GAA Football

Armagh outclass Antrim with display of pace and power

Armagh's Jarlath Og Burns strides away from Antrim's Patrick Branagan in yesterday's Dr McKenna Cup game at Glenavy.
Picture by Seamus Loughran

Bank of Ireland Dr McKenna Cup Section B, round 2:

Antrim 1-10 Armagh 2-21

NOTHING from play by Jamie Clarke and only one point from full-forward Jack Grugan – and Armagh still cruised to a 14-point victory, with Antrim’s goal the last score of the ‘contest’.

To be fair to both those aforementioned attackers, they were taken off at half-time with the game already won, the visitors having racked up 2-12 to the Saffrons’ 0-2. Indeed by that stage Clarke had outscored the hosts himself, coolly converting a 13th minute penalty awarded for a foul on Jarlath Og Burns.

With Ryan McShane having added to his strong start by punishing a poor kick-out with an opportunist goal before that, and the returning Stefan Campbell also to the fore, notching 0-4 in each half, six of those from play, Armagh only trailed to the opening score of the match and could afford to ‘lose’ the second half at the very end.

Typically, Orchard County boss Kieran McGeeney still found fault with his team’s display, though, and obviously it wasn’t perfect.

However, the blend of pace and power bodes well for the future and, in the short-term, has surely already secured a place in this competition’s semi-finals due to Armagh’s huge scoring difference.

Read more: Tyrone shrug off jet-lag to beat Ulster University

McGeeney rather reluctantly admitted “They scored well”, before launching into his standard search for improvement: “I suppose you’d be disappointed a wee bit in the second half, we dropped five or six short at the start of it that could have stopped a whole lot of other stuff.

“But they pushed on well, there were some good displays, and it was good to get Charlie [Vernon] and Niall Grimley back in, so it was good.”

It was better than ‘good’, it was very impressive at times from Armagh, notably their half-back line of Mark Shields, Brendan Donaghy, and Aidan Forker, with all three getting forward well and the wing-backs both scoring from play and creating chances for colleagues.

Nominal corner-back Connaire Mackin also notched two points from play, full-back Ryan Kennedy appeared very assured, and Burns put in a disciplined display around midfield.

It’s up front, though, that Armagh supporters can get most excited about, not least because Campbell and Clarke are back in contention.

There’s never been any doubting the quality of either man but Clarke also showed serious commitment with his work-rate, including making an interception back inside his own ‘45’, while ‘Soupy’ swung over some lovely scores from both flanks.

Jemar Hall was the only starting forward not to get his name on the score-sheet but the Forkhill player’s speed and effort were eye-catching. Armagh still have Andy Murnin, Ethan Rafferty, and the O’Neill brothers, Oisin and Rian to compete for starting slots in attack, so they can look to the season ahead with optimism.

It’s hard to find positives for Antrim. The experiment of deploying Colm Fleming at goalkeeper backfired badly, with the Rossa forward replaced between the posts at half-time after some poor kick-outs led to several scores for the opposition, including their opening goal from Ryan McShane.

The Saffrons lost right corner-back Patrick Branagan to an early facial injury and their left corner-back Andrew Sweeney was taken off after a quarter of an hour as he struggled against Campbell.

With Niall Delargy also sent out for the second period in a tactical re-shuffle, coming on for wing-back Patrick Finnegan, that made for four subs used by the start of the second half.

Some credit, then, to Antrim, that they kept the game close after the teams turned around and indeed actually outscored Armagh after the break, thanks to that last-gasp goal from the hard-working Eoghan McCabe, presented with a ‘palm-in’ by Matt Fitzpatrick.

Yet clearly this game was mostly about Armagh, who took complete control after Patrick McBride opened the scoring for Antrim in the first minute.

The visitors reeled off 2-8 without reply, McShane posing serious problems with their first two points and their first goal in the 11th minute, scooping a mis-hit kick-out back over the head of Fleming and into the net, although perhaps his intention was to take a point.

There was no doubt about Clarke’s finish from the spot, though, clipped into the bottom corner, after both he and Burns appeared to have been fouled before the award.

Antrim simply could not cope with Armagh’s tenacious tackling, their physicality forcing turnovers, augmented by pushing plenty of bodies forward whenever they gained or regained possession.

Jack Grugan’s point came after he caught another weak Antrim kick-out and the Ballymacnab should have hit the target when sent through on goal by Shields, but at least he provided an assist for the Whitecross man to bring up that 16-point interval advantage.

Armagh stretched that lead to 19 by the hour mark, but Antrim kept going and outscored them by 1-6 to 0-3 after that. Admittedly they were helped by their opponents going down to 14 men, James Morgan deciding not to risk further damage to a knee problem, but McBride continued to show drive and determination for Antrim in those closing stages, as did centre half-back Declan Lynch, Delargy, and Fitzpatrick. The concern for the Saffrons is that few of their fringe players made any notable impact on the game.

In contrast, even with that understandably less effective second half, McGeeney has the happy managerial ‘headache’ of deciding between plenty of fine performers for the visit from Monaghan in midweek, and he commented:

“You want to create competition for places because you know it’s going to get harder, a lot harder. Newbridge at the end of January will definitely be a big test and we’ve Monaghan now on Wednesday night. I’m sure they will put out a stronger side that they have done so far.”

They will need to if they are to get the win required to take them into the last four.

Antrim: C Fleming; P Branagan, R Johnston, A Sweeney; P Finnegan, D Lynch, P Gallagher; M Sweeney, E Walsh; M McCarry, M Fitzpatrick, C Duffin (0-1 free); K Quinn (0-1), E McCabe (1-0), P McBride (0-6, 0-4 frees). Substitutes: C Lemon for Branagan (inj., 7); D McCormick for A Sweeney (16); P Nugent for Fleming (h-t); N Delargy (0-2) for Finnegan (h-t); F Burke for Walsh (56).

Armagh: B Hughes; C Mackin (0-2), R Kennedy, J Morgan; M Shields (0-1), B Donaghy, A Forker (0-2); S Sheridan, J Og Burns; R McShane (1-2), R Grugan (capt.) (0-3, 0-2 frees), J Hall; S Campbell (0-8, 0-2 frees), J Grugan (0-1), J Clarke (1-0 penalty). Substitutes: P Casey for J Grugan (h-t); A Nugent (0-1) for Clarke (h-t); N Grimley (0-1 free) for Sheridan (47); J McElroy for Shields (53); C Vernon for Kennedy (59).

Read more: Tyrone shrug off jet-lag to beat Ulster University

Referee: Sean Hurson (Tyrone).

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