Tyrone put out of their misery by Ethan Rafferty as Armagh come of age at last

Armagh 1-16, Tyrone 1-10

Michael McKernan of Tyrone after the defending All-Ireland champions were knocked out by Armagh yesterday. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Armagh goalkeeper Ethan Rafferty kicks a point during the All-Ireland SFC Round 1 qualifier against Tyrone at the Athletic Grounds in Armagh. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Paul Conroy

Frank Roche

It’s only one qualifier round, Kieran Donaghy stressed, but it felt like a whole lot more as Armagh fans invaded the pitch at the final whistle.

They had just unseated the champions. Correction: they didn’t merely dethrone their fiercest rivals, they dismantled them.

Truth is, Tyrone were blessed to exit the Athletic Grounds with a six-point beating. They were out-thought, out-fought and ultimately ‘outed’ as impoverished All-Ireland holders.

Almost everything that was good about Tyrone last summer was marked absent in this cauldron of orange, their season-long struggles witnessed one last time by a crowd of 16,292. It was the story of yesterday. As Feargal Logan tacitly admitted afterwards, it has been the story of their year.

But the Red Hand post-mortems can wait. The narrative here is even more one of Armagh redemption. Kieran McGeeney has been waiting eight years for a signature victory like this. Beating Monaghan in the 2019 qualifiers comes a distant second.

“Look, our fellas were very disappointed with the performance against Donegal. They really worked hard in the last six weeks, we asked above and beyond out of them, and they were never found wanting,” said Donaghy, the Kerry legend-turned-Armagh coach, who fulfilled post-match media duties in place of McGeeney.

“When you put in that kind of hard graft in training sessions, it kind of bonds the group, and they’re a really tight group as it is. So delighted for them, delighted foe Kieran McGeeney as a manager, the work he’s put into this group from where they came from eight years ago.

“I’m delighted for the group to get through a round, which is what it is. Obviously if you don’t get through this round it’s a long year.”

But surely it felt like more than just a qualifier round? “It probably does,” Donaghy conceded. “But we’re realistic enough to know that when we wake up tomorrow morning, the plan will start for whoever we get in the draw. And then it will really dawn on us that it was just a round, and that we have to really go to work this week and have to be even better … but it’s a big win, no doubt.”

Where to start? Perhaps the game’s first score – a Conor McKenna goal on the rebound after three minutes, coming after Michael McKernan’s initial attempt had been blocked by Armagh netminder Ethan Rafferty.

That description of Rafferty’s role comes with a giant caveat. When is the last time a ‘goalkeeper’ tallied 0-2 from play in a match of this stature?

Then again, as a previously established outfield player who only made the switch during the spring after returning from a cruciate injury, Rafferty is no stranger to impacting matches in this fashion.

His opening point, an outside-of-the-boot effort that fizzed over from 45 metres, came on 13 minutes at a time when his team still trailed.

Another forward foray, drawing a foul after he kicked the ball, led to a simple tap-over free for Rian O’Neill early in the second half. Rafferty’s second point, approaching the three-quarter mark, pushed them four clear.

His influence didn’t end there. As well as scrambling to stop a Michael O’Neill goalbound flick soon after Tyrone’s goal and then rising to prevent a Conn Fitzpatrick point above his bar, he revealed his ball-playing credentials in more ways than one.

His inch-perfect kick-out to Stefan Campbell, initiating a move carried on by Rory Grugan and finished by Aidan Nugent, gave Armagh their first point after eight minutes.

From that juncture on the champions were labouring, reflected in some early dead-ball mishaps for ‘keeper Niall Morgan and Darren McCurry, whereas Armagh belief soared.

Nugent’s 15th-minute goal, cutting in along the end-line away from Peter Teague, then squeezing his shot inside the near post, pushed them two clear.

They were four up after 24 minutes and it should have been even more, Morgan making a vital intervention to cut out Campbell’s attempted goal assist for Nugent; then Stephen Sheridan blazing over at the end of another defence-shredding move.

The tenacity and organisation that made Tyrone so hard to breach in 2021 were nowhere to be seen but somehow, driven on by McCurry’s valiant efforts even while living off relative scraps, Tyrone landed four of the last five points to only trail by 1-6 to 1-5 at the break.

You sat back and waited for Tyrone to raise the bar and test Armagh’s mettle. And then kept waiting.

The champions weren’t helped by Richie Donnelly’s black card within four minutes of his half-time introduction. They trailed by three when he resumed, only to quickly cough up the next three points via Rafferty, the recalled Campbell (a livewire presence all through – he pipped his ‘keeper for man of the match) and O’Neill, the latter happy to fist over even as they enjoyed a four-on-two.

The margin stood at five when Tyrone briefly threatened a comeback, Rafferty for once turned over in midfield and caught out of position, but O’Neill’s attempt to pick out Donnelly in the goalmouth was intercepted by sub Connaire Mackin.

Sadly, Mackin’s day ended soon afterwards, stretchered off with what appeared to be a neck-shoulder injury after a shuddering collision from Michael McKernan. That prompted nine minutes of stoppage-time that stretched to 10.

For a Tyrone team that managed just 1-5 from play, another ten hours would scarcely have made a difference.

SCORERS – Armagh: R O’Neill 0-4 (3f); A Nugent 1-1; E Rafferty, S Campbell, A Murnin 0-2 each; C O’Neill, S Sheridan, J Duffy, R Grugan, C Turbitt 0-1 each. Tyrone: D McCurry 0-7 (4f, 1m); C McKenna 1-0; P Harte, R Donnelly, C Kilpatrick 0-1 each.

ARMAGH – N Rafferty 9; J Morgan 7, A Forker 6, P Burns 5; A McKay 7, G McCabe 7, J Burns 8; S Sheridan 6, B Crealey 7; C O’Neill 6, S Campbell 9, R Grugan 7; A Nugent 8, R O’Neill 7, J Duffy 6. Subs: C Mackin 8 for P Burns (33), C Turbitt 7 for O’Neill (h-t), A Murnin 8 for Nugent (59), J Hall 6 for Duffy (59), M Shields for Mackin (inj, temp 68), R McQuillan for Sheridan (74).

TYRONE – N Morgan 6; R McNamee 6, P Hampsey 6, P Teague 5; M McKernan 7, P Harte 6, R Brennan 6; C Kilpatrick 6, F Burns 5; C Meyler 6, M O’Neill 6, N Sludden 5; D McCurry 8, M Donnelly 5, C McKenna 6. Subs: K McGeary 6 for Teague (31), R Donnelly 6 for Sludden (h-t), D Canavan 7 for Burns (50), C McShane 6 for M Donnelly (55), M McGleenan for O’Neill (74).

REF – D Coldrick (Meath)

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