Monaghan progress to an Ulster final against Donegal or Tyrone after crafting a great comeback from two points down with four minutes to go to win by two at the end of a truly stunning contest.
There is no need to tinker with any rules when Gaelic football is played like this. Ulster may have been the original home of the blanket defence, but here two of the province’s best teams put on a stunning show, having adopted the attitude of, ‘Ok, you scored, now we’ll get one, too’.
How good was it? Well, Monaghan scored four goals in the first-half and might well have lost. Armagh came from eight points down to lead by two and fell away at the end as the teams gave their all on an afternoon of sweltering heat.
Armagh’s running game got them back in the match, but it betrayed them in the end. Their legs could give no more beneath the hot sun, as Monaghan somehow found the running power to secure those last vital scores.
Before the game began, the players and the 2,300 crowd stood in a moment’s silence and then applause in honour of Brendan óg ó Dufaigh (inset), captain of the Monaghan Under-20 team who tragically lost his life in a car crash on Friday night.
Those fans had barely settled back down into their seats before the teams embarked on a scorefest, which saw 1-7 registered in the first eight minutes. Defences were nowhere to be seen as the Armagh and Monaghan forwards made hay in the early going – the highlight being a Conor McManus goal after wing-back Ryan McAnespie had carried the ball forward for 70 metres.
It was the precursor to a stunning first-half show from the Farney boys who went in at half-time seven points ahead on the hurling scoreline of 4-9 to 0-14.
Goals from Jack McCarron, Michael Bannigan and Darren Hughes padded out the Monaghan lead as they ripped the Armagh back-line to pieces with no other tactic than direct running.
A lot of good work was also being done by Monaghan keeper Rory Beggan, who was finding his men in space with booming kick-outs on the breeze that allowed the recipient to turn and run towards the Armagh goal.
It was as if Kieran McGeeney’s men had not prepared for facing Beggan’s kick-outs. They surely had, but the defensive plan for dealing with them was in shreds as Monaghan’s men collected them and ran at will towards the Armagh goal.
Armagh being forced to change their goalie had nothing to do with this. Shea Magill did contribute to one of the goals with a bad kick-out, but the replacement keeper was left, time after time, with a Monaghan man running at him unchallenged.
And, yet, Armagh were not out of this, despite having conceded four green flags in 35 minutes. The Orchards’ forwards were kicking points at will when they got the ball, and they had a big breeze to come at their backs.
Add that to a massive bounce off a pitch burned bare in parts and Armagh knew they would be right back in the contest if they could score a couple of early second-half points.
They didn’t come, nor did many Monaghan points, as this game at last settled down into the more familiar pattern of hard-tackling and close marking that had been marked absent in the first half.
Monaghan were better at this type of game, working the ball up the pitch with ease and also taking the hits, with full-back Conor Boyle bouncing off two attempted Armagh shoulders.
Armagh needed something special if they were to get back into this game and they got it right off the restart from the water-break when Rian O’Neill’s long ball was punched to the net by sub Conor Turbitt.
Two quick points, then another substitute’s goal from Tiernan Kelly and, suddenly, Armagh were in the lead.
So began an enthralling last 10 minutes, in which fortunes ebbed and flowed. The brilliant McManus levelled the game with a free two minutes into five of injury time, then won it with another one, before sub Stephen O’Hanlon added the grace note for Monaghan.
A day that had begun so cruelly for the county ended with its people having some small smile on their faces.
Scorers - Armagh: R O’Neill 0-6 (2f), C Tubritt 1-1, R Grugan 0-3 (2f), T Kelly 1-0, O O’Neill 0-3, J Burns 0-2, R McQuillan 0-2, S Campbell 0-1, C O’Hanlon 0-1, G McCabe 0-1, C O’Neill 0-1. Monaghan: C McManus 1-6 (3f), M Bannigan 1-1, J McCarron 1-1, D Hughes 1-0, R Beggan 0-2 (2f), S O’Hanlon 0-2, D Ward 0-2, N Kearns 0-1, C McCarthy 0-1, S Carey 0-1.
Armagh: S Magill; J Morgan, A McKay, R Kennedy; C O’Hanlon, G McCabe, C Mackin; N Grimley, O O’Neill; J Hall, R O’Neill, J Og Burns; R Grugan, A Murnin, S Campbell. Subs: A Forker for A McKay (23), C O’Neill for O’Hanlon and Conor Turbitt for Grimley (both h-t), T Kelly for Hall (50), R McQuillan for Mackin 52.
Monaghan: R Beggan; K Duffy, C Boyle, R Wylie; K O’Connell, K Lavelle, R McAnespie; D Hughes, N Kearns; M Bannigan, A Mulligan, D Ward; C McCarthy, J McCarron, C McManus. Subs: S O’Hanlon for McCarthy (34), S Carey for Mulligan (41), C Walshe for O’Connell (47), K Hughes for Lavelle (48), A Woods for Kearns (59)
Referee: D Coldrick (Meath).