Gutsy Antrim inevitably fall to rampant Armagh in Ulster
Ulster Senior Football Championship first round: Armagh 4-15 Antrim 0-14
THE much loved Ulster Championship – the one provincial series in the country constantly cited as the reason why we must never mess with tradition and history.
Ulster was always the one of infinite possibilities, the one we relied upon to restore our faith while Leinster and Munster limped from one colourless summer to the next.
Who can forget Cavan's triumphant climb to the provincial peak last November?
But already the congregation's faith in the provincial series is being sorely tested.
Last week, Donegal wiped the floor with Down.
On Saturday, Monaghan breezed past Fermanagh.
Yesterday, it was Armagh's turn to dismiss Antrim with the minimum of fuss – three one-sided games, to varying degrees, so far.
And there will be more. Lots more. Make no mistake, lopsided score-lines will continue deep into the All-Ireland series.
A crowd of 1,700 at The Athletic Grounds were rarely stirred yesterday. There was no point where this first round encounter hung in the balance or was turned on its head by the minnows.
It wasn't Antrim's fault.
The problems run deeper than a team that has made as much improvement as could have been envisaged in the space of a few short months.
Trying to bridge the gap between Division One and Division Four is bordering on the impossible. And that's the problem – the National Football League, the competition everyone lauds and fawns over, and yet its formatting has directly led to the creation of glass ceilings and an uncompetitive Championship.
In reality, Antrim's ‘Championship' in 2021 was winning promotion to Division Three down in Waterford last month – a brilliant feat by Enda McGinley in his first season in charge.
But pulling off a shock against Championship opponents Armagh yesterday was probably always beyond the Saffrons.
If they had met the erratic Orchard men three or four years ago their chances might have increased considerably, but given what Kieran McGeeney's men have shown over the last number of weeks and the way in which they held onto their Division One status, a shock was never on the cards.
Almost everything had to go absolutely perfectly for Antrim and absolutely horrible for Armagh.
Ruairi McCann's effort on goal on 27 minutes, after a flowing move, had to go in. Instead, the Antrim attacker's low drive was kept out by Armagh ‘keeper Blaine Hughes.
Had the Creggan Kickhams man raised a green flag, Antrim would have led by two points. In fairness to Antrim, they did a lot of things right in the first half and were slightly unfortunate to trail at the break by 1-6 to 0-7.
But a good half of football doesn't win Championship matches as Antrim were out-scored 3-9 to 0-7 in the second period.
Nevertheless, the visitors' game-management was highly impressive in the opening period, keeping possession for long periods and teasing Armagh.
Rian O'Neill, who was expertly handled throughout by Cargin's James Laverty, opened the scoring from a placed ball after two minutes, and for the next three minutes Antrim kept possession before drawing a free in the scoring zone which Ryan Murray converted.
Antrim undoubtedly showed the greater composure in the early exchanges while Armagh opted to go more direct. And while there is a primal sense of anticipation when a high ball is lumped in on top of the full-back line, all of them were gobbled up by Laverty and Antrim full-back Ricky Johnston.
Where Antrim slipped up was in terms of concentration. On 11 minutes, Stefan Campbell dinked in an inviting ball to the alert Rory Grugan who got ahead of Peter Healy and thumped the ball into the net to put the home side 1-2 to 0-2 ahead.
Grugan had another glorious sight of Antrim's goal in the 23rd minute but was probably too precise in his finish and the ball breezed past Luke Mulholland's right-hand post.
The half-time chit-chat centred around Armagh's deficiencies in attack – but it was perhaps wishful thinking among the neutrals that Antrim could push them all the way in the second half, if only to make a game of it.
But the Ulster Championship isn't what it used to be. The desperate gaps between the divisions ensure that Championship shocks are few and far between.
Once Grugan and Gregory McCabe added early second half scores to put four points of daylight between the sides, Antrim's confidence sagged a little.
Their kick-outs began to malfunction too and the unforced error count began to climb. All of a sudden Armagh looked more powerful and dangerous when they moved forward.
And once Grugan was upended by Mulholland in the 46th minute, Rian O'Neill drilled home the resultant penalty to put the game beyond Antrim's reach [2-10 to 0-9].
Thereafter, Antrim's victories were destined to be small ones. Odhran Eastwood played the lone attacker's role brilliantly for McGinley's side, winning every ball ahead of Ross Finn.
Dermot McAleese clipped over a lovely second point in the 53rd minute to offer some resistance. Eoghan McCabe's pace out of defence caused Armagh some stress and Ricky Johnston remained tigerish in the tackle throughout.
Strangely, for a team that cantered to victory by 13 points, few in orange really stood out.
Grugan's interventions amounted to 1-2 and he also earned his team a penalty.
Three defenders – Greg McCabe, Connaire Mackin, Ciaron O'Hanlon - broke forward to get on the score-sheet. Substitutes TJ Kelly and Conor Turbitt raised green flags in the 56th and 73rd minutes in what was quite an introverted display from Armagh.
Introverted, and yet they won by 13 points.
Armagh probably don't deserve a forensic scalpel to be taken to their performance. They scored 4-15 and took care of business.
Equally, Antrim's performance merited more than a 13-point defeat.
There is plenty to work in the Armagh camp as they prepare for their Ulster semi-final meeting with Monaghan on July 17 – but knowing where the improvements need to be made and advancing at the same time is a good mental space for McGeeney and his players to be in.
From an Antrim perspective, you could quibble with the substitutions of Ryan Murray and Odhran Eastwood in the 45th and 60th minutes, respectively – but would the score-line have been much different had the pair stayed on? Probably not.
It's now over to Derry and Cavan to light the provincial touch paper next weekend against Donegal and Tyrone.
Armagh: B Hughes; J Morgan, C Mackin (0-1), R Finn; G McCabe (0-1), C O'Hanlon (0-1), A McKay; N Grimley, O O'Neill (0-1); J Hall, R O'Neill (1-5, 0-5 frees, 1-0 pen), J Og Burns (0-2); R Grugan (1-2), A Murnin, S Campbell Subs: C Turbitt (1-1) for A Murnin (h/t), TJ Kelly (1-0) for S Campbell (46), C O'Neill for N Grimley (49), P Burns (0-1 mark) for A McKay (59), B Donaghy for G McCabe (63)
Antrim: L Mulholland; E McCabe, R Johnston, P Healy; M Jordan, J Laverty, D McAleese (0-2); C Stewart, N McKeever (0-1); R Murray (0-3, 0-2 frees), M McCann, P McBride (0-2); O Eastwood (0-1 free), R McCann (0-2 frees), C Murray (0-2, 0-1 free) Subs: T McCann for R Murray (45), C Small (0-1) for P McBride (55), M Sweeney for C Stewart (55), K Small for O Eastwood (60), E Walsh for M Jordan (70)
Yellow cards: M McCann (44), C Murray (58)
Black card: M Sweeney (67)
Referee: S Hurson (Tyrone)