Did the better team lose? No. Armagh had more quality in finishing and on bench but Down will be back

Duffy injury-time strike means Armagh win chess match and return to Ulster Championship final

Down's Ryan Magill celebrates his second half goal against Armagh. Pic Philip Walsh
Ulster Senior Football Championship semi-final: Armagh 0-13 Down 2-6

WHAT a story this almost was. What a win it would have been for the rank underdogs. Down – humiliated a year ago - almost bridged a 10-point gap and ground it out but Armagh just got over the line. In semi-finals, just is enough.

Did the better team lose? No. The Orchardmen had more quality in their finishing and on their bench. Their last three scores came from subs and Jason Duffy’s brilliant winner was a moment of class in a game governed by cautious possession football.

It was a chess match. Long chains of handpassing had to be endured, yet it was a feisty, physical proper derby. There were plenty of verbal exchanges - Paddy Burns and Laverty, Daniel Guinness and McGeeney, everybody and the referee - and no shortage of big hits but the lid stayed on the pressure cooker.

Down had so many successes. Armagh tried the same attack over and over again and none of their starting forwards scored from play. Rory Grugan (five frees) was the only one to score at all but despite keeping the Orchard attack so quiet Down couldn’t muster enough to win.

The Mournemen, who introduced attacking players throughout the second half, put together two incisive moves and both led to goals – an own goal for the unfortunate Paddy Burns in the first half and then a scrappy second by Ryan Magill although Rian O’Neill might have got the final touch on the line.

But Pat Havern, normally so reliable, scored one from four frees in the first half and late misses from Pierce Laverty and young Oisin Savage – attempting an outside-of-the-boot worldy when there were left-footers on the field - mean Down are heading for the Tailteann Cup and probably without luckless Barry O’Hagan who was taken off with what could be a recurrence of his knee injury.

Meanwhile, Armagh are back in the Ulster final and coming through this will do them a power of good. They didn’t deliver the breakthroughs they threatened but responded impressively to both goals.

Even then, when the stewards were called to their end of match positions, Armagh were behind but had the composure to level through Aidan Nugent and win it with Duffy’s injury-time strike.

Armagh's Aidan Forker powers past Down's Peter Fegan and Ryan McEvoy. Pic Philip Walsh

A game that ended with such drama began with Down setting out their stall to frustrate the favourites. They held the ball for the first couple of minutes until Odhran Murdock passed to Ryan Magill who feinted left, went right and opened the scoring with a confident finish.

Armagh, who didn’t vary their attack with the high ball that worked so well last year, tried to counter through Stefan Campbell but he couldn’t find a way through the packed Mourne defence. Andrew Murnin almost had a goal chance but had his pocket picked by Finn McElroy. Oisin Conaty shot wide and Conor Turbitt was penalised for over-carrying as Down hung in there.

But they were struggling to break through Armagh’s press on their kickouts and a Rian O’Neill free levelled it after 13 minutes.

The pace of the Armagh forwards caused alarms in the Down defence and Ryan Magill was lucky referee Liam Devenney turned a blind eye to his trip on Turbitt.

Armagh took the lead when Rian O’Neill glided past his marker, dummied another Down defender and curled over a quality score after 21 minutes and when Aidan Forker added another memories of last year’s one-sided affair began to return.

But Down weren’t going back there. Havern, having previously missed a sitter, found the target and then the Mournemen surged ahead with the best move of the match.

Murdock, Shealan Johnston and Pierce Laverty were involved and Ceilum Doherty found himself one-on-one with Blaine Hughes. His point-blank shot was saved but Paddy Burns, trying to clear under pressure, bundled the ball into his own net and Down led by two points with half-time in sight.

The lead didn’t last until the break. First Laverty made a needless shove on Murnin, presenting Grugan with an easy free. Ben Crealey grabbed the kickout and Forker surged through for his second point of the half.

Tempers came close to boiling over as the players headed for the tunnel. Both managers were on the pitch before Down secretary Sean og McAteer shepherded his countymen off to their changing room.

Scores from Rian O’Neill and Grugan – either side of a wide from Micheal Rooney – meant Armagh led by two but Down had introduced Liam Kerr at the break and the Burren speedster soon began to have an impact.

Danny Magill levelled but McElroy pulled back Turbitt and Grugan edged Armagh ahead once more.

O’Neill and Conaty both shot wide and then Down sliced through Armagh once again. This time Doherty started the move. Flying out of his own half, he drew Joe McElroy away from Kerr who came tearing onto his pass.

Down's Ryan Magill celebrates his second half goal against Armagh. Pic Philip Walsh

Amid a melee of bodies in the Armagh goalmouth, Havern hit the first shot. It was saved by Hughes, but Ryan Magill slotted in the rebound and Down were two ahead 23 minutes left.

It was helter-skelter stuff from there to the finish.

Jason Duffy added energy to the Armagh attack and the Down defence began to cough up frees.

Grugan converted two routine scores either side of a Ryan Johnston point before another Grugan dead ball strike levelled it.

Referee Devenney spotted a foul (no-one else saw it) and Havern kicked the free in his unique style and then Daniel Guinness spotted a gap in the Armagh cover and clipped over a good score on the run.

Two ahead, Down had a foot in the final then but that turned out to be their last score as Armagh unleashed bench strength cultivated over 10 years by manager McGeeney.

Oisin O’Neill’s mark left one in it and then Peter McGrane made a vital tackle on Oisin Savage as Down tried to respond. Armagh worked the ball forward to Aidan Nugent who showed off his All-Ireland-winning quality to level it with three minutes left.

The Hill – massed with Armagh fans who out-numbered Down’s by maybe three to one – roared as Pierce Laverty’s mark drifted wide and then, with the Mournemen tiring, Mackin was given too much time to pick out Murnin’s break.

Duffy cut in from the left to take his pass and the Cullyhanna forward leapt in delight as his shot sailed over the black spot. Down kept going and Ryan Johnston won a free near the right touchline but Savage couldn’t force extra-time.

He’ll be back and so will Down but this was Armagh’s day. Now, can they finally capture that elusive Ulster crown?

Armagh: B Hughes; P Burns (1-0 own goal), A McKay, P McGrane; J McElroy, Ciaran Mackin, A Forker (0-2); R O’Neill (0-3, 0-1 free), B Crealey; S Campbell, R Grugan (0-5 frees), O Conaty; C Turbitt, A Murnin, J Og Burns

Subs: J Duffy (0-1) for Crealey (48), O O’Neill (0-1) for J Burns (52), D McMullan for Campbell (61), A Nugent (0-1) for Conaty (63)

Yellow: Turbitt (29), Murnin (34)

Down: J O’Hare; P Fegan, R McEvoy, C Doherty; M Rooney, P Laverty, S Johnston; J Flynn, O Murdock; D Guinness (0-1), R Magill (1-1), R Johnston (0-1); F McElroy, P Havern (0-2 frees), J Guinness

Subs: L Kerr for J Guinness (HT), D Magill (0-1) for Flynn (41), B O’Hagan for Rooney (51), O Savage

Yellow card: McEvoy (67)

Referee: L Devenney (Mayo)

Attendance: 12,116