However, a flurry of second-half scores gave the Slaneysiders a remarkable victory, with scorer-in-chief Mattie Forde overcoming a car crash en route to the game to chip in a goal and six points.
At half-time it looked grim for Wexford. Loose defending had cost them dearly, and Armagh had put their opponents on notice when Ronan Clarke’s first-minute shot was smothered by Wexford ‘keeper John Cooper. The long-ball tactic that opened up the Slaneyside defence early on was to prove fruitful for Armagh throughout the opening period, with their two-man full-forward line of Clarke and Steven McDonnell revelling in the open space.
Wexford’s star corner-forward, Mattie Forde, opened their account with a fifth-minute free to cancel out McDonnell’s early 45. Wexford impressed in the opening quarter, with Shane Cullen and Paddy Colfer pointing from play, and they had a goal disallowed when captain John Hudson was adjudged to have fouled Armagh ‘keeper Ciaran McKinney in the 11th minute.
Armagh were sparked into life by that close shave and swept upfield for a McDonnell point. The Ulster men were imposing their physical strength on Wexford and despite another Forde point from a free in the 17th minute, the tide was turning. Three minutes later Clarke crossed for Paul Keenan to bundle home a goal.
Points from McDonnell and Clarke eased Armagh into a three-point lead approaching the break. When Garret Swift placed Brian Mallon with a fine pass in injury time, the corner-forward finished to the net and the sizeable Armagh support in the 4,000-plus crowd would have been forgiven for expecting their side to close out a win.
“We were poor in the first half,” admitted Wexford boss Pat Roe. “We committed too many errors, we were allowing them to squeeze down our space. After half-time we had to win primary possession and we needed to get our support runners going off the ball. We moved Diarmuid Kinsella to midfield, and Brendan Doyle did well to secure primary possession.”
Roe’s half-time changes certainly proved decisive. The introduction of Redmond Barry and Brendan Doyle energised Wexford, and Armagh seemed unable to get out of their own half. A string of five unanswered points brought Wexford within a score of their opponents, and in the 48th minute a high dropping ball from Donal Colfer was touched home by Forde. Wexford were in the lead, and the home support responded loudly.
Paul Keenan responded with a fine solo effort for Armagh, but there was no stopping Wexford. Forde chipped in another pointed free, and the impressive Diarmuid Kinsella surged up-field for another. McDonnell threatened an Armagh resurgence with a long-range free, but Wexford continued to stream forward in numbers. With five minutes left the game was up for Armagh when keeper McKinney conceded a penalty for a foot-block on Kinsella. He was yellow-carded into the bargain. Kieran McGeeney went into goal but John Hudson converted the penalty to put the game beyond Armagh’s reach.
“Our plan was to bypass the middle third of the Armagh team,” said the victorious manager, “And that worked well for us in the second half. We tried to move it past that area early on but they were tackling very well and we couldn’t manage it.”
He was also happy with Mattie Forde’s performance, given the context. “Mattie’s car crash meant he was a little shook up and in those circumstances he had a very good game. He’s going to have to expect that kind of attention this year. He still managed a goal out of the blue, that’s pure Mattie.”
Forde had plenty of help yesterday. “The fact is that defences concentrating on Mattie make room for our other forwards,” said Roe. “Now they’re beginning to take the responsibility for scoring as well. I’ve always said we have other scoring forwards.”
Armagh would hardly disagree.
Scorers for Wexford: M Forde 1-6 (0-6 frees), J Hudson 1-1 (1-0 pen), D Kinsella 0-3, S Cullen, P Colfer, D Foran 0-1 each.
Armagh: S McDonnell 0-4 (0-3 f), Paul Keenan 1-1, B Mallon 1-0, R Clarke 0-1.
WEXFORD: J Cooper, C Morris, P Wallace, N Murphy, D Breen, D Murphy, S Cullen, J D’Arcy, P Colfer, D Fogarty, D Kinsella, J Hegarty, D Foran, J Hudson (C), M Forde.
Subs: R Barry for D’arcy, B Doyle for Fogarty (ht), K Kennedy for Hegarty 53.
ARMAGH: C McKinney, A Mallon, J McNulty, P McCormack, C McKeever, K McGeeney, A McCann, P Loughran, J Toal, G Swift, P McGrane, P Keenan, S McDonnell, R Clarke, B Mallon.
Subs: M O’Rourke for Swift 50, JP Donnelly for McCann 59, P Wilson for McKinney YC 65, McElvanna for A Mallon YC 69.
Referee: B Tyrrell (Tipperary).