So much for Armagh’s long-anticipated assault on Fortress Ballybofey and the Ulster Championship. Led by the eternal Michael Murphy at one end and full-back Brendan McCole at the other, Donegal did an emphatic number on the flagging Orchard men this afternoon.
he final margin settled at seven; Kieran McGeeney could have no complaints either, his only consolation being that he’ll get a second chance this season in the qualifiers. Their afternoon was summed up by the fate of Rian O’Neill, their talisman held scoreless by the adhesive McCole.
Donegal, on this form, will be fancied in their semi-final against Cavan, the side who stunned them in the 2020 Ulster final.
Declan Bonner’s men led by 0-9 to 0-6 at half-time, having played with a fresh breeze, and you wondered if three points would be sufficient.
Within seconds of the restart, Armagh almost fashioned an equaliser with a route-one delivery caught by Rian O’Neill. But the Armagh No 14 was bottled up barely a yard from the goal-line and eventually a free-out was called.
Three minutes later came another reprieve for the home team, who were indebted to Shaun Patton’s sharp reflexes at his near post as he saved from half-time sub Aidan Nugent.
But Donegal weathered that mini-storm and after Shane O’Donnell stretched their lead to four, fizzing a potential goal chance over the bar, they struck again on 46 minutes for the killer goal.
A patient build-up was given sudden momentum when Paddy McBrearty located Caolan Ward in space and, instead of taking his own score, he passed across the goalmouth for the inrushing McBrearty to fist home.
Even though Stefan Campbell replied with Armagh’s first point of the half, you already sensed the game was gone from them.
Over the last 20 minutes Donegal outscored their rivals by six points to five to win by seven – and it might have been even more if Murphy’s magnificent 50-metre run and clever assist for Michael Langan had ended with a 66th minute goal. Instead his shot fizzed over for his third point.
This finely balanced contest would have been eagerly awaited even without the fractious backdrop of Letterkenny four weeks ago.
That end-of-match melee lit the touchpaper, but further potential for fireworks was ignited by the disciplinary outcomes that flowed.
Donegal were down two players – Odhrán McFadden-Ferry and Neil McGee – who accepted their one-match punishments.
Armagh, by contrast, were both reprieved and relieved, with Rian O’Neill free to start after his successful foray before the Central Hearings Committee while his fellow joint-captain, Aidan Nugent, and Stefan Campbell were among the subs after their bans were eventually rescinded by the Central Appeals Committee.
Only one of Armagh’s originally sanctioned quartet, Ciarán Mackin, missed out; he hadn’t pressed ahead with an appeal to the CAC although he would have missed the game, in any event, through injury.
On paper, those developments tilted this 50-50 battle marginally in favour of the visitors. On the flip side, McGeeney was embarking on his eighth SFC campaign as Armagh manager and he had yet to even reach a provincial final. For all their eye-catching league progression in recent years, it was now high time for Geezer’s team to lay down a championship marker.
Bonner was under the microscope too, having failed to build on back-to-back Ulster titles in 2018 and ’19, and then having suffered painful exits in the last two straight knockout provincial campaigns.
Backed by a fresh breeze, Donegal’s intent was apparent from the throw-in, Eoin Ban Gallagher and Murphy (from a free) edging them into an early two-point lead.
But when Peadar Mogan struck an upright with their third scoring attempt, it set in train a spell of wastefulness from the hosts, as they struggled to maximise possession against a deep-lying Armagh rearguard.
By contrast, Armagh were both efficient and incisive in their attacks. By the 12th minute they were 0-4 to 0-3 ahead, their lead score coming after Jason McGee’s hesitancy led to an over-carry and a swift counter, Conor Turbitt burning Stephen McMenamin for a sweet left-footed effort.
Murphy’s 47-metre free restored parity midway through the half, and the second quarter was all about Donegal dominating territory but not making sufficient use of it. They still landed five of the last seven points to lead by 0-9 to 0-6 at the midpoint but, in truth, it should have been more.
By half-time they had won eight out of Armagh’s 14 kickouts, hoovering up the vast majority of Ethan Rafferty’s longer restarts. Less promisingly, they had five wides, four efforts short and another off the upright – whereas Armagh’s first wide, via Aidan Forker, didn’t arrive until first half injury-time.
Donegal: M Murphy 0-6 (4f), P McBrearty 1-2 (0-1f), M Langan 0-3, E Gallagher, J McGee, C Thompson, S O’Donnell, C O’Donnell 0-1 each.
Armagh: R Grugan 0-5 (3f), J Burns, T Kelly, C Turbitt, S Campbell, B Crealey, O O’Neill, G McCabe 0-1 each.
DONEGAL – S Patton; C Ward, B McCole, S McMenamin; R McHugh, E Gallagher, P Mogan; H McFadden, J McGee; C Thompson, S O’Donnell, M Langan; P McBrearty, M Murphy, J Brennan.
Subs: C McGonagle for McGee (inj 51), C O’Donnell for Thompson (54), N O’Donnell McFadden (61), P Brennan for S O’Donnell (68), A Doherty for J Brennan (74).
ARMAGH – E Rafferty; J Morgan, A Forker, A McKay; N Grimley, G McCabe, J Burns; C Mackin, B Crealey; J Hall, R Grugan, T Kelly; C Turbitt, R O’Neill, J Duffy.
Subs: A Nugent for Duffy (ht), S Campbell for Hall (47), O O’Neill for Mackin (50), R McQuillan for Forker (inj 62).
REF – M Deegan (Laois)
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