GAA Football

Donegal win the battle but war lies ahead in Ulster Championship

Donegal's Odhran McFadden-Ferry and Armagh's Aidan Forker clash amid ugly scenes at the end of yesterday's National League clash in Letterkenny. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

Allianz National Football League Division One: Armagh 1-13 Donegal 1-14

IF they weren't already, those streaming out of O'Donnell Park will be counting down the days until Donegal and Armagh renew acquaintances after the lid slipped off a simmering feud at the death as battle lines were drawn ahead of the big one.

In a frenzied few moments of pre-Championship pulling and hauling beneath the stand in Letterkenny, it was almost forgotten that the Tir Chonaill had just avoided the drop on the most dramatic of Division One days.

Paddy McBrearty's score with the last kick sealed victory in a game that delivered plenty of drama in its own right. But, with results elsewhere having already secured Donegal's top flight status minutes earlier, talk soon turned to Ballybofey a month down the line.

Indeed, well over an hour before throw-in, hordes of Orchard supporters were waiting outside in the sun for the ground to open its gates. They waited patiently around the back of the stand afterwards too for a glimpse of their heroes.

Defeat yesterday will have done nothing to dent belief. There was no real need to sell the April 24 Ulster quarter anyway but, in terms of ratcheting up interest and intrigue, the bit of afters at the whistle will have done no harm at all.

Both managers opted not to speak with the media afterwards. Kieran McGeeney hadn't done so since the Gaelic Players' Association asked players and managers not to engage post-match over the ongoing expenses row.

Declan Bonner spoke after defeats to Monaghan and Dublin but, on the request of Donegal players - according to county officials - opted to keep schtum yesterday. Given the scenes at the whistle, and what is still to come, the Tir Chonaill boss probably needed little persuading to keep his powder dry.

In terms of what they will take from yesterday by the time their MacCumhaill Park date rolls around? It's hard to tell really.

With no relegation worries, and therefore no pressing need to play a full hand, McGeeney held Rian O'Neill and Rory Grugan in reserve until the second half.

The Ethan Rafferty experiment continues to bear fruit as his kick-outs were seldom far off the mark, Ben Crealey was brilliant around the middle while Aidan Nugent and Andy Murnin were a handful all day.

Donegal, meanwhile, welcomed Michael Langan back for the first time since victory over Kildare on February 6 – the elegant St Michael's man entering the fray with 20 minutes left. His return is huge for Donegal.

Livewire forward Oisin Gallen is also expected to be available, while towering midfielder Caolan McGonigle watched on yesterday without a cast around the hand broken against the Lilywhites. Tir Chonaill supporters will have their fingers crossed he is fit to strip out in a month.

And after the disappointment of those back-to-back defeats, Bonner has have been happy enough leaving O'Donnell Park. Michael Murphy was at his marauding best at times, moving around and orchestrating the choir as Donegal found form first.

A monster kick-out from Shaun Patton led to Jamie Brennan fisting over an early leveller after Jason Duffy's opener from a mark, and when Jason McGee slammed home to make it 1-4 to 0-2 after clever work from Ryan McHugh, relegation fears were drifting off into the air.

With Paddy McBrearty too sharp for Aidan Forker, that lead was stretched out to six before a Patton error let Armagh back into the game as half-time neared. Jarly Og Burns dropped a poor shot short and, rather than gather the ball, the Donegal 'keeper inexplicably punched straight to Crealey.

The Maghery man offloaded to Tiernan Kelly who laid it on a plate for Aidan Nugent arriving at the back post – 1-8 to 1-5. Game on, and suddenly shoulders were being looked over and Twitter anxiously refreshed in search of latest scores.

O'Neill and Grugan were thrown into the action, and it wasn't long before the Crossmaglen man and Murnin tangled with Brendan McCole, ending with the Donegal man in need of a new jersey.

Cue the arrival of Neil McGee, and the most Neil McGee of three minute cameos.

Going straight to O'Neill, the Gaoth Dobhair veteran talked to, pushed and bumped off the Armagh man before, in the final act, being shown a yellow card and leaving the field to a raucous reception from the home support as McCole returned.

O'Neill then showed his undoubted quality with a raking 50 metre diagonal pass in for Murnin to brilliantly win - and convert - a mark, before the Armagh comeback gathered pace when Murphy sent a 50th minute penalty wide of the post after Brennan had been felled by Crealey.

With a quarter of an hour left, three scores in two minutes courtesy of O'Neill's right boot and two from Nugent cut the gap to a point. All of a sudden there was a growing interest in what was happening between Monaghan and Dublin in Clones, especially when - on the stroke of 70 - O'Neill sent over a 45 to tie it up at 1-13 apiece.

But by the time McBrearty closed the show on a rare Tir Chonaill win in Letterkenny five minutes into added time, Kildare and Dublin had already slipped through the Division One trapdoor.

Donegal and Armagh minds were elsewhere by then too, the temperature cranking up as the sun was starting to go down. Peace of a kind was brokered eventually but this was not the end - far from it. To be continued…

Donegal: S Patton; C Ward (0-1), S McMenamin, B McCole, O McFadden-Ferry, E Ban Gallagher, R McHugh; J McGee (1-0), H McFadden; S O'Donnell, P Mogan, M Murphy (0-4, 0-1 free, 0-1 45), C O'Donnell; J Brennan (0-2, 0-1 mark), P McBrearty (0-7, 0-3 free, 0-1 mark). Subs: N McGee for McCole (40 blood sub, reversed 43), M Langan for Brennan (50), N O'Donnell for R McHugh (62), E O'Donnell for S O'Donnell (70+3).

Yellow card: N McGee (43)

Armagh: E Rafferty; A McKay, A Forker, J Morgan; J Hall, G McCabe, J Og Burns; Ciaran Mackin, B Crealey; C O'Neill, S Campbell, T Kelly (0-1); A Nugent (1-6, 0-3 frees), J Duffy (0-1, mark), A Murnin (0-2, 0-1 mark). Subs: C Mackin for J Morgan (15), R O'Neill (0-3, 0-1 45) for Hall (HT), R Grugan for C O'Neill (HT), C McConville for Campbell (50), N Grimley for Kelly (65), J Kiernan for Duffy (70)

Yellow cards: A Nugent (23), G McCabe (70+5)

Referee: P Neilan (Roscommon)

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