Armagh exit the All-Ireland series to Roscommon with their heads held high
All-Ireland Senior Football Championship Qualifying round four: Roscommon 2-22 Armagh 1-19
WHEN you’re a follower of Armagh you will lose your religion at some point in the summer.
In mid-May, Armagh’s belief system took an almighty kicking when they bowed meekly out of the Ulster Championship to Fermanagh.
But before the end of summer, the scriptures from the Orchard will make sense again.
Last season, the Armagh footballers found redemption in the Qualifiers.
And it was definitively the case again in the sweltering heat of Portlaoise on Saturday evening – even though they exited the All-Ireland series.
In the past few seasons under Kieran McGeeney’s stewardship, Armagh have been a glowing parable for never giving up.
Just when their supporters’ faith is shaken to its roots, the Armagh players respond in the most gallant way possible.
As the Championship weeks tick by, they seem to grow just as much as people as they do footballers, and the warm glow returns to Armagh’s horizon.
At the end an enthralling encounter with beaten Connacht finalists Roscommon, the scoreboard in O’Moore Park made a liar out of Armagh’s display.
Five points separated the sides at the final whistle, but it was exceptionally harsh on the Ulstermen.
Make no mistake: the best team won but there was little more than a hair’s breadth between them.
With the prize of a place in the inaugural Super 8s awaiting the winners, this Round Four clash was between a team on the cusp of the elite and a team trying desperately to reach the cusp.
In the end it just about went to form – but Roscommon were tested to their absolute limit by an Armagh side whose performance was more than just gutsy.
At times, it had class written all over it, particularly in the first half.
The Orchard men may have racked up 18 wides in their dramatic victory over Clare last weekend, but they didn’t have any problems finding their range against the Rossies.
Aidan Forker, pushed into the Orchard attack, set the tone with a devil-may-care effort from the stand side that flew over Roscommon’s bar.
Jemar Hall and Stephen Sheridan made scoring look the easiest part of Gaelic football with points in the seventh and eighth minutes before Grugan dusted off his five iron to swing over two brilliant points.
If Grugan and Forker’s scores were out of the top drawer, Andrew Murnin’s four points were out of this world.
In the 16th minute, the St Paul’s man plucked the ball nonchalantly out of the air with one hand and with his next touch thumped the ball over the bar that just about eclipsed his 11th minute effort that curled beautifully between the posts.
“In the first half they shot the lights out,” said Roscommon boss Kevin McStay. “We thought: ‘They can’t continue to do this’.
Armagh produced a near-perfect attacking display in the first half, but they still trailed 1-11 to 0-12. Roscommon’s attacking play was equally joyous, with Cathal Cregg, Donie Smith and Ciaran Murtagh in dazzling form.
The deeper you travel in the Championship, the more your mistakes are punished.
This was the case for Roscommon’s first half goal.
Charlie Vernon, arguably Armagh’s most consistent player this season, gave away possession in 29th minute and Roscommon took full advantage of the loose turnover.
Enda Smith, uncontainable throughout Saturday’s clash, ghosted in to raise the first green flag of the afternoon to put the Rossies 1-8 to 0-10 ahead.
Armagh lost defender Aaron McKay in the warm-up and due to Gregory McCabe and Mark Shields picking up yellow cards, McGeeney was forced to take the in-form Forker out of his attack to plug a defensive hole in the second half.
Shields was pushed up front as a result of his first-half yellow and rippled Roscommon’s net with a brilliant low finish in the 47th minute that brought Armagh within two points of their opponents [1-15 to 1-13].
Two minutes earlier, Rory Grugan saw his penalty saved by Rossies ‘keeper Colm Lavin after a foot block on the Ballymacnab playmaker.
Armagh reacted to this devastating blow in typical fashion thanks to Shields’ unerring strike and Niall Grimley converting three frees between the 55th and 62nd minutes.
Armagh tried desperately to reel Roscommon in and Gavin McParland briefly made it a one-point game [1-18 to 1-17] in the 67th minute, but with the prudent use of fresh legs and a classy stoppage-time goal from Enda Smith – his second of the day – time had finally beaten Armagh.
“When the game was in the balance we fought really hard and we did really well,” said McGeeney.
“We got the ball in the danger zone, but we missed the penalty, we missed a few free-kicks, we kicked the ball into the keeper’s hands.
“I thought we could have got another penalty but we probably could have finished that one as well. It was disappointing. And then they opened us up at the end, but I don’t think the final score-line does the fellas any justice.”
He added: “I think it’s been a very positive year for us. In the McKenna Cup everybody got game-time, nearly 45 players, and we had a good League [gaining promotion out of Division Three].
“Outside of the Fermanagh game, you couldn’t be any more proud of the players. They acquitted themselves very well in all aspects of the game.
“Their skill levels are very, very high and hopefully there’ll be a wee bit more to come from them.
“To me, it’s been a decent year. We came out of Division Three and competed well… We’re just a small bit shy of where we’d like to get.”
Armagh’s journey ended one stage short of the Super 8s – a destination that ‘Geezer’ and his players will have their eyes on next season.
“You want to be part of that, even if you’re getting a hiding. I think it tells you where you are and where you need to go and having a couple of signposts along the way when you’re a young fella isn’t a bad idea.
“I can tell them: ‘This is what you need to do’… but sometimes when you get hit straight in the face and you see the level that those boys are at. But we got an idea of it out there against Roscommon.”
Taking refuge against the cool, concrete walls of the corridor beneath the main stand, Kevin McStay looked as though he’d played the 76 minutes against Armagh.
“There was a lot at stake,” he said. “We can’t have an attritional game, 13-men-behind-the-ball, we can’t play that way. We tried to tighten it up as best we can...”
After their gut-wrenching Connacht final loss three weeks earlier, the Roscommon boss was pleased with his players’ reaction.
“There’s a lot of mumbo-jumbo out there. If you win the Connacht title, you’re a mighty team – if you lose it, you’re going no-where. It doesn’t work like that.
“We’re developing and Armagh will get there, I’ve no doubt about that. We are two teams going in the right direction. I said that to Kieran afterwards.
“What we’ve done is given ourselves a real good shot in the arm for the match [against Tyrone] next weekend. I’m not saying we’re going to win any games in the Super 8s but we’re going to be competitive.”
Armagh: B Hughes; R Owens, P Burns, G McCabe; M Shields (1-0), B Donaghy, A Forker (0-1); C Vernon, C Mackin; R Grugan (0-5, 0-2 frees), J Hall (0-1), N Grimley (0-5, 0-3 frees, 0-1 ‘45); R McShane (0-1), A Murnin (0-4), S Sheridan (0-1)
Subs: J McElroy for G McCabe (34), R McQuillan for S Sheridan (42), N Rowland for B Donaghy (45), G McParland (0-1) for C Mackin (52), J Duffy for J Hall (63), K Dyas for A Murnin (66)
Yellow cards: G McCabe (9), M Shields (35), P Burns (58), N Rowland (76)
Black card: G McParland (73) not replaced
Roscommon: C Lavin; D Murray, N McInerney, S McDermott; J McManus, P Domican, C Devaney (0-1); C Compton (0-1), T O’Rourke; C Murtagh (0-6, 0-2 frees), C Cregg (0-3), E Smith (2-2); D Smith (0-3), N Daly, D Murtagh (0-5 frees) Subs: G Patterson for P Domican (45), Finbar Cregg for C Murtagh (55), C Compton for E Smith (50), C Daly for S McDermott (61), Fintan Cregg (0-1) for N Kilroy (65), I Kilbride for N Daly (73)
Blood substitution: C Compton for E Smith (50-54)
Referee: J McQuillan (Cavan)