GAA Football

Rian O'Neill inspires three-goal Armagh to overpower Donegal

Armagh star Rian O'Neill gets a shot away despite the efforts of Donegal defender Brendan McCole.
Pic Philip Walsh
Kenny Archer in Clones

All-Ireland SFC qualifiers Round 2: Donegal 0-16 Armagh 3-17

CHANGE comes slowly - then all at once.

The three counties which dominated Ulster football over the past decade, Donegal, Tyrone, and Monaghan, have all gone - and Armagh have ruthlessly disposed of two of them.

The Orchardmen remain the Ulster county which has gone the longest without reaching the provincial final, absent from that stage since 2008, but they're back as a serious force on the national scene, and back in the All-Ireland quarter-finals.

This was arguably even more convincing than their preceding victory, over the Red Hands. Donegal have been a gorilla on Armagh backs, winning the last four Championship meetings by an average margin of more than seven points; yet Armagh could have triumphed here by twice that, rather than 'just' achieving a double-figure victory.

Rian O'Neill made that 10-point difference on the scoreboard, notching 1-7 himself, including a coolly converted penalty kick and four points from play in an outstanding all-round performance.

Still, this was another terrific team display from the Orchardmen. Tyrone humiliated Armagh when they reached the last eight in 2017, but five years on, no one will want to be paired with Kieran McGeeney's men in this morning's draw.

Having been limp against Donegal in the Ulster quarter-final, beaten by seven points in Ballybofey, Armagh are a team transformed.

Intelligent, disciplined, industrious, dangerous, Armagh have a potent mix of quality, with pace, power, and physicality and a serious commitment and determination.

McGeeney made only one personnel change from the side that lined out against Tyrone, with Andrew Murnin coming into the attack. Connaire Mackin was to replace young Conor O'Neill but the Camlough man didn't come through the warm-up so the Killeavey lad started instead of Paddy Burns, and was quietly efficient around the middle third.

Donegal were adventurous too, bringing Aaron Doherty of Naomh Columba to line out in attack, with the out-of-form Stephen McMenamin dropping out and Peadar Mogan reverting to a more defensive role.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this win was the victors' resilience. Armagh got off to the perfect start, Rory Grugan netting a great goal after a mere nine seconds - but then Donegal took over.

Indeed, apart from that goal obviously, Donegal were the better team for the first 20-odd minutes. Despite that shocking start, their unusual boldness and bravery going forward was paying off, and they shot six consecutive scores.

Shaun Patton's kick-outs were working well, while Ethan Rafferty was under pressure - then utter malfunction from Donegal, as the game turned around astonishingly.

Weirdly, it was the Armagh goalkeeper who took a bang, the Grange man caught high and late after he sent off a shot by Donegal midfielder Caolan McGonagle, who was fortunate to only receive a yellow card.

However, Patton then suffered the 'head-staggers'. First two long kick-outs were snapped up by Armagh, then Orchard hands picked off two short ones and went straight for goal.

In the 28th minute, Stefan 'Soupy' Campbell was denied a seemingly certain major when Caolan Ward somehow scooped his low shot off the line, although Rian O'Neill converted the resultant '45'.

The very next kick-out was seized upon by Grugan, the loose ball gathered by Murnin, and he gave it to Grugan, who in turn released Aidan Nugent - but Shaun Patton still panicked in bringing down the Cullyhanna man.

The ball spilled into the net but the clear penalty had been signalled. Despite the delay as Patton was black-carded and Caolan McGonagle stepped between the posts for Donegal, the Armagh number 14 made no mistake from the spot.

Surprisingly, Donegal took off Patrick McBrearty when bringing on replacement goalkeeper Michael Lynch. The Kilcar man was furious to be benched, but when he was brought back on he could not turn that anger into effective action.

It was as if an open bottle of Buckfast had been smashed into the Donegal works. While they spluttered and stuttered, Armagh ran them ragged.

From a seeming cruise, Donegal completely capsized for a while, allowing Armagh to register 1-6 without reply.

Armagh wouldn't have wanted to hear the half-time whistle, but the rest of the Donegal team dragged themselves ashore with relief, clutching at the respite like a life-belt.

There was no turning of the tide, though, as Armagh overwhelmed them again, reeling off the next five points.

The 'dominance graph' surely shows a rollercoaster. Armagh effected a 13-point swing, from trailing by four, at 0-9 to 1-2, to leading by nine, 2-13 to 0-10 - and that Donegal point was a Murphy free in the first half added time.

Even when Donegal belatedly responded, with two scores as the game entered its final quarter, Armagh hit them where it hurts, bagging their third goal in the 58th minute. Rian O'Neill was involved, of course, supplying Ben Crealey who passed to Stephen Sheridan and the Forkhill casually side-stepped Patton before finishing to the empty net.

At 3-13 to 0-12 that was that. From then on it was merely a matter of waiting for the long whistle.

With Patton pushing desperately forward, Armagh had opportunities to send a fourth goal to an often unguarded net but couldn't quite make the final pass stick.

At the other end, however, they kept the back door shut, despite Donegal launching Hail Marys in towards a frustrated Murphy. Aidan Forker stood up to him, while centre half-back Greg McCabe was an imperious throw-back to his boss 'Geezer'.

The latter leads his men onwards. In contrast, a qualifier hammering from Armagh in 2010 instigated the Jim McGuinness era and Donegal will surely change manager now.

Declan Bonner was straight onto the pitch at half-time to berate referee Brendan Cawley but was nowhere to be seen when the media wanted him afterwards.

Donegal have largely failed on the All-Ireland stage since 2014, when they reached the decider, after a narrow quarter-final win over Armagh.

The Orchardmen won't look that far ahead, but they can certainly set their sights on a first All-Ireland semi-final appearance since 2005.

The Armagh support, which was much more vociferous throughout, flooded onto the pitch to celebrate another wonderful win.

It'll be mighty tough to take the big trophy again, 20 years after their only All-Ireland, but the Orangemen are definitely on the march again.

Donegal: S Patton; E Gallagher, B McCole, C Ward; P Mogan, R McHugh (0-1), O McFadden Ferry; C McGonagle, J McGee (0-1); C Thompson (0-1), M Langan; A Doherty (0-1), P McBrearty (0-1), M Murphy (capt.) (0-6, 0-5 frees), S O'Donnell (0-4).

Substitutes: M Lynch for McBrearty (31?); McBrearty for Lynch (37); J Brennan for Thompson (46); C O'Donnell for Ward (58); J McKelvey for McHugh (64); N O'Donnell (0-1) for Langan (64).

Black card: Patton (29-37, second half).

Yellow cards: McGonagle (24); Murphy (42); Langan (50).

Armagh: E Rafferty; J Morgan, A Forker, C O'Neill; A McKay, G McCabe, J Og Burns (0-3); S Sheridan (1-0), B Crealey; R Grugan (1-3, 0-1 free), R O'Neill (joint-capt.) (1-7, 1-0 penalty, 0-2 frees, 0-1 '45'), S Campbell (0-1); A Nugent (joint-capt.), A Murnin, J Duffy (0-1).

Substitutes: C Turbitt (0-2) for Murnin (57); J Hall for Sheridan (64); M Shields for Nugent (66); C Higgins for Duffy (70); J Kieran for C O'Neill (73).

Yellow card: Morgan (69).

Referee: Brendan Cawley (Kildare).

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