Matty Forde’s dramatic 62nd goal made it possible and goalkeeper Anthony Masterson’s last-minute reflex save ensured their passage to the GAA All-Ireland SFC semi-final for the first time since 1945.
And how they deserved it.
Measured against the failure last weekend of the last two teams they had overcome — Down and Fermanagh — Armagh’s unconvincing line of form in Ulster suggested this was more than a potential banana skin for them. And so it proved in the face of a strong and aggressive challenge from Wexford which thrived on commendable fitness and confidence levels.
In dismissing Down by seven points a week ago and putting out the 2002 champions — manager Peter McDonnell regarded it as a capitulation — Jason Ryan and trainer Mick Casey have helped take this team to dreamy heights in a relatively short space of time.
“We came out to enjoy it. The pressure wasn’t necessarily on. You weren’t trying to overcome an old demon like getting to a Leinster final,” said Ryan.
“It’s not every day you are going to play in an All-Ireland semi-final. Again, it will be against a team they are familiar with. We will enjoy it.”
Wexford showed typical confidence in the way they recovered from an uncertain first half in which centre-back David Murphy was especially prominent. Their first three scores were from frees before Forde put over a marvellous point from a sideline and PJ Banville’s 30th-minute point was not only their first from play but also the first time they led until Forde’s goal much later. At the break they trailed by just a point (0-6 to 0-5).
“The players did what we asked of them. They deserve the credit,” added Ryan, expressing particular satisfaction with a significant reduction in their wides count from the previous weekend. And, he delighted in the success of the defence in limiting the threat from Ronan Clarke and Steven McDonnell.
It did up to the point that Clarke put over two great scores nearing the interval. And, for a while it seemed like he could prove the difference, with Forde (still bothered by a leg injury) not at his sharpest against wily Francie Bellew.
Admitting that their defeat was “sickening”, Armagh boss McDonnell said: “I’d have to say for a large proportion of that second half, we were just doing enough. But at no stage did we seize it by the neck and finish it.”
From a practical view of view, a key factor in that was that Clarke failed to add to his three-point total and the threat from Steven McDonnell — he kicked over two lead scores at the three-quarter stage — also dried up. That happened when Wexford stepped up the pressure, with team captain Colm Morris influential in the half-back line, Brendan Doyle (first) and then Eric Bradley getting on top at midfield and Redmond Barry’s excellent work in the half-forward line being matched by PJ Banville and others. Once more free-taking of Forde and Ciaran Lyng proved vital.
Forde agreed that the more the game went on, the better the chance they felt they had of causing an upset. “We have faith in ourselves. We knew that the Dublin game wasn’t a realistic measure of where we were at,” he stated. “Armagh in all the years they have been winning Ulster titles, never really push on. They never put teams away. They will always leave you in the game and leave a few chances. Once we could hang in there with a point or two with 10 or 15 minutes to go we were always going to be in the match.”
After scores were level for the sixth time 15 minutes into the second half, Armagh briefly seized the initiative with those two McDonnell scores. Said McDonnell: “Everything looked like it was going to be all right after that response. Maybe it just got into people’s minds that we could just go and do that. I don’t know if it was because of a loss of concentration in the full-back line that the goal went in. We were dealing with that all day and all of a sudden there was somebody free and the ball ends up in the back of the net.”
For his part, Jason Ryan emphasised the importance of his outfield players in doing what was demanded of them, explaining: “Players in the full forward line are very good if they are not marked tightly enough. Credit has to go the half-forwards and midfield for preventing Armagh from getting quality ball in on an on-going basis.”
Admitting he didn’t get a proper view of his goalkeeper’s dramatic late intervention, he said: “Things like that turn a game. You need the luck. Maybe Wexford haven’t had the luck in Leinster semi-finals over the last number of years. They were due it.”
Scorers for Wexford: M. Forde 1-5 (0-1 free, 0-1 sideline); C. Lyng 0-5 (0-4 frees); R. Barry 0-2; P.J. Banville and C. Byrne 0-1 each.
Armagh: A. Kernan 0-4 (0-3 frees); S. McDonnell and R. Clarke 0-3 each; C. Vernon and B. Mallon 0-1 each.
WEXFORD: A. Masterson; D. Walsh, P. Wallace, B. Malone; A. Morrissey, D. Murphy, C. Morris (capt.); E. Bradley, B. Doyle; R. Barry, C. Byrne, P.J. Banville; C. Lyng, P. Colfer, M. Forde.
Subs: C. Deely for Morrissey and N. Murphy for Walsh (60); R. Stafford for Byrne (65); T. Wall for Colfer (67); A. Flynn for Doyle (72)
ARMAGH: P. Hearty; E. McNulty, F. Bellew, F. Moriarty; A. Kernan, A. O'Rourke, K. McKeever; P. McGrane (capt.), K. Toner; C. Vernon, B. Mallon, M. O'Rourke; S. McDonnell, R. Clarke, S. Kernan.
Subs: P. McKeever for S. Kernan (inj., 47); B. Donaghy for Vernon (61); P. Kernan for Moriarty (66); D. McKenna for Toner (70).
Referee: P. Russell (Tipperary).