Football

Cahair O'Kane: Armagh needn't panic over such small margins

Cahair O'Kane

Cahair O'Kane

Cahair is a sports reporter and columnist with the Irish News specialising in Gaelic Games.

Odhran Lynch was in the thick of the Ulster final all day, capping his game with three superb penalty saves. Picture by Philip Walsh
Odhran Lynch was in the thick of the Ulster final all day, capping his game with three superb penalty saves. Picture by Philip Walsh Odhran Lynch was in the thick of the Ulster final all day, capping his game with three superb penalty saves. Picture by Philip Walsh

THE decaying roof of St Tiernach’s Park hangs on for dear life as Rian O’Neill rises into the air.

Odhran Lynch had nowhere to kick it. A man up, a minute to play, the Armagh people leap to their feet as O’Neill makes the catch.

Kieran Donaghy screams the call from the sideline, his first two fingers on each hand raised to the sky, mimicked by Aidan Forker.

Ethan Rafferty carries it just close enough to Rory Grugan where it’s an easy kick pass, but one that will travel the required distance for a mark.

After 15 years, this is it.

But it’s a fair big breeze. Grugan’s kick from 40 yards out towards the wing just doesn’t have the legs.

Those are the margins.


*****

LYNCH takes the catch but as they’ve done all day, Armagh play on him being in possession.

Three of them hound him out towards the sideline. Nowhere to go, the Derry ‘keeper is milliseconds from being blown up for overcarrying.

So he drops the ball at his feet, and between him and Niall Toner, they protect it with their bodies until they earn their way out of it with a hop ball.

If Lynch holds on one more second, Armagh get a tap-over free and they win the Ulster title.

Those are the margins.


*****

THE end of the first-half of extra-time. Level game. Armagh go long with the kickout and when the break falls, Conor Turbitt and Jarlath Óg Burns are right in behind the Derry cover.

Aidan Nugent hangs on the far post as they run through. But the closer they get, what was a 3v2 becomes more a 3v3 again.

Why? Because in being drawn to the initial pass in behind for Turbitt, Burns takes his run out of the middle and slightly wider.

If he goes down the middle, there’s no way Eoin McEvoy catches him. Then Chrissy McKaigue has to decide between leaving Nugent and giving Burns the free shot on goal.

Instead, those few yards Burns ran towards the sideline first allow McEvoy to get into of a covering position that a right-footed player can’t open himself up, and the square pass to the far post can be covered by McKaigue.

“Hindsight’s a great thing, sure we’d all win the Lotto that way,” said Kieran McGeeney when asked afterwards if they should have gone for the goal.

Those are the margins.


*****

ARMAGH lead by a point with two-and-a-half minutes of extra-time remaining.

Derry have just scored to half the deficit. Ethan Rafferty comes out with the ball in his hand for the kickout and sees Derry have gone for broke, pushed everyone up, man-to-man.

He sets down his tee. The ball doesn’t sit flat. He tries to reset it a second time, before he has to find a new patch of grass and set the tee up again.

In those four seconds, a Derry players loses concentration and there’s a break-out run by an Armagh defender to the wing. He’s in open space to receive an easy kickout, especially for a left-footed goalkeeper with his instep.

But because the ball didn’t sit on the tee, Rafferty doesn’t see the run until it’s been covered.

No more runs appear. He’s forced long. Conor Glass wins the kickout, and from it Derry work the equaliser.

Those are the margins.


*****

DERRY line up Padraig McGrogan to come on at the very end of extra-time.

He’s only been off a few minutes but with Armagh almost certain to kick the equaliser, a penalty shootout is inevitable.

But David Gough waves Rian O’Neill to take the free. As soon as it hits the ball-catcher, he blows the final whistle. McGrogan doesn’t get back on so is ineligible for the shootout.

When Derry and Down went to penalties in the McKenna Cup semi-final, their five penalty takers were Shane McGuigan, Paul Cassidy, Conor Doherty, Padraig McGrogan and Niall Toner.

McGrogan and Toner both missed that day.

If the Newbridge man gets back on, does he take the place of Conor Glass or Ciaran McFaul in their list of five?

Glass and McFaul scored, two brilliant penalties.

Armagh’s experience of a shootout becomes a disadvantage. Stefan Campbell and Conor Turbitt took shots in last year’s defeat by Galway.

Neither of them step up this time.

Rian O’Neill went to the same side last year as on Sunday. Had Odhran Lynch watched it, was he aware of that for the first of his three saves?

Those are the margins.


*****

FOUR minutes left in normal time. Derry lead by two and have had the ball for ages, pulling Armagh’s tired cover this way and that.

Brendan Rogers makes the final burst down the right wing. Central in the decisive moments of last year’s Ulster final, the Slaughtneil man seems destined to fist Derry three points clear with time running out, putting them virtually across the line.

His effort hits the post and drops wide. Seven minutes later he’s on the sideline, black-carded for the foul that he had to make, but which gives Armagh a tap-over and an extra 20 minutes.

Those are the margins.


*****

ARMAGH conceded more scores from frees than any other team in Division One this year.

The sense pre-match was that if they could maintain their discipline, David Gough was a referee that would suit them. His attitude towards physicality is to let it go if it’s anywhere near within the laws. It’s what makes him such a good referee.

For 80-plus minutes, Armagh were so disciplined. They gave Derry nothing soft, gave Gough very little opportunity to punish them.

And then just when the line was in sight, they lost that.

James Morgan fouled Shane McGuigan twice in the final three minutes. On the second one, Rian O’Neill came in after and gave away another 13 metres.

McGuigan stole some more when he got away with it. The Slaughtneil man hitched Derry up on his back and carried them to the line.

Those are the margins.


*****

THOSE are the margins by which we decide who got it right and who got it wrong.

They’re tiny. Virtually invisible to the naked eye.

But yesterday the air in Armagh was that they’d let Derry off the hook by being ‘negative’, or by going long on the kickouts in extra-time, or this, that and the other.

For my money, that was Armagh’s best performance in a long time.

They took Derry on in a way that nobody has taken them on for quite a while. They fronted up, went man-to-man and physically pushed the champions backwards.

The reason Odhran Lynch had so much ball in his hands was that Derry had nobody else to give it to. And that wasn’t for lack of showing, but simply that Armagh were so touch-tight all over the field that forward passes out of defence were often very high-risk.

Kieran McGeeney got far more right on Sunday than he got wrong.

So did Ciaran Meenagh.

The culture of analysis is to look at the scoreboard first and work backwards. What did the winners do right and what did the losers do wrong?

Except it’s not always like that.

The margins are razor-thin.

Armagh, if they can lift themselves, are as well-set for the round-robin as Derry are.