Orchard County reach the Promised Land

THEY are finally closing in on the Holy Grail. Yesterday in Croke Park, 25 years later, what they once called intestinal fortitude - and the width of a post - guided Armagh to the gates of the Promised Land.

Kieran McGeeney and Joe Kernan held reality on a tight leash when they reminded everyone around them that there are no podiums for second place but this was about more than winning a football match for Armagh. This was about redressing history, laying demons to rest and finding that route to their promised land, which fate has denied them in the past three years.

How much will this victory mean to the Orchard county? The image of Kieran McGeeney’s face as he conducted the pre-match huddle, contorting with a manic desire to win, will leave a lasting impression on those who saw it.

Unforgettable, too, was the Armagh fan with bulging, tattooed arms and a life-hardened face, reduced to tears high in the Hogan Stand. Nobody could begrudge this set of supporters their delirium.

You could argue Armagh won yesterday because they needed it more. Three heart-breaks at head-quarters is too much for any team, especially a side as talented as the Ulster champions. Could McGeeney and Oisin

McConville have withstood another semi-final defeat? Would gifted footballers like Paul McGrane and Diarmuid Marsden have faced another winter of unfulfilled slog?

In a cruel twist of fate, the villain’s cloak fell to Dublin’s outstanding player. Ray Cosgrove has contributed more to Dublin’s magical championship than anyone else. His six goals created a tsunami of hype that would have drowned lesser players.

That Cosgrove performed under the circumstances is to his eternal credit. With Dublin football’s love of tragic heroes, a lá Charlie Redmond, it is possible Cosgrove will be scape-goated for the free he watched rebound off the post in dead time.

Hopefully, most supporters will remember Cosgrove’s overall contribution. For much of the first half, he was Dublin’s attack. With Alan Brogan and John McNally not coming to grips with the intense Armagh pressure, Cosgrove ploughed a lone furrow.

In fairness, he had more of a supporting cast, particularly in the form of Brogan, as the game progressed. It just wasn’t to be. Fate had to turn for the Orchard county.

It’s only cruel they selected Cosgrove as the fall guy. Seldom has a player-and a team-contributed so much to a season, only to be left feeling empty at the end of it. But, he will return. As will Paul Casey, Brogan, Ciaran Whelan, Johnny Magee and of course, Tommy Lyons. His young team are too good not to.

They met a committed Armagh side on a mission. The Ulster champions haven’t enjoyed the best relationship with the media this summer. They have been called dour, too defensive and negative. Once again, we have been shown up as the know-nothing hacks.

While the first half was a disjointed, depressing affair, with too much loose passing and elementary errors, the second half had some of the most scintillating football we had hoped for. Nobody was complaining about ticket prices after witnessing Ciaran Whelan's remarkable goal or some of the points John McEntee plucked from thin air.

How can a team that possesses the incisive attacking skills of Steven McDonnell be classed as dour. McDonnell propelled Armagh into the All-Ireland final from the front. Coman Goggins, after redeeming his reputation in the replay against Donegal, was left perplexed by McDonnell's constant movement and wonderful fielding.

One McDonnell catch, as the game seemed to be petering out to an inevitable draw, will live long in the memory. Paul McGrane pumped a hopeful, long ball into a cluster of players near the Dublin parallelogram. Out of nowhere, McDonnell rose above three Dublin defenders, to pluck the ball easefully from the air.

McDonnell was just part of a well-oiled machine that functioned majestically in the second half. McGeeney, whose raison d’etre for the past three years is an Armagh All-Ireland, was immense in the final quarter, even if it was his mistake that led to Cosgrove’s late, late free.

However, most of the plaudits will be reserved for McGrane. Armagh needed to clip the influence of Whelan, who tore the heart from Donegal. McGrane fought for every ball, broke everything into waiting Armagh hands, rose for every kick-out.

They talked of the heroics of McGrane long into the Dublin night, but all over the field, they were heroes in supporting roles: the sheer majesty of McDonnell; the unselfish work-load of Diarmuid Marsden and John Toal; the unending determination of McGeeney and Aidan O’Rourke and the flawless place-kicking of Oisin McConville.

I doubt there are many Aretha Franklin fans in the Armagh side, but yesterday was about finding out what

respect meant to them. You have to be a good football team to make an All-Ireland final. Yesterday, Armagh proved they were.

In the final quarter, a stage when they have been most criticised for

dying in games, Armagh dug into their reserves of painful memories. Dublin were spurred into action by Whelan’s strike, an immediate response to Paddy McKeever’s goal for Armagh.

Even though, Dublin kept a slender advantage for most of the second half, Armagh always looked the more composed and controlled when they engineered scores. Never once did they press the panic button. They always searched for a man in space.

They scored the last three points of the match, and McEntee’s equalising point in the 64th minute characterised the authority they seemed to hold.

Yesterday had that special day feel about it. The GAA’s amazing agreement with the elements, that the best days of summer be kept for their big days out stood firm, and the mixture of blue and orange made for the most colourful day in the new Croke Park.

Kerry’s demolition of their neighbours, and the poor quality of football that peppered this first half means anyone wagering against the Kingdom in the final will be given a wide berth-and a strait jacket.

We should know better. This promises to be an intriguing All-Ireland final. And not just for the novelty factor. Cynics may say it’s the clash of beauty and the beast, and while it might be the clash of two contrasting footballing styles, it is about two teams who have endured a season of criticism and doubts to meet in the final act.

It is about the likes of McGeeney, O’Sé, McDonnell and Cooper duking it out to be the most influential figure of this year’s championship.

And it is about two groups of people, from opposite ends of the island, who have Gaelic football bred into their bones. It should be quite an occasion.

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