McConville revels in freedom of Clones

Armagh 2-12 Fermanagh 1-7

The Armagh faithful were getting re-acquainted with Clones, a town they have visited so often in the past seven years that some must have second homes here, while their footballers were getting re-acquainted with the championship.

And Fermanagh? After their dream-like summer, they were re-acquainted with the harsh realities of the Ulster championship.

Their opponents controlled this game, from the first whistle to the last, and although Fermanagh got to within two points of the provincial champions in the 39th minute, when Rory Gallagher nailed a 45, it only alerted Armagh to their task.

Fermanagh wouldn’t score for another 29 minutes, another dawn that proved false. Gallagher, the prodigal son of the Erne, had been sprung from the bench in the 30th minute and within four minutes had Fermanagh followers wondering what might have been last summer, as he feinted past Francie Bellew and rolled the ball past Paul Hearty.

The goal came just before the break and meant Fermanagh only trailed by a point, 1-3 to 0-7, after a first half in which they had been comprehensively out-played.

Thing was, they never played with the same abandon that caused the sensation of last summer in Croke Park.

And this might have been a day to beat Armagh. Steven McDonnell had looked incapable of missing in the league final. Yesterday, after an early free, he looked incapable of scoring.

His day was summed up when his attempt to tap over a simple 13-yard free came off the post in the first half.

McDonnell contributed five of Armagh’s 22 wides, 11 in each half.

Oisin McConville and Ronan Clarke missed the target the same number of times, although they contributed more overall than their talisman.

McConville, in particular, revelled in the freedom of Clones. An early injury to Declan Reilly saw Charlie Mulgrew deploy Shane Goan on the Crossmaglen wing-forward, but Goan never even got close to McConville.

He had a hand in both Armagh goals. Moments after the re-start, the lack of a marker ensured McConville had all the time in the world to pick Clarke out with a precision cross. All Clarke had to do was palm the ball past Niall Tinney.

Twenty minutes later, McConville again provided the crucial pass for Brian Mallon, whose burst of speed tore the Fermanagh defence apart, before he smashed the ball past Tinney.

A crowd of 24,147 came to watch Armagh’s professional job. They did what they had to do, as well as giving Joe Kernan plenty to chew on.

The wides tally defies belief, and in the end not even the manager or his players could believe it, McConville and Kernan sharing a giggle near the end as another of McConville’s efforts went wide.

Marty McGrath’s absence was always going to influence this game and it was in midfield that Fermanagh floundered. In the opening 12 minutes they won only one kick-out, while Paul McGrane was always in the right place at the right time to mop up the breaks.

McGrane was imperious in the middle, doing the simple things well in that way of his. John McEntee confirmed his reputation as one of the better centre-forwards in the country, and Martin O’Rourke continued that Armagh trend of finding unsung heroes.

Kieran McGeeney had an indifferent day, his passing uncharacteristically slack, yet he saw both Tom Brewster and Stephen Maguire pulled from the action, and by the end of the game Mulgrew had used four men at centre-forward without any joy.

Fermanagh went 25 minutes in the first half and 29 minutes in the second without scoring. In between, Armagh did just enough and no more.

Gallagher’s aforementioned 50 brought Fermanagh to 1-5 against Armagh’s 1-7, within sniffing distance.

So, Armagh stretched their legs. Mallon scored 1-3 before Fermanagh mounted another attack.

This was a fairly surreal game. The Ulster champions never rose above the ordinary, apart from the exceptional McGrane, O’Rourke and Aaron Kernan, who was excellent at wing-back, while Fermanagh never looked capable of rising to the challenge.

As statements of intent go, it’s a strange one. It’s unlikely McDonnell will be restricted to a single free to account for his scores again this summer and it’s unlikely McGeeney’s passing will be as loose. And yet, they were never in danger.

That, more than anything else, must serve as a warning to all their rivals.

Scorers: Armagh: B Mallon (1-3), O McConville (0-4, 2 frees), R Clarke (1-1), S McDonnell (0-1, free), M O’Rourke (0-2), J McEntee (0-1). Fermanagh: R Gallagher (1-1, 50), M Little (0-4), J Sherry, L McBarron (0-1 each).

ARMAGH: P Hearty; A Mallon, F Bellew, K McElvanna, A Kernan, K McGeeney, C McKeever; J Toal, P McGrane; M O’Rourke, J McEntee, O McConville, S McDonnell, R Clarke, B Mallon.

Subs: P Loughran for Toa (58 mins), A O’Rourke for McKeever, A McCann for McElvanna, M Mackin for McDonnell, P Duffy for A Mallon (64 mins).

FERMANAGH: N Tinney; S Goan, B Owens, R McCluskey, R Johnston, S McDermott, D Reilly; L McBarron, J Sherry; E Maguire, T Brewster, M Little, A Little, S Maguire, C Bradley.

Subs: N Bogue for Reilly (inj.) 11 mins, R Gallagher for Brewster (31 mins), M McGrath for S Maguire (42 mins), R Keenan for Bradley (51 mins), J McGurn for McBarron (58 mins)

Referee: D Coldrick (Meath).

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