Danny Hughes: Young players from Down and Armagh stepped up when it really mattered

Connaire Harrison scores Down's last goal during the Ulster Senior Football Championship between Down and Armagh at Pairc Esler Newry on Sunday May 19 2019. Picture by Philip Walsh.

ANYONE who was at the Ulster SFC quarter-final between Down and Armagh on Sunday cannot say that they didn’t get value for money. It was a very entertaining game with plenty of talking points, some great scores and a few excellent individual performances.

There were a few Down and Armagh men who announced themselves on the inter-county stage.

From a Mourne perspective, you have to be happy with the character and never-say-die attitude the players displayed throughout the contest.

Down are on the right path and Paddy Tally has to be credited for this. From a position of being almost dead, Down’s Barry O’Hagan kicked a beautiful score in the first period of extra-time to put Down three points up.

At that stage, Armagh looked as if they had thrown away the game, having already lost a five-point lead in the second period with an extra man.

So where did it all go wrong for the Orchardmen in this period?

For Kieran McGeeney, this has been a nagging question during his tenure as manager.

As a player, McGeeney was part of a team who excelled in tight contests and, having played against them on numerous occasions, I can confidently say that they were a group who knew how to win a match when it was in the melting pot.

The current Armagh squad had been unable to see out games in both the League and Championship for four years prior to Sunday, so this pattern is nothing new.

It so happened that Armagh’s best players were also some of the youngest and most inexperienced.

Jarly óg Burns was brilliant and is on course to be a better player than his dad (he will not mind me saying that).

Rian O’Neill is a player – a proper player. He is in the mould of Michael Murphy in Donegal – a future leader.

O’Neill stepped up when other Armagh players were faltering.

The Orchardmen looked nervous at times, missing free-kicks and dropping them short into the Down goalkeeper’s arms.

Gerard Collins was doing an excellent man-marking job on Jamie Clarke, who still managed to get away and kick a few scores despite the close attention.

The win for Armagh – from a Down perspective – hinged on two major incidents.

Firstly, Caolan Mooney’s sending-off. Secondly, Rory Burns’ black card.

Let’s deal with the black card first. It was a clear sending-off offence and the dismissal of Burns was self-defeating – caught overplaying the ball and appearing over-confident at a time when his team had options around him.

Down had already been playing for most of the second half with 14 men – so this wasn’t a time to deviate from their process.

From that sending-off, Down struggled to win primary possession from their restarts. Indeed, whereas they were previously finding joy via short kick-outs, all kick-outs now appeared to go long, which Armagh were starting to control.

Burns will learn to be more conservative at crucial times, but this only comes through experience at this level.

Indeed, he was one of 10 Championship debutants for Down who performed admirably.

I don’t recall as large a turnover of players being introduced during any previous Championship match which, in the context of the performance, can only be a positive from Paddy Tally’s perspective.

Mooney’s sending-off ultimately cost Down a result in normal time. Up until then I thought the men in red and black played the better football and controlled the game with short passing and quick hands.

It was a mis-timed tackle, Mooney being a victim of his own pace when he was unable to check his run when he appeared to want to produce a ‘big shoulder’ on Nugent.

My first thoughts when watching the game at the ground was that it looked very harsh. I am biased, but even when I saw the incident on television later, I felt that it still warranted only a yellow.

The consistency of the tackle in general across the board is probably my greatest bugbear.

The most frustrating element of Mooney’s tackle is the application of appropriate punishment as, up and down the country, unintentional tackles such as Mooney’s would not have resulted in instant dismissal, whereas in this game it caused maximum effect.

In instances such as this, the presence of a television match official (TMO) has to be a conversation worth starting.

Simply ‘going upstairs’ will make it easier on the officials pitchside.

For fairness reasons, when teams have spent thousands of pounds preparing teams for Championship matches, clarity and certainty are important considerations in today’s outcomes.

For Kieran McGeeney, the over-riding emotion will be one of relief. Beating Down in Newry in a game that ebbed and flowed has character-building qualities – as long as you come out on the right side of the result, that is.

In a perfect world, should you be guaranteed the victory beforehand, it is definitely the best way to win a game.

McGeeney will also be happy with his substitutions and, in management, you live and die by these sort of decisions.

The manager delivered and so too did his players. Andrew Murnin scored 1-1. Mark Shields got a goal. Ben Crealey came into the fray and secured a couple of key kick-outs. And Stefan Campbell again looked extremely dangerous and kicked two excellent points.

If any game represented what modern Gaelic football has become, it was this one.

Both teams took off and re-introduced players at various times in what seemed like a conveyor belt of personnel, with both managers using a full quota of substitutions.

It was the constants who were the match-winners via O’Neill and Burns, two young men who look to be future stalwarts in Armagh’s team.

Armagh will accept the reward of an Ulster semi-final with a dangerous Cavan side who had put Monaghan away the previous evening in Breffni Park.

Cavan commanded such a lead by half-time that Monaghan found it just too difficult to overcome, despite reducing it to three points 15 minutes before the end.

This period in the first half was the winning of the game and, while Cavan looked nervous when Monaghan reeled off a number of consecutive scores in the second period, they rode out the storm.

Sometimes this is just something that has to be gone through during a Championship match.

Armagh will not be as blind-sided next day out.

Either way we will have a fresh Ulster finalist. Moreover, whatever happens, it can only be good for Ulster football.

In a time when it is easy to be negative, last weekend’s games served us up entertaining matches and good football.

For that reason, you have to be thankful.

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