GAA Football

Armagh left with more what ifs after a Championship campaign blighted by near misses

Rory Grugan holds his head in his hands after Armagh’s narrow loss to Mayo
in Castlebar Picture by Sportsfile
Neil Loughran

All-Ireland SFC Qualifying round three: Mayo 2-13 Armagh 1-15

IT’S hard to know how Armagh will look back on 2019, and their Championship campaign in particular, when they sit down for a review in the coming weeks and months.

One of growth and development, no doubt. The boys-to-men impact of Jarlath Og Burns and Rian O’Neill brought them strength and running power where it was needed, while a string of impressive displays saw Ryan Kennedy and Aidan Nugent nail down starting spots.

Jamie Clarke showed occasional flashes of the wizardry we all know he possesses, Stefan Campbell has the pace to worry any back line and Aidan Forker, regardless of accident or design, looked completely at home following his redeployment from raiding wing-back to man-marker par excellence.

They were Ulster’s entertainers in engrossing encounters with Down and Cavan (twice), blasted past Monaghan and went out on their shields in Castlebar against a Mayo side who sit comfortably inside the country’s top four.

There are so many positives to take, and there is so much to build on. Why, then, does it still feel as though so much has been left behind?

Let’s face facts – Armagh should have been in the Ulster final against Donegal last week. They had Cavan on the hook in the first game but let them wriggle free. Poor game management in the closing stages cost them.

And, as they weaved their way past jubilant Mayo supporters and headed towards the MacHale Park tunnel on Saturday night, there will have been a similar sense of regret at what might have been.

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With midfielders Diarmuid O’Connor and Matthew Ruane seemingly out for the season, Cillian O’Connor only fit for 16 minutes at the end, Lee Keegan hobbling off before half-time and Andy Moran subbed off after 32 minutes, there was a feeling that Mayo were there for the taking.

Yet they ground it out – just as they have done for years when the cliff’s edge has loomed large.

The Orchardmen started and finished the game superbly, but in the middle section it was their experienced opponents who wrestled away control – aided, it must be said, by referee Maurice Deegan’s awarding of some particularly soft-looking frees.

Defensively, Armagh’s discipline in the tackle has been a weakness in games gone by but they were brilliant at the back on Saturday night, forcing turnover after turnover. This was not reflected by the free count awarded against them.

And once more, near misses on the field led to a near miss on the final scoreboard. Jamie Clarke and Rory Grugan, who both had good games, passed up gilt-edged goalscoring chances late in the second half.

Clarke’s low left footed strike in the 55th minute was reminiscent of his early effort in the replay against Cavan. That day it went just wide of the post, this time it was creeping inside, only for the fingertips of David Clarke to divert it onto the woodwork and out.

Five minutes later Grugan was in acres of space as he bounded onto a pass from O’Neill. The Ballymacnab man went wide of Clarke and didn’t break stride before sending his shot over the bar. Had it been on his favoured left side, you suspect the ball would have rippled the net to bring Armagh to within a point as the clock ticked down.

Mayo, meanwhile, were a study in efficiency breeze after the break. Armagh kicked six second half wides to Mayo’s one and when their sole goalscoring opportunity was engineered by Kevin McLoughlin, he made no mistake with a classy finish.

It’s a drum Kieran McGeeney has been beating for years, but that is the difference when you mix with the big boys and it’s why Armagh still have work to do before becoming an established Super 8 team.

The causes for optimism are clear though, and they started the game with real intent. O’Neill had the run of the place during those early exchanges, getting out in front of Brendan Harrison every time and providing Armagh with an attacking platform.

The Crossmaglen youngster added another goal to a fine debut Championship campaign, palming home from close range following fine build-up play involving Rory Grugan and Aidan Nugent.

Inside a minute, though, that aggressive, front foot approach cost them as Mayo went up the other end and bagged a goal of their own. It looked as though the chance had gone when Moran failed to capitalise on a long diagonal ball sent his direction, but he did well to cut the ball back for Fionn McDonagh to fire under the body of Blaine Hughes.

Lee Keegan is no stranger to putting out fires and he was moved onto O’Neill just past the quarter hour mark. O’Neill dropped out to try and find space but none was permitted and, even after Keegan was replaced by Stephen Coen, his influence waned.

Mayo also looked for the short option where they could, keeping control and dampening the Orchard momentum as the half wore on before taking advantage of the stiff breeze in the final 15 minutes.

Armagh defended like dogs in this period but just couldn’t get out, with Aidan O’Shea, Mikey Murray dominating around the middle and the excellent Darren Coen, McDonagh, Jason Doherty and Paddy Durcan punishing them with the breeze at their backs to lead by one at half-time.

There was no love lost as the teams headed for the tunnel, and when they re-emerged Jamie Clarke channelled that fire in the belly into scores on the board, dropping the shoulder and shimmying away from Chris Barrett twice inside the opening 10 minutes.

With a move to London in the offing, future plans could have a significant bearing on the direction Armagh are headed in the coming years.

But anything Clarke could do, Darren Coen was fit to match, landing two breathtaking points in quick succession as the game opened up.

O’Neill kicked two wides with the score level at 1-9 apiece, while the introduction of Cillian O’Connor brought a huge cheer from the Castlebar faithful. Within minutes, they bagged 1-1 to change the complexion of the game, Donal Vaughan slotting over before McLoughlin burst past Brendan Donaghy before finding the Armagh net.

The Knockmore man’s performance more than justified Horan’s decision to bring him on for Moran, and it must have been a particularly sweet moment considering his uncharacteristic squandering of a late free to level their Connacht semi-final against Roscommon.

It looked like a dagger through Armagh hearts, but the Orchardmen seldom follow the script. They set about hunting Mayo down, and their cause was helped by some nervy defending as the westerners sloppily coughed up possession time and again.

Stefan Campbell was superb in the final 15 minutes, driving Kieran McGeeney’s side forward, and had even one of Clarke and Grugan’s efforts hit the net, it would have been very hard for Mayo to stem such momentum.

They didn’t though, and when Niall Grimley’s effort deep into added time drifted wide of the posts, Mayo had lived to fight another day.

Armagh can take heart from the progress made, and the solid foundations laid. But it will have counted for little as they made the long journey home with yet more what ifs to reflect upon.

Mayo: D Clarke; C Barrett, B Harrison; K Higgins, L Keegan, C Boyle, P Durcan (0-1); M Murray, A O’Shea; F McDonagh (1-1), C Loftus (0-2, frees), C Treacy; J Doherty (0-1), A Moran, D Coen (0-4). Subs: K McLoughlin (1-1) for Moran (32), S Coen for Keegan (34), D Vaughan (0-1) for Murray (38); C O’Connor (0-2, frees) for Loftus (54), F Boland for Doherty (54), E Regan for Treacy (70+2).

Yellow cards: J Doherty (35+1), K McLoughlin (44), D Coen (64)

Armagh: B Hughes; P Burns, A McKay, P Hughes; A Forker, B Donaghy, M Shields; J Og Burns, N Grimley (0-1); J Hall, A Nugent, R Grugan (0-3), S Campbell (0-4); J Clarke (0-5, 0-2 frees), R O’Neill (1-2, 0-2 frees). Subs: E Rafferty for Nugent (53), G McCabe for McKay (56), B Crealey for J Og Burns (70+2)

Yellow cards: J Og Burns (35+1), P Burns (44), A Forker (64), M Shields (66)

Referee: M Deegan (Laois)

Att: 18,711

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