Down edge past local rivals Armagh in tight affair

Down's Shay Millar battles for the ball with Rory Grugan of Armagh
Down's Shay Millar battles for the ball with Rory Grugan of Armagh

Down edged past neighbours Armagh in a tight Ulster Championship quarter-final at Páirc Esler in Newry.

This was a strange contest – the first half was a highly entertaining affair in which there was hardly time to draw breath but the second period saw a return to the same old bad habits that Ulster football has become known for.

Both teams committed to attacking football from the start and the crowd of 16,168 were treated to a free-flowing, absorbing opening period which saw Armagh create four goal chances and find the net twice.

Down began brightly and raced into an early 0-4 to 0-0 lead through points from Caolan Mooney and Ryan Johnston and frees from goalkeeper Michael Cunningham and corner forward Jerome Johnston.

Armagh didn’t let their heads drop and they hauled themselves back into the game with a brilliant goal in the 13th minute.

An Oisín O’Neill free dropped short and Mark Shields reacted quickest to bury an unstoppable shot to the back of the net.

Daragh O’Hanlon put Down two points in front before Armagh’s Aaron McKay replied with his side’s first point when he might have found the net but put too much power behind his shot.

Down created a goal chance of their own just afterwards but Connaire Harrison saw his effort well saved by Blane Hughes.

They were left to rue that miss when Kieran’s McGeeney’s men took the lead for the first time through an Andy Murnin goal.

Some excellent build-up play from Jamie Clarke sent Stefan Campbell through on goal and, after his effort was saved by Cunningham, Murnin made no mistake with the rebound.

Armagh’s tails were up and points from Aidan Forker and a wonderful effort from corner back Paul Hughes stretched their lead to three points.

To their credit, Down responded well and successive points from O’Hanlon, Harrison and Shay Millar drew them level before a long-range effort from Stephen Sheridan saw Armagh take a slender advantage into the half-time break.

The second half was a much more stop-start affair and never matched the quality of the opening period.

Inexplicably, Armagh’s attacking rhythm went to pieces after the break. They struggled badly with their shooting into a swirling wind and only managed three points in the whole second half.

Down regained the lead in the 41st minute after two points from the inspirational Darragh O’Hanlon.

The Mourne Men were not exactly clinical in front of the posts themselves in the second half but they did enough to keep Armagh at bay as the contest became more and more scrappy and points from Mooney, Conor Maginn, Barry O’Hagan and an injury-time effort from David McKibben kept the scoreboard ticking over at key times.

The match ended in chaos when - following a mass brawl - referee Conor Lane showed Armagh’s Joe McElroy a red card, only to a realise he had made a mistake and retract his decision.

Down won’t care about the scrappy nature of the second half, however, as they advance to the Ulster semi-final where they will face either Monaghan or Cavan.
Down:  M Cunningham (0-1), A Doherty, G McGovern, D O’Hagan (c), D O’Hanlon (0-4), C McGovern, C Mooney (0-2), K McKernan, N Donnelly, P Turley, C Maginn (0-1), S Millar (0-1), J Johnston (0-1), R Johnston (0-1), C Harrison (0-2)
Subs: M Poland for C Maginn, A Carr for P Turley, J Murphy for R Johnston, B O’Hagan for C Harrison, D McKibben (0-1) for N Donnelly
Armagh:  B Hughes, J Morgan, C Vernon, P Hughes (0-1), A McKay (0-1), B Donaghy, M Shields (1-0), S Sheridan (0-1), J McElroy, A Forker (0-1), O O’Neill, R Grugan (c), J Clarke, S Campbell, A Murnin (1-0)
Subs: N Rowland for A Forker, G McParland for R Grugan, A Murphy (0-1) for O O’Neill, N Grimley for C Vernon
Referee: C Lane