McDonnell makes it count

DIVISION TWO league finals tend to leave little in the way of a lasting impression but yesterday’s footprint dug a little deeper, if only for another entry into the catalogue of memorable displays from Steven McDonnell.

The Killeavy forward has won Division One, Ulster and All-Ireland medals at headquarters but this latest visit will sit comfortably in the canon of great days he’s enjoyed in Dublin.

Six points was his haul this time around but, as a statistic, it falls short of explaining his importance to an Armagh team that claimed a win in Croke Park for the first time in almost five years.

The sheer scope and ambition of McDonnell’s shooting is, at times, other worldly. He ended up kicking half a dozen points from eight attempts and even the two wides were majestic.

“He is a very talented player,” said his manager Paddy O’Rourke. “Without a doubt he is in better physical condition now than he has been and you must give that credit to (trainer) Mike McGurn.

“We looked carefully at Stevie’s training and he mightn’t always be asked to do the training that a 20-year-old would be doing but you try to keep him fresh and get him ready for games.”

McDonnell’s input was all the more crucial given the late withdrawal of Ronan Clarke, whose Achilles problem may yet keep him out of Armagh’s championship opener away to Derry next month.

On the other side, Down’s inconsistency dogged them throughout the afternoon. Their list of wides crept into double figures by the day’s end and they added to their problems by landing a litany of balls into the goalkeeper’s hands to allow Armagh claim ample revenge for an earlier league defeat in Pairc Esler.

“The wounded animal is always there but that would maybe do Armagh an injustice to say that was the main reason that they won the game,” said Down manager James McCartan.

“There were a lot of areas of the field that they had the better of us. They set up a defensive system very similar to the one that I recognised and they were quite honest. We didn’t move the ball quickly enough to break it down.”

As a pointer towards the summer, this told us little we didn’t already know. With the scent of blood emanating from Tyrone, these two will fancy their chances of claiming some silverware in Clones.

All of which isn’t to say it was a game devoid of colour. O’Rourke’s presence on the Armagh branch of the sideline after a lifetime dedicated to Down added a colourful subplot.

“I would always have mixed emotions when Down are the opposition,” he admitted. “I didn’t get any pleasure in going into the Down dressing room and seeing young fellas that I have managed at U21 and senior level.”

McDonnell spearheaded an early burst for Armagh and, though they could have added a couple of goals to their first-half haul, they would have been happy enough to take a one-point lead to the tunnel.

Down, hit by the late loss of midfielder Ambrose Rodgers, dominated for stretches but their use of the ball out the field hurt them as much as their shooting.

They took the lead for the first time on 35 minutes almost in spite of themselves before a pair of quickfire McDonnell efforts overturned the deficit in time added on.

Benny Coulter’s goal, flicked in from a Martin Clark free, threatened to upset the equilibrium shortly after the break but it was a game in which the pair would draw level six times before one managed a decisive break for the line.

That Armagh did so was down in no small part to the contribution of subs like Malachy Mackin and Jamie Clarke while manager and players alike were just as quick to credit trainer McGurn for their strong finish.

It could have swung Down’s way as they came close to a dramatic late goal on two occasions, even after Daniel McCartan saw red for a stamp on Aaron Kernan.

Still, the loss will hardly overwhelm them. Bigger occasions lie ahead.

Scorers for Armagh: S McDonnell 0-6 (2f), A Kernan 0-4f, G Swift 0-2, M Mackin 0-2, P Duffy 0-1, F Moriarty 0-1, S Forker 0-1.

Scorers for Down: B Coulter 1-2, M Clarke 0-5f, C Garvey 0-1, K King 0-1, D Hughes 0-1, P Comiskey 0-1, P Fitzpatrick 0-1.

Subs for Down: J Clarke for B Mallon 50, M Mackin for Lavery 52, S Forker for Henderson 56.

Subs for Armagh: Subs: C Maginn for Kearney 35, C Laverty for J Clarke 46, D Gordon for Fitzpatrick 46, R Murtagh for McComiskey 65, K Duffin for McKernan 70.

Referee: G O Conamha (Galway).

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