I was in the company of two Armagh footballing greats, Oisín McConville and Aaron Kernan, on a recent trip to Rockland GAA Club in New York when the third round draw pitted Armagh against Tipp in Thurles.
Tipp had a massive win against Cavan but I got the feeling the two lads were very happy with the pairing and both were hugely confident that Armagh would win. They believed the winner-takes-all league game earlier in the year was thrown away by the Orchard rather than won by Tipp. It was hard to counter the banter, but I tried my best.
Saturday’s game was never going to be a classic and that’s what transpired. Throw a poor refereeing performance into the equation, which had both sets of supporters scratching their heads at various stages and it didn’t make for the greatest spectacle.
I am a huge fan of the advantage rule but Paddy Neilan had a howler trying to implement it on Saturday. There were two critical incidents. In the 19th minute, he blew for a free to Armagh, just before Gavin McParland tucked away into the corner of Kieran Kenrick’s goal. That incensed Kieran McGeeney. I am still, for the life of me, wondering what the free was for in the first place as there was minimal contact.
Then, close to the end, he denied Tipp’s Phillip Austin an advantage when he was about to shoot for goal with Armagh three points to the good. If I was to nitpick, I would say in the build up to Jamie Clarke’s crucial last-minute goal, George Hannigan was given an advantage but none accrued within the allotted five seconds, so that should have been called back too.
It definitely wasn’t one of Paddy Neilan’s better days but he wasn’t the reason Tipp lost this game. They were not quite good enough on the day and struggled to cope with Armagh’s physicality and fitness for long periods of the second half.
A late change to the Tipp team saw Michael Quinlivan start at full-forward, much to the delight of the Tipp support, but it was evident from an early stage that he wasn’t functioning as normal.
From Liam Kearns’ perspective, it had to be a gamble worth taking, considering the last-12 prize on offer. Some will argue he should have held Quinlivan in reserve but in my opinion, he had to start him. My only criticism is that he probably should have started Philip Austin too as I believe the Armagh defence wouldn’t have coped with him, Sweeney, and Quinlivan in the full-forward line.
Shortly after half-time, Quinlivan produced a sublime finish giving Blaine Hughes in the Armagh goal no chance at his near post. That put four points between the teams and Tipp looked like they could pull away from Armagh. But it was actually Armagh who did all the pressing from then on. Tipp retreated into their own half and invited Armagh on to them.
Armagh, in turn, pushed up on the Tipp kick-out and dominated between the two 45s. Tipp’s next score didn’t come until the 58th minute when Josh Keane converted a free but crucially their next score from play didn’t arrive until injury-time, further emphasising Armagh’s superiority.
Jack Kennedy’s loss around the middle due to a black card was a huge blow for Tipp, something they never really recovered from. Niall Grimley was immense on the frees for Armagh and also scored two great points from play. On the other side, the usually reliable Kevin O’Halloran had an off-day which proved costly for Tipperary in the end. In tight games such as this one free taking is of utmost importance.
Have no doubt, this was a huge win for Kieran McGeeney and his troops, emphasised by the way they celebrated at the final whistle, and I have no problem saying that they fully deserved their win.
To be beaten by Tipp twice in the space of a few months would simply not be acceptable to the Armagh faithful, so they will be delighted getting out of Semple with a hard-fought win.
Armagh had their homework done and never really let Tipp establish a rhythm. They curbed the influence of Conor Sweeney, who was well marshalled. And with Quinlivan unfit, it was always going to be an uphill battle for Tipp.
It would be remiss of me, however, not to acknowledge the performance of Tipp’s Bill Maher. What an outstanding footballer and athlete.
Tipp may have come up short on Saturday but the joy and entertainment they have given to every single football supporter over the last 18 months has to be recognised too. Nine championship games in two seasons is unheard of in the county, so the job Liam Kearns, Paul Fitzgerald, Shane Stapleton and the rest of the backroom team have done with this group over the last two years is phenomenal.
I hope they remain at the helm going forward.
This young team needs stability if the county is to progress to the next level. The journey is over for now but roll on Division 2 football in the spring.