Rory Grugan's late point secures Armagh a McKenna Cup win over Donegal

Armagh forward Jamie Clarke is crowded out by Donegal’s Paul Brennan and Brendan McCole during yesterday’s McKenna Cup semi-final in Omagh Picture by Margaret McLaughlin
Cahair O'Kane in Healy Park

Bank of Ireland Dr McKenna Cup semi-final: Donegal 1-10 Armagh 0-14

ARMAGH haven’t much been bothered by the McKenna Cup since their last success a quarter-of-a-century ago, and there won’t be many tears shed, win or lose against Tyrone on Saturday night, but this has been a decent January for them.

The better side in the first half and second-best in the second yesterday, it was their wider attacking luxury that saw them past a Tír Chonaill team that relied heavily on Jamie Brennan for attacking penetration.

He was the outstanding player on the pitch, hitting four points and causing trouble every time he moved, but Kieran McGeeney had more threats at his disposal.

Stefan Campbell got three from play on top of a few deft touches. Even though he was quiet, Rian O’Neill’s sole score was a thing of beauty, and although he didn’t score and his involvement was sporadic, Jamie Clarke’s use of the ball from deep was another thorn in Donegal’s flesh.

Rory Grugan was the man at the wheel, steering their attack, while Jemar Hall and Ryan McShane – the latter of whom did a diligent defensive job on Ryan McHugh – offered energy.

Brendan Donaghy was the game’s best defender, his positional sense and experience utilised to perfection as Armagh’s free man.

Yet despite having so many of the game’s best players, it was a photo finish settled by a sumptuous winner from Grugan.

Clarke had done well to hold on to the ball and get it to Ballymacnab’s finest, who cut deftly inside the attempted block on to the outside of the left and split the posts in his trademark way.

That was the fifth and final point they scored in a half where they were assisted by a gale blowing in from the Gortin End of Healy Park. Both sides coped far better with that wind into their faces than at their backs.

Declan Bonner’s side, with Ciaran Thompson tried out at full-forward alongside Brennan, started the brighter. The Thompson experiment wasn’t particularly successful, but the Bundoran pocket-rocket beside him was causing enough bother for two men.

He scored his first after taking an attacking mark just inside the 45 and lacing over, and moments later fired over from a similar distance on the other side from play as James Morgan, despite a couple of decent moments, struggled to get to grips.

Things seemed to get a jump-start when Donaghy met Tony McCleneghan with the meatiest of perfectly-timed shoulders. Armagh turned the ball over and Hall scored on the counter.

That was the first of three on the bounce, with Donegal’s tactic of dropping Hugh McFadden deep from midfield backfiring somewhat as Niall Grimley began to dictate matters around the middle.

Grimley fired over a superb score himself before setting up Campbell, who was heavily involved in the first half but quiet in the second.

Level at 0-4 apiece, Armagh’s footing in the game slipped momentarily when Caolan McGonigle – who had a very good second period – got in behind unmarked. He hung the ball up to the far post and Jason McGee used all of his lofty frame to climb highest and palm home.

It only served as a respite, with Armagh’s retort coming from a Grimley free and efforts from play by Grugan and Rian O’Neill, the latter a classy effort chopping the wind off the outside of his right boot.

They’d been given the chance to get on top of Mark Anthony McGinley’s kick-outs at that stage and did so to great effect, but it was Blaine Hughes who had the greater struggle over the 70 minutes.

Donegal had Armagh’s kick-out shape well worked out and dominated any time they forced the ball long.

If anything, the game showed what impact the minor change to the kick-out rule might have. Those extra few seconds for both ‘keepers to get the ball to the tee, allied with the seven yards fewer the opposition have to get up the pitch, could see a lot more in the way of kick-out contests without the need for over-complication.

That was essentially where Donegal’s best work came from on a day when their transition game wasn’t at its best. Yet they were utterly dominant for long spells of the second half, only to find themselves frustrated by an Orchard side that did some excellent defensive work, but also married it with a healthy dose of fairly cynical fouling when they found themselves being countered.

Moving Mark Shields back on to Brennan in a reshuffle did no harm, though the same could be said at the other end where Brendan McCole looked comfortable against Clarke and Eamonn Doherty tightened up on Campbell.

Last year’s McKenna Cup victors were the side with their noses in front on the scoreboard for most of the second half but Armagh always carried enough threat into the gaps behind them to merit squeezing through.

Stephen Sheridan ghosted into one of those huge spaces to level it at 0-13 to 1-10 before Grugan’s beautiful winner.

There are notes of caution, not least that their January team has contained so many of their starting Championship team (13 of those used yesterday played against Roscommon last autumn), but winning does wonders.

Tyrone, up next, remain the ultimate January test of all.

Armagh: B Hughes; C Mackin, R Kennedy, J Morgan; M Shields, B Donaghy, A Forker; S Sheridan (0-1), N Grimley (0-4, 0-3 frees); J Hall (0-2), R Grugan (0-3, 0-1 frees), R McShane; S Campbell (0-3), R O’Neill (0-1), J Clarke

Subs: G McCabe for Forker (10), J Óg Burns for R O’Neill (64), J McElroy for McShane (64), C Vernon for Hall (68), J Grugan for Campbell (71)

Yellow cards: J Morgan (18), J Hall (52), J Clarke (58), N Grimley (63)

Donegal: MA McGinley; C Ward, B McCole, C Morrison; R McHugh, T McCleneghan, P Brennan; H McFadden, J McGee (1-1); M McElhinney, N O’Donnell, C McGonigle (0-1); M Langan (0-2, 0-1f), C Thompson (0-2, 0-1 frees), J Brennan (0-4, 0-1 free)

Subs: E Doherty for Morrison (h-t), M O’Reilly for O’Donnell (46), P Mogan for McCleneghan (46), O Gallen for McElhinney (60)

Yellow cards: B McCole (28)

Referee: P Faloon (Down)

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