Armagh 2-21 Monaghan 4-17
In a season which has been littered with listless, boring, one-sided matches, it can be stated with some degree of certainty that this spectacular encounter at Pairc Esler, Newry compensated to a large extent for what we have endured to date.
Unbounded skill, passion, drama, controversy — it had all these and more as Monaghan eventually chiselled out a victory for which they sweated blood.
In a nerve-wrecking finish, Armagh looked to have atoned for their first-half profligacy and defensive aberrations when they stole into a one-point lead in the dying embers of the contest (2-20 to 4-13) only for Monaghan to steal a march of them in the closing moments and book their place in the Ulster Final.
It was tough, tense and tenacious throughout — a full-blooded Championship encounter laced with spectacular scores, a bottomless well of raw courage and a litany of towering individual performances.
No wonder Monaghan skipper Ryan Wylie was breathless, exhausted and shattered. Yet he still managed to give a summation of his team’s performance.
“We did not distinguish ourselves in the Ulster Championship of late but this win gives us a great boost,” said Wylie. “We always knew that Armagh were going to come at us and we discovered that we had to push on from having a seven-point lead rather than sit back and defend it.
“Thankfully we were able to come out on top but it was very close. This time out we managed to get the verdict in what were difficult circumstances for us.”
Like everyone else in Monaghan, Wylie was devastated to learn of the tragic death of U20 captain Brendan Og Duffy hours before the game.
“When I got the message on my phone I was hoping that it was not true but sadly it was. Brendan was a great lad, he was the captain of the Monaghan Harps club as well as the county U20 team,” he said. “He was a great player and a great person.”
For Armagh manager Kieran McGeeney, the occasion brought disappointment having watched his side concede four goals, then fight their way back to take a one-point lead before being overtaken in the dash to the finishing line.
“I think we created some goal chances ourselves which we did not take. But overall I believe the team put in a great effort. We left ourselves too much to do from the first half yet we showed a lot of character and courage,” declared McGeeney. “I think this Armagh side is going in the right direction. I have said that these players can win medals if they put their minds to it. They certainly have the talent.”
It took Monaghan less than two minutes to pirate the first of their four first-half goals with Conor McManus gliding the ball past rookie goalkeeper Shea Magill before Jack McCarron popped up with No.2 in the 10th minute.
And from then until the half-time whistle sounded, Armagh for the most part found themselves engrossed in a demanding and often futile rearguard operation.
With Rian O’Neill managing to whip over a series of points and Rory Grugan helping himself to a couple of scores, the Orchard County just about kept their heads above water.
But they suddenly found themselves in serious danger of being submerged when Michael Bannigan stole in for Monaghan’s third goal before Darren Hughes was presented with all the time he needed to pick his spot in forcing Magill to pick the ball out of the net for the fourth time.
Monaghan custodian Rory Beggan thundered over two trademark long-range frees and McManus brought his haul to three as Monaghan almost careered out of sight before Greg McCabe, Stefan Campbell and Ciaron O’Hanlon brought a semblance of respectability to the interval scoreline (4-9 to 0-14).
Yet Monaghan were to score just eight more points, three from frees, in the second half as a now marauding Armagh outfit turned up the heat with Conor Turbitt swooping for their first goal in the 52nd minute and Tiernan Kelly flashing in their second eight minutes later.
With Rian O’Neill, his brother Oisin, Ciaron O’Hanlon and Andrew Murnin plundering points, Armagh were propelled into a 2-20 to 4-13 lead only for McManus to pounce for three late points that steered his side into the Ulster Final.
Armagh: S Magill; J Morgan, A McKay, R Kennedy; C O’Hanlon 0-1, G McCabe 0-1, C Mackin; N Grimley 0-1, O O’Neill 0-2; J Hall, R O’Neill 0-6 (3f), J Og Burns 0-1; R Grugan 0-3 (1F), A Murnin 0-1, S Campbell 0-1. Subs: Subs: A Forker for McKay (28), C O’Neill 0-1 for O’Hanlon (half-time), C Turbett 1-1 for Grimley (half-time), T Kelly 1-1 for Hall (49), R McQuillan 0-1 for Mackin (60).
Monaghan: R Beggan 0-2 (2f); K Duffy, C Boyle, R Wylie; K O’Connell, K Lavelle, R McAnespie; D Hughes 1-0, N Kearns; M Bannigan 1-1, A Mulligan, D Ward 0-2; C McCarthy 0-1, J McCarron 1-2, C McManus 1-6 (3f). Subs: S O’Hanlon 0-2 for McCarthy (34), S Carey 0-1 for Mulligan (41), C Walshe for O’Connell (47), A Woods for Kearns (59), F Kelly for Hughes (72)
Referee: David Coldrick (Meath)