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Declan Bogue: How Armagh earned landmark victory over Down in a stonking thriller

Down 3-13 Armagh 2-17

Hot shot: Armagh’s Mark Shields celebrates his goal against Down yesterday
Hot shot: Armagh’s Mark Shields celebrates his goal against Down yesterday
Declan Bogue

By Declan Bogue

Talk all you like about defensive systems and structures and so on, but when it comes down to it, nothing beats thumping the ball into the square for a big man.

This was an absolutely stonking thriller in The Marshes. Armagh's good fortune was that they were able to strike last, and most decisively, through substitute Andrew Murnin to claim their first win in the Ulster Championship since 2014, after a Down rally took it to extra-time.

And even when it seemed over, once again in a breathless encounter, another goal arrived in the 92nd minute of play. Paul Devlin this time flighting in a ball that escaped everyone's grasp and nestled in the Armagh net.

The final decisive call was left to referee Anthony Nolan. Blaine Hughes went for length in his kickout, Pat Havern dived on the break but instead of gaining a free while surrounded by Armagh tacklers, Nolan whistled for touching on the ground. The final, final, final whistle was greeted with utter joy from the Orchard support.

Armagh manager Kieran McGeeney left media duties to his selector Jim McCorry - himself a former Down manager but back in his second spell as Armagh management here after a period in the mid-90s when he handed McGeeney his debut.

"People talk about the win for the county, for themselves and for Kieran because he has put so much work in over the last number of years," said McCorry.

"But the bottom line is we just needed to get a win and move forward in games where, if you take what we missed in the first half we scored one from six frees in the first half. There could have been a bigger difference than that before the goal went in."

Let's go back to the start.

With there being no secrets in Ulster football, neither team did anything particularly unexpected, but they weren't long in taking remedial action either.

James Morgan was pressed into action early after Patrick Burns pulled up with injury on seven minutes and he went on to Donal O'Hare. After 26 minutes, Down manager Paddy Tally had seen enough of Ruairi Wells' struggle to contain Rian O'Neill and sent in Kevin McKernan instead with James Guinness introduced.

Armagh got off to the first score from O'Neill, and it was tit-for-tat scoring thereafter until a goal in the 23rd minute. Down had been guarding possession jealously around the fringes of the Armagh defence until Gerard Collins floated an inviting ball into the square. Pat Havern outjumped Brendan Donaghy to flick to the net and all of a sudden Down were two in front.

With O'Neill and Rory Grugan subsequently failing to convert scoreable frees it looked like a difficult afternoon for Armagh until they were thrown a lifeline.

Down's Championship debutant Conor Francis dawdled on a ball and the turnover was sent downfield to Jamie Clarke. He fed Aidan Nugent who was taken out with a high challenge by Caolan Mooney. Referee Anthony Nolan was decisive with the red card and Armagh further nibbled the lead to the minimum by the break, 1-5 to 0-7 to Down.

A man down there was always an element of them clinging on and their lead was wiped out when goalkeeper Burns found himself dispossessed on an outfield foray by substitute Stefan Campbell and while he grabbed his ankle to prevent further disaster, it earned him a black card and Rian O'Neill levelled.

It looked all over in the 54th minute when Rory Grugan's brilliant hand pass played in Mark Shields who skated around replacement goalkeeper Mark Hynes to smash to the net. A Campbell point pushed the Armagh lead out to five.

Down went route one to get back in. Kevin McKernan played in a ball that was spilled by Harrison but Cory Quinn fed the lurking Donal O'Hare who drilled to the far corner. With the home crowd going wild, they dominated the next series of kickouts and yielded points from a difficult Paul Devlin free, and the equaliser came from James McGuinness to push it into extra time.

It appeared Down were going to sail home by jumping three points into the lead in the first period of extra-time. But then McGeeney sent on Murnin. His first touch was a catch, pivot and point to level the game.

His second was to judge Rian O'Neill's delivery perfectly, profit from Conor Poland being out of position, and cushion a spectacular fisted goal to the top corner.

"During the week I was talking about Andrew and his availability and we were targeting him for the next game in two weeks time, that's how we had assessed the injury," explained McCorry.

"We knew there were 10 or 15 minutes in him, knowing the quality of the player he is superb and he can turn a game on a sixpence and we have seen that.

"It's a really strong bench and that was probably the difference in the end."

Jarlath Og Burns also announced himself on this stage in a big way. "I said to Jarly Og after, I don't know what he had for breakfast but the amount of yardage the man covered," marvelled McCorry.

Astonishingly, Down grabbed another goal in the 92nd minute when Paul Devlin's delivery deceived everyone. But that was it, the end came and with it, Armagh's first win over Down in Championship action in Newry in over six decades.

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