GAA Football

Plucky Armagh Harps in tune to see off Maghery and land first county title in 26 years

Armagh Harps celebrate their county title victory Picture by Philip Walsh
Brendan Crossan at the Athletic Grounds

Donnelly Group Armagh Senior Football Championship final: Sean McDermot's, Maghery 0-11 Armagh Harps 2-9

WHEN you wait 26 years for a county title, you savour the moment. Everyone associated with Armagh Harps did just that last night. The floodlights at The Athletic Grounds were already switched off and stewards were politely trying to usher everyone off the field.

There seemed no end to the back-slapping, the bear hugs and ‘selfies’.

It was fitting that manager John Toner led this heroic group of players to the Holy Grail.

In 1991, it was Toner who grabbed the winning point against Maghery to win their last championship crown.

Nobody could’ve imagined it would take over a quarter of a century before they’d win another one.

“It’s hard to describe,” said Toner afterwards.

“We’ve worked very hard for four years to get where we’re at. The boys put in a huge shift, particularly this year. In the second half, everybody stepped up, everybody did their job and we played really well.”

Twenty-six years “at times” felt like a long time, Toner said.

“It’s different emotions between playing and managing and being a supporter. But it’s a fantastic feeling.”

After losing the 2014 and 2015 deciders to a rampant Crossmaglen Rangers, Toner never lost faith in his players.

“Paddy [Morrison] in nets and Charlie [Vernon] are our oldest players – but after that the average age is about 26. And we’ve a lot of younger players at 22 and 23. We probably got to a couple of finals a bit early so they’ve learned from that and they’ve a lot of calmness about themselves.”

Yesterday was Armagh Harps’ third final appearance in four years. Losing simply wasn’t an option.

“This means everything,” beamed Harps player Joe McElroy.

“It was 26 years too long. We’ve been knocking on the door since we were minors. We’ve made three finals in four years and we couldn’t have taken another defeat today.

“It’s an unreal feeling. We were quietly confident going into this final. People were saying Maghery would win two in a row but we said nothing and came in as underdogs.”

Yesterday’s final swung decisively in Armagh Harps’ favour when they hit two goals within seconds of one another in the early stages of the second half.

Up to that point, defending champions Maghery were in cruise control. But goals are always worth more than three points in championship finals. They are momentum givers.

Players find an extra yard of pace – and the opposition lose two.

In the 33rd minute Ryan McShane finished off a flowing move that began with one of many perfectly weighted kick-outs from Harps ‘keeper Paddy Morrison.

With a two-step run-up, Morrison arrowed the ball to Karl Loughran on the right flank.

He in turn found McShane with a clever kick pass down the same side of the field. The lively forward played a one-two with Rory McGrath before unleashing an unstoppable low drive that rippled the net and reduced Maghery’s lead to a single point [0-6 to 1-2].

Before the holders could recover their composure, a lofted pass from Loughran found full-forward and man-of-the-match Ultan Lennon and he rifled the ball beyond Johnny Montgomery in the Maghery goal.

Following a cagey opening half, Maghery led 0-5 to 0-2 at the break.

After a few direct balls came to nothing, Maghery decided to try their luck from distance – and it paid handsome dividends.

Stefan Forker hit two beauties and impressive midfielder James Lavery and Ronan Lappin found their range too.

The Harps couldn’t unlock the Maghery defence in the first half with McShane and Lennon registering hard-earned scores for the underdogs.

But those two majors three minutes into the second half changed everything.

Although Maghery replied with three unanswered points to edge in front on 38 minutes, their defensive shape had completely gone.

Every time Harps attacked they looked like scoring.

They hit five points without reply between the 38th and 51st minutes to take charge of this final – with Lennon firing over three of them.

Even allowing for Maghery’s defensive malfunction, they were still in the game right to the end.

Trailing by four points in stoppage-time, Morrison made a stupendous one-handed save on the Harps goal line after Ben Crealey – moved to full-forward for the last 10 minutes – flicked Aidan Forker’s long punt goal-wards.

A goal at that stage probably would have been rough justice on Harps.

The all-action Charlie Vernon was immense for the winners. He won countless kick-outs and breaks and drove Harps forward throughout.

Ryan McShane and Lennon grew in confidence and the Harps management team also managed to nullify Stephen Cusack’s clever

runs from deep that caused Crossmaglen untold damage in the semi-finals.

Crucially, though, Morrison steered his kick-outs away from Ben Crealey and James Lavery – and even when the ball was up for grabs in the middle of the field big Lorcan Oliver competed brilliantly in the aerial stakes for Harps.

“We played Lorcan [Oliver] in midfield,” explained Toner.

“He’s only 21. Maghery didn’t dominate midfield, which they were expected to do, and Lorcan broke a lot of ball and Joshua [Loughran] alongside him has been one of the best players we’ve had all year.

“And Paddy Morrison is in the county squad for a reason – he’s a good goalkeeper. His kick-outs were very accurate. We won 90 per cent of our own kick-outs.”

Prior to yesterday’s final, the smart moment was on Maghery to claim back-to-back championships.

But just like what happened to Cullyhanna last year, beating Crossmaglen in the semi-finals doesn’t guarantee silverware in Armagh.

The Harps are champions again. The Ulster stage and Fermanagh champions Derrygonnelly felt like a million miles away for Armagh Harps last night, with the celebrations expected to still be going strong on this fine Monday morning.

Maghery: J Montgomery; K Nugent, O Lappin, C Higgins, B Haveron, S Cusack, D Lavery; J Lavery (0-1), B Crealey; S Tennyson, C Mackle (0-1), R Lappin (0-1); B Fox (0-1), Stefan Forker (0-3, 0-1 free), A Forker (0-3, 0-2 frees)

Subs: P Forker for S Tennyson (41), G Campbell for C Higgins (44 inj), Seamus Forker (0-1) for B Fox (51), N Forker for C Mackle (56)

Yellow card: K Nugent (48)

Armagh Harps: P Morrison; S Farry, K Loughran, C Stevenson; R McGrath, D McKenna, M McConville; J Loughran, C White (0-1); R McShane (1-1), J McElroy (0-1 free), L Oliver; C Vernon, U Lennon (1-5, 0-3 frees), S McCoy

Subs: T O’Kane for R McGrath (34), C Coulter for S McCoy (52), C Murphy (0-1) for C White (60), P Kelly for L Oliver (64)

Referee: K Falloon

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