Donegal edge out Armagh as the Orchard men face a relegation battle
Allianz Football League Division Two: Donegal 1-9 Armagh 0-11
WHEN the storm blew into Ballybofey during the first half and reduced the goalposts at the road end of McCumhail Park to rubber, Armagh’s challenge felt well and truly shipwrecked.
Through the rain-soaked panes of glass in the press box and at a time when the storm was at its most menacing, man-of-the-match Michael Murphy fired low into Armagh’s net on the cusp of half-time to put Donegal 1-4 to 0-6 in front and firmly in the driving seat.
In a piercing move involving Eoghan ‘Ban’ Gallagher, Ryan McHugh, Hugh McFadden and Michael Langan, Armagh were left exposed at the far post and Murphy, introduced five minutes earlier, was never going to pass up the opportunity.
Indeed, Saturday night’s at-times tempestuous Division Two affair between two Ulster rivals will be remembered for the sheeting rain and schizophrenic wind and a couple of moments of genuine quality from the home side that ultimately decided the outcome.
Making his first appearance of the year, Murphy hit a game-winning 1-2 and was brilliant. ‘Ban’ Gallagher asked searching questions of the Armagh defence every time he broke forward.
Leo McLoone at centre-back organised everyone around him and was the calmest man in the storm, while Michael Langan ignored the rubbery goalposts to land five crucial frees to haul Donegal away from the wrong end of the table and increase Armagh’s relegation concerns.
The Orchard men only lost by a point but nobody could dispute the better team won.
Donegal could never quite shake off their visitors who through sheer grit and determination kept themselves alive deep into stoppage-time before Monaghan referee Martin McNally blew the final whistle.
Given the wild conditions and Armagh’s physical approach, it certainly wasn’t an easy game to officiate. When order was restored after a melee involving both sets of players around the 17th minute, Armagh’s James Morgan and Donegal’s Jason McGee were red-carded.
There was a sense that both men were sacrificed in the interests of restoring order.
The dismissals had a more negative impact on Armagh as Morgan seemed tailor-made for a man-marking job on the fleet-footed Jamie Brennan and the visitors were forced into a defensive re-shuffle.
Even though Kieran McGeeney’s men started the brighter, with Jamie Clarke and Stefan Campbell hitting early scores, Armagh’s play became anxious and distracted.
While assistant manager Jim McCorry could legitimately claim afterwards that some decisions went against Armagh, they were also authors of their own downfall quite a lot of the time.
The foul count was Armagh 28 Donegal 12.
Armagh’s tackling ranged from crude to untidy and at times and took away from the natural attacking ability within their ranks.
Stephen Sheridan and Connaire Mackin were fortunate to escape censure after an indiscretion each in the first half.
Donegal didn’t settle well, but two over-zealous challenges from Charlie Vernon and Jamie Clarke in the scoring zone allowed Langan to knock two handy frees over Armagh’s bar in the 10th and 15th minutes respectively. Donegal were up and running.
Niall Grimley backed up a fine 31st free with a stupendous sideline score a few minutes later, while Campbell profited from a quickly taken ‘attacking mark’ by Clarke to put the visitors 0-6 to 0-4 ahead.
But a storm was brewing when Michael Murphy strode onto the field and parked himself on the edge of the square.
Within six minutes of his arrival he'd raised a green flag and shifted the momentum firmly in Donegal's favour.
And when Ciaran Thompson converted a soft award of a 40th minute free, Donegal never looked like surrendering their slender advantage, especially with ‘Ban’ Gallagher and Ryan McHugh probing from deep, McLoone minding the house and the remarkable Murphy thumping over two super points in the 61st and 64th minutes from play.
One of the greatest compliments you can pay McGeeney’s Armagh team is that they always go to the end.
Murphy’s latter score stretched the home side’s lead to 1-9 to 0-8, but Donegal still couldn’t relax.
Rian O’Neill of Crossmaglen Rangers slung over a couple of points to reduce the deficit and substitute Mark Shields broke Donegal’s defensive lines to shoot for goal but the dynamic defender’s effort was turned away for a ’45.
Ethan Rafferty, another Armagh player coming back from injury, aimed too high and watched his free fly over Donegal’s bar to make it a one-point game in the 75th minute, but time had beaten them.
Donegal’s good defensive structure, greater attacking thrusts from their half-back line and, of course, Murphy saw them home on Saturday night.
For all their efforts to peg back their hosts in the second half, Armagh couldn’t quite manage to get Jamie Clarke and ‘Soupy’ Campbell into good enough scoring positions.
Substitutes Jarlath Og Burns, Shields and Ryan Kennedy certainly gave them more impetus, but there is more football in this Armagh team as they face a possible relegation battle in their remaining games against Fermanagh (a) and Cork (h).
They need to start showing it for longer periods in games if they are to retain their place in Division Two.