It was as if God had deigned it to be Armagh’s day

NOBODY could question the vital importance of Oisin McConville’s 55th minute goal in terms of inspiring a wonderful first ever All-Ireland football title for Armagh in yesterday’s Bank of Ireland championship decider in Croke Park.

However, based on their quite astonishing improvement in a second half that was expected to be controlled by the favourites it could be argued that the game was really decided by what manager Joe Kernan had to say to his players during the interval break.

After a bright start had been frustrated by some superb Kerry play and then a missed penalty by

McConville, how else could one explain such an unbelievable transformation. It saw Kerry being limited to a mere three points, all scored before McConville's brilliantly taken goal, and then fail to produce an equaliser from a number of late raids.

The best of these saw Eoin Brosnan kick narrowly wide at the end of normal time. Even more dramatically, seconds before the final whistle, Justin McNulty made a crucial interception in winning a ball directed at Kerry wing-back John Sheehan less than 40 yards out from goal. Taking everything into consideration, it was as if the God had deigned it to be Armagh's day at only their third attempt, that the element of luck that had been denied them, both in the draw and replay in the 2000 semi-final, was due!

In retrospect, what transpired in the first half had ittle consequence to the rest of the game in other words the real contest only began after the resumption. Principally it was noteworthy for the powerful start made by Armagh and then how Kerry achieved a gradual improvement to the stage where they were almost controlling the play. It was 0-3 to 0-1 for the Ulster champions after just over four minutes, with two of their scores coming from right corner-forward Steven McDonnell who was to have a powerful game against no less a player than Michael McCarthy. Seamus Moynihan, too, looked vulnerable against newcomer Ronan Clarke and, in general, the Kerry defence was being put under a lot of pressure.

With Armagh doing better at midfield, benefiting from the support play of team captain Kieran McGeeney from half-back and John McEntee from half-forward, it meant that there wasn't much ball going down to the Kerry forwards. Notably, Colm Cooper wasn't very sharp in his first few touches, but he was to play a part once the siege had been lifted. Liam Hassett, doing outstanding work on the left flank, was strongly influential on the game,left flank, Eoin Brosnan was to thunder into the game and Mike Frank Russell did some marvellous work.

Most importantly of all Darragh Ó Sé took over control from Paul McGrane while Donal Daly, winning some terrific possession in the air, produced outstanding form. In turn, this helped to bring Dara Ó Cinnéide much more into the game and his ability to win clean ball on a regular basis was another feature. After scores were level for the third time at 0-5 each in the 20th minute, Kerry assumed a greater authority with Eamonn Fitzmaurice and Tomás Ó Sé to the forefront at half-back and they played with a confidence which was to be reflected in a four points lead in another five minutes. During this period, an improving Moynihan made a vital catch at the edge of the small square when Armagh threatened a goal.

But, very soon afterwards, twice Kerry had the chance to put the ball in the net at the other end. Russell, untypically, fumbled a pass from Brosnan before taking a point. Brosnan himself (who easily had the beating of McGeeney now), powered his way through from the right before hitting a low ball across the face of the goalmouth. Armagh, clearly, were in trouble and their challenge was further undermined when Oisin McConville had a 34th minute penalty saved. It was to Declan O'Keeffe's immense credit that he judged the shot penalty, but at the same time it didn't appear a shot that was taken with conviction. At the break it was 0-11 to 0-8.

Based on the way the play had evolved over the second quarter it seemed probable that Kerry, now backed by a freshening wind, would build on their lead and pull away. That was the theory, but the reality was to prove quite different. After what seemed an age, with Paidí Ó Sé's team waiting on the field for them, Armagh re-appeared. In the opening two minutes, Russell was wide from scorable shots from each side, and they looked no more than minor hiccups at the time.

Yet, even in those opening minutes, there were signs of an Armagh recovery in the way McGeeney and Andrew McCann on his left stamped their authority on the play. Gradually, that belief was to spread throughout the team and manifest itself in confident and skilful play which threw Kerry unexpectedly back on the defensive. It was evident after less than fifteen minutes that they were starting to struggle in defence and once the Armagh midfielders (and McGrane in particular) rediscovered their form, the favourites were being exposed in defence once more.

For a while, Armagh made little headway because they were hitting in balls harmlessly to the Kerry inside backs or 'keeper O'Keeffe, but, it was significant nonetheless that they had raised the siege and were starting to take control.

Diarmuid Marsden, who had a great second half, should have had a goal in the 51st minute. But, in another three minutes they were finally rewarded when McConville squeezed the ball past O'Keeffe through the narrowest of spaces after McGrane played a crucial role in setting up the chance. There were still twenty minutes to go, plenty of time one might have felt for Kerry to re-establish a grip, but it was never going to happen because of the control that Armagh stared to exert.

Remarkably, the only two scores in that period were Ronan Clarke's deserved equaliser in the 57th minute and the winning point from McDonnell five minutes later. Much more significant was the fact that Armagh were the team who were playing like winners and at the end even the 32 times champions could hardly begrudge them their victory.

John Bannon, handling his second All-Ireland Final did a very good job of refereeing.

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