goal came from a long Stefan Campbell ball that Rory Grugan collected and netted, the second came with a smidgen of good fortune. Debutant goalkeeper Luke Mulholland was hesitant to come for a return pass from his own short kickout and when Grugan toed it beyond him, his boot tripped the former Armagh captain. Rian O’Neill stepped up and blasted it low to Mulholland’s right to the netting.
But really, the pattern of the game was starting to emerge with Armagh pouring forward at will, Jarlath Óg Burns, Grugan, Greg McCabe, Conor Turbitt and Rian O’Neill with a free to leave it 2-11 to 0-11 at the second water break.
By that stage, the legs were gone in Antrim. Armagh have been developing and building and have a squad that have put down layer upon layer for years. That’s the pattern we are seeing in a Championship that now has the margins of victory in the first three games as 16, 10 and now 13.
And yet, a certain pain of defeat was etched on the face of Antrim manager Enda McGinley, a man not used to defeats of this nature throughout his vaunted playing career.
“The bottom line, and I know this might sound daft to those outside the camp, but I’ve always said it even back to my own Tyrone days that a county team becomes like a bubble, you live within a bubble and you convince yourselves that it is possible,” he told reporters.
“And whilst it sounds daft now after what has happened but I still believe it was possible.
“Fine margins, surely, but my absolute belief today was that we had enough footballers on the pitch and enough wherewithal to stay in the game with Armagh. My one fear was those small mistakes which we saw throughout the league would be punished all the harder by Armagh and that unfortunately proved to be the case.”
The Ulster Championship is getting weaker by the year. The Ulster Council will pray that the way the draw fell it has acted as an unexpected seeding system and a gloss could be put on it with the games to follow.
Further Armagh goals arrived from substitutes Conor Turbitt on 56 minutes when Ricky Johnston couldn’t live with his trickery in tight spaces, and the final act of the game fell to Tiernan Kelly to crash beyond Mulholland.
Stiffer tests await, but Monaghan will be in a race against time to get Conor McManus fit for the semi-final against Armagh. He left Clones on crutches on Saturday. Monaghan manager Seamus McEnaney and his assistant David McCague had a good view of this one in the main stand.
"McManus is easily one of the top three forwards over the last 10 years, but the way the Monaghan boys have been changing and shifting, they definitely have [replacements],” said McGeeney.
"I wouldn’t be writing off Conor now, I’ve seen him up close, he’s a tough boy.”
ARMAGH: B Hughes; J Morgan, C Mackin 0-1, R Finn; G McCabe 0-1, C O’Hanlon 0-1, A McKay; N Grimley, O O’Neill 0-1; J Hall, R O’Neill 1-5, 1-0pen, 0-5f, J Óg Burns 0-2; R Grugan 1-2, A Murnin, S Campbell
Substitutes: C Turbitt 1-1 for Murnin (HT), T Kelly 1-0 for Campbell (46m), C O’Neill for Grimley (49m), P Burns 0-1 mark, for McKay (59m), B Donaghy for McCabe (63m)
ANTRIM: L Mulholland ; E McCabe, R Johnston, P Healy; M Jordan, J Laverty, D McAleese 0-2; C Stewart, N McKeever 0-1; R Murray 0-3, 2f, M McCann, P McBride 0-2; O Eastwood 0-1f, R McCann 0-2f, C Murray 0-2, 1f
Substitutes: T McCann for R Murray (45m), C Small 0-1, for McBride (55m), M Sweeney for Stewart (55m), K Small for Eastwood (60m), E Walsh for Jordan (70m)
Referee: Sean Hurson (Tyrone)
Man of the match: Rory Grugan (Armagh)
Match rating: 4/10