Down delivers while Orchard men crumble

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Down delivers while Orchard men crumble thumbnailMark Shields breaks a tackle from Down’s Peter Turley on Sunday

IT was a day to remember in Pairc Esler. Especially if you are from Down, while for Armagh fans it was another match to forget, writes Steve Malone.


Just over 1600 full-volume fans brought noise and colour and helped kick-start the Ulster Championship, at least for the first half.

Rostrevor's Caolan Mooney set the tone with his fist-pump celebration after he thumped Down into the lead with a point on three minutes.

Sixty seconds later Jerome Johnston tagged on a point and after that, goalkeeper Michael Cunningham converted a free on seven minutes as the Mourne men looked on their way.

Jamie Clarke was blown up for over carrying as Armagh hadn't adopted to the pace of the game and Jerome Johnston's converted free extended Down's lead.

Down looked assured, they were stroking passes about for fun and dictated the tempo up until Mark Shields struck a brilliant goal to bring Armagh to life.

Oisin O'Neill floated a side-line ball into the square where Andrew Murnin won possession and laid off to Shields, who buried his shot to the back of the net.

All of a sudden it was a battle. Kilcoo's Darragh O'Hanlon settled Down nerves with a converted free following a silly foul by Joe McElroy, but with 12 minutes gone Dromintee's Aaron McKay blazed his shot over the bar after O'Neill's visionary pass.

It was end-to-end stuff and a game you simply couldn't take your eyes off.

Connaire Harrison had a wonderful chance to bag a goal when he evaded Vernon's tackle but Blaine Hughes stuck out his foot for a magnificent save and James Morgan tidied u p.

Armagh then took the lead for the first time on 22 minutes when Murnin bagged a cracking goal.

Again O'Neill's high ball caused the Down defence problems and Clarke wonderfully laid off to Campbell, whose shot was initially saved by Cunningham but Murnin collected the rebound and made no mistake from close range .

With confidence up, Forker tapped over and Crossmaglen's Paul Hughes struck a fantastic point, but Down more than held their nerve.

They fought back with Darragh O'Hanlon launching a wonderful 40-metre effort between the posts and then Connaire Harrison chipped over after the industrious Shay Millar did all the legwork, before laying off the perfect pass.

Millar was magnificent and Cunningham's kick-outs were perfect, with the Glenn man free to roam as Brendan Donaghy played sweeper.

Armagh wobbled in front of the posts towards the end of the half. They were playing great attacking football and had Down scrambling, but shooting let the Orchard men down badly.

Forker steered his shot wide, then Vernon fisted wide from close range and despite momentum in their favour Rory Grugan's shot went the wrong way after clipping the post.

After those four minutes of huffing and puffing, Armagh came up with nothing and Down rubbed salt into those sores with Millar firing over the levelling score after McKernan made a surging run.

Murnin then had a fantastic chance to bag his second goal but his shot struck the inside of the post and somehow stayed out.

It was thrilling football and you couldn't take your eyes off it as Stephen Sheridan kicked a super score to give Armagh a one-point lead at the break.


Half-time: Down 0-09 Armagh 2- 04.

The second half failed to live up to the first as an end-to-end classic, but it was a defensive masterclass from Down.

Grey clouds meant the sun was no longer beating down and neither were Armagh. They defended in numbers, hunted in packs and importantly took their scores when it mattered.

Armagh on the other hand looked a pale shadow of the promise they showed in the first and the substitutes failed to inspire.

Darragh O'Hanlon and goalkeeper Cunningham kicked wide before O'Hanlon converted a free, which was awarded after Armagh 'keeper Hughes was crowded with no-one to pass to.

O'Hanlon's conversion levelled the score and Down didn't look back after the same man struck a stunning 40-metre point to put Down into the lead again as early as the 41st minute.

Niall Grimley replaced Vernon, which was a massive blow to Armagh as they missed his experience and leadership. Oisin O'Neill's longrange effort dropped short while at the other end Ryan Johnston's shot drifted wide.

But Down had the fire in their bellies as Conor Maginn proved when he robbed Campbell and fed to Mooney, who struck a sweet curling effort being the posts.

Down were growing in confidence as Armagh became frustrated and Maginn's point on 47 minutes extended the lead to three points.

Still there was plenty of time to play. Anto Duffy replaced O'Neill, which was strange decision considering the Cross player is one of the few can kick over a blanket defence.

That said Duffy bagged a point, even if it looked wide. Armagh were making runs but going nowhere as Down sucked them in, tackled like the proverbial demons and picked up loose ball.

Down brought on Glenn's Niall McParland, Clonduff's Barry O'Hagan, Ballyholland's Joe Murphy and Bryansford's David McKibbin and they helped improve their team.

With the tempo completely slowed down, the game went 13 minutes without a score, which was in complete contrast to the first half.

Barry O'Hagan fired over a classy score on 63 minutes after Murphy made an excellent run. A minute later Armagh intelligently poked holes in the Down defence and Forker's goal-effort flashed wide.

But the Orchard men still had time to take their points, just not the accuracy. Grimley, Duffy and Joe McElroy kicked wide and Duffy's shot on goal was too tame, making it easy for Cunningham.

With 71 minutes played, substitue Gavin Mc- Parland converted a brilliant tight-angled free but McKibbin replied with a fine point from play.With tempers flared a row broke out but after that settled down and the referee dished out four yellow cards (two apiece), Armagh were awarded a close-range free.

But with Down players manning the goal-line and another line of players in front of them, Clarke converted his free over the bar.

With 80 minutes played the referee still allowed time for another passage of play, but importantly Down had won possession and as the final whistle was blown, they had also won the d ay.

Down out-thought and out-fought Armagh in Sunday's Ulster Championship clash and they were worthy winners.

After such a drought of Ulster Championship games in Pairc Esler, losing wasn't an option and the Down men played as if their lives depended on it.

Down had their homework done and Eamonn Burns and his team deserve a lot of credit. Each of their players knew what their role was, they looked organised, worked hard for each other and played well.

Clonduff 's Darren O'Hagan did an excellent man-marking job on Jamie Clarke and with Kevin McKernan playing as sweeper, as well as a lot of defenders, Down got a lot of joy of that exchange .

It was clear from the outset that Clarke wouldn't get many frees from referee Conor Clarke, although the Crossmaglen man worked tirelessly throughout and gave everything.

Also in defence Burren's Gerard McGovern did enough to blunt the contribution of Armagh's talisman Stefan Campbell.

As predicted Mark Shields and Caolan Mooney also had a fascinating battle and both played a huge part and can be happy with their display.

It wasn't all doom and gloom from Armagh.

Crossmaglen's James Morgan was magnificent against livewire Jerome Johnston and while the Kilcoo man enjoyed the early exchanges, it was Armagh's Morgan who won that dual for the remainder.

Andrew Murnin won a lot of high ball and took his goal well but Downpatrick's Anthony Doherty, in his debut did a solid job too.

Overall when needed to the Down men stood up and were counted. Shay Millar was magnificent, Darragh O'Hanlon and substitute Barry O'Hagan proved a handful and as a collective effort it was a wonderful Down performance.

When it came to the heat of the battle they were ready for it and whereas when Armagh were looking for players to seize the day, it wasn't forthcoming.

Down also won the battle on the line with astute substitutions whereas Armagh's sometimes baffled, with the introduction of Ciaran McKeever and Ciaron O'Hanlon at full-time a prime example.

With both Down Minors and Seniors winning at the weekend there can be no complaints over bragging rites. Tougher tests await Down when they play the winners of Cavan and Monaghan on Sunday, 25 June in Armagh's Athletic Grounds.

The Orchard camp has a chance to make amends when their qualifier takes place on Saturday, 24 June with that draw taking place this morning (Tuesday).


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