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Ulster Championship: Armagh find Derry too hot to handle

Armagh 1-11 Derry 3-14: Everything comes to those who wait. And rarely has patience brought such a warmly satisfying reward as that experienced by Derry yesterday.

Cast as also-rans in a string of recent Ulster semi-finals and forsaken by a huge swathe of their fans, John Brennan’s side spectacularly mocked recent history in front of 14,941 fans at St Tiernach’s Park, Clones.

If the choice of venue prompted a stay-away mentality, then this five-star performance highlighted as it was by superb teamwork, scintillating scores, towering character and several majestic individual displays will ensure that the Oak Leaf county is all but deserted when the July 17 decider against either Tyrone or Donegal comes round.

This surely was redemption day for Derry. The bitter memory of seven semi-final defeats since 2000 and the considerable embarrassment that has emanated from a failure to win back-to-back Championship matches since 1998 were dramatically erased as Brennan’s reinvigorated side delivered in sublime style.

Armagh’s impressive track record in the Ulster series — seven titles since 1999 — counted for nothing as Derry, driven by Michael Friel and Joe Diver at midfield and inspired by the exquisite finishing of Eoin Bradley in particular up front, signalled what could prove the dawn of a new era.

Gone were the inhibitions, uncertainty and, let it be said, serious flaws that have marked their Championship itinerary since their last provincial triumph 13 years ago.

Instead, here was a well-oiled, dynamic outfit fluent in movement and rich in ideas that left Armagh floundering against the ropes long before the finish.

Derry won virtually every individual battle, translated defence into attack at blistering pace, snapped up half-chances with precision and applied a savage killer-blow just when the Orchard County had begun to think that the scales might be tipping in their favour.

And such was the rigidity of their defensive mechanism that the anticipated threat of Steven McDonnell and Jamie Clarke was in the end restricted to a derisory two points from play although the former potted four frees.

In the last quarter, the Armagh rearguard could have been forgiven for thinking that they were trying to halt a runaway train such was Derry’s fastidious use of possession and application of pace.

Armagh may well have hinted that Derry’s Ulster woes were to be extended by the manner in which they exploited a modest ration of first quarter possession, but when Derry, a team that remained in perpetual motion, began to funnel back more diligently Paddy O’Rourke’s side were all but rendered toothless.

And this not only nullified the normally ever-present danger posed by McDonnell and Clarke close to goal up until then, but clearly served to fuel the Oak Leaf side’s psyche for battle.

Their initial confidence-booster arrived in the 30th minute.

A slick flurry of passes down the flank involving several players allowed the impressive Mark Lynch to burst through and the 25-year-old wing-forward gave Armagh goalkeeper Paul Hearty no chance with a blistering drive.

Suddenly, at 1-7 to 0-5 Derry had put considerable daylight between themselves and their opponents. Thriving on a bountiful supply of second-phase possession in the middle third of the pitch, John Brennan’s side used both flanks to exposed frailties in the Armagh defence.

Eoin Bradley had by then already brought his first-half haul to five points and with Lynch complementing his all-important goal with a brace of points Derry’s cutting edge was firmly underlined.

Indeed, they had swept into a commanding 1-8 to 0-5 lead before McDonnell pulled one back just before the break by which stage Derry’s fluency, energy and support play had thrust them onto a higher plateau at that juncture.

Armagh flattered to deceive when Micheal O’Rourke swept in their goal within 20 seconds of the resumption and after Charlie Kielt and the hugely influential Conleith Gilligan (2) had restored calm within the ranks, Bradley thundered in a superb second goal which rocketed his side into a |2-11 to 1-7 advantage.

Throughout, his stellar talent refused to be silenced. And even after McDonnell (2) and Vernon had tried to spare Armagh’s blushes with points, even further evidence that it was not to be their day came when Derry goalkeeper Danny Devlin brilliantly beat out the former’s 55th minute goal-bound effort.

Seconds later the ball was nestling in the Armagh net, Gilligan having torqued venomously in from the right following a rapid-fire counter-attack to leave Hearty helpless yet again.

Subsequent points from Sean Leo McGoldrick and Gilligan — his sixth of the contest — did not so much put Derry well clear as propel them into the stratosphere.

It’s a long time since Armagh conceded 3-14, but then it’s even longer since Derry enjoyed an outing to paradise.

They did just that yesterday — don’t bet against them making a return journey there in the not too distant future.

DERRY: D Devlin; S L McGoldrick, K McGuckin, D McBride; B Og McAlarey, C Kielt (0-1), C Bateson; M Friel, J Diver; M Lynch (1-2), J Kielt, B McGoldrick; E Muldoon, E Bradley (1-5, 0-3 frees), C Gilligan (1-6, 0-6 frees). Subs: C Mullan for McAlarey (22 mins), C O’Boyle for Muldoon (62), E McGuckin for Bradley (65), C McGoldrick for Lynch (70). Yellow cards: McAlarey (7 mins), Diver (25), B McGoldrick (35), McBride (40), Bradley (63).

ARMAGH: P Hearty; A Mallon, B Donaghy, K Dyas; A Kernan (0-1 free), C McKeever, V Martin; K Toner, C Vernon (0-1); T Kernan, B J Padden, M Mackin; J Clarke (0-1), S McDonnell (0-6, 0-4 frees), M O’Rourke (1-1). Subs: J Lavery for Martin (33 mins), P Duffy (0-1) for Dyas (48), D McKenna for Padden (48), B Mallon for O’Rourke (50), J Murtagh for T Kernan (56). Yellow cards: Donaghy (12 mins), A Kernan (25), A Mallon (63)

Referee: David Coldrick (Meath)

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