Allianz National Football League Division Two: Armagh 2-16 Meath 0-10
DESPITE the hand of history on shoulders up the road in Stormont, there was to be no power-sharing at the Athletic Grounds on Saturday as goals either side of half-time saw Armagh put paid to a poor Meath.
After an electrifying run from Oisin Conaty - brilliant all night - Cian McConville rattled high to the net two minutes before the break, and when Ciaran Mackin took advantage of some sloppy defending to add another major just after half-time, the result was never in doubt.
Just two games into the Division Two campaign, the Royals are already looking anxiously over their shoulders after this result followed an opening day draw with Fermanagh, while an improved performance leaves the Orchard sitting pretty.
And this proved infinitely more straightforward than the first weekend’s nip and tuck encounter with neighbours Louth. Considering Armagh didn’t score for the opening 12 minutes, 2-16 was decent shooting when all was said and done – but Meath were miles off it once the Orchard got on top.
“It’s funny, I felt more elated last week because it was close near the end and we got it, this week we got the goals that we missed from last week and it gave us a bit of a cushion,” said Armagh boss Kieran McGeeney.
It was the clinical edge that made the difference, while the Royals kicked wide after wide.
Yet there were signs that Armagh still have a bit to work on ahead of their date with struggling Kildare on February 18, another slow and sloppy start making life tough for most of the first half.
It is at these times the direct option offered by Andrew Murnin and Rian O’Neill is badly missed, and also when the impact of Ethan Rafferty’s absence becomes most clear.
When opponents are proving hard to prise open, the bit of chaos and unease caused when the Grange man rumbles upfield is keenly felt as Meath – just as Louth had done a week earlier – fairly easily contained Armagh during the early exchanges.
Their highlight was a classy point finished off by Eoghan Frayne 13 minutes in, after Darragh Campion won Sean Brennan’s kickout and launch a beautiful diagonal ball for Frayne to pluck out of the skies and tap over.
That moved Meath into a 0-3 to 0-1 lead but, from there on, it only ever felt like a matter of time as Armagh gradually turned the screw. The pace and directness of Stefan Campbell and Conaty committed the Royals defenders enough times to allow Conor Turbitt to keep Armagh ticking over from frees, before Conaty grabbed the game by the scruff.
A minute after Conor O’Neill curled over a lovely score, the Tir na nOg speedster picked up the ball near the sideline and drove right at Meath’s heart before slipping in McConville, who made no mistake.
With Armagh’s tails up, the Royals found themselves facing a rearguard action – one they were nowhere near equipped for as their shape never quite convinced in the face of Orchard counters.
Mackin’s goal just after the break moved Armagh 2-8 to 0-5 ahead, and from then on the game was played at challenge match pace – McGeeney’s men keeping the scoreboard ticking over while Meath struggled to make any headway.
Their Leinster derby with Louth in a fortnight’s time all of a sudden carries huge significance, and O’Rourke is in no doubt about the size of the challenge they face.
“It unravelled badly just before half-time and after half-time, that’s when the damage was done,” said the Meath boss.
“We had hoped to be in the top end of the division and not worried about relegation, obviously the next game becomes extra important to us and probably to Louth as well. But we’ve five games to go, plenty to play for.”
Having slipped out of Division One last year, Armagh couldn’t have asked for much more from their opening two games. With Ross McQuillan coming off the bench to score a point, O’Neill, Murnin and Aidan Nugent all back training, and Rafferty “a week or two behind the others”, McGeeney’s hand only looks like getting stronger.
But, even though opening defeats to Cavan and Fermanagh have left Kildare reeling ahead of Armagh’s visit to their temporary home at Netwatch Cullen Park, the former Lilywhite boss knows a sting in the tail could be just around the corner.
“I was just reminding people in there, last time Kildare went up to Division One, I was with them, we lost our first two League games, then won the next five, won Division Two and went up,” said McGeeney.
“You have these two games but that’s all you have. We’re delighted to have them but it would be very early in the year to be thinking anything other than its four points.”