“We sat down at the end of the National League and had a long, hard look at ourselves. We asked ourselves were we improving. How were we progressing from year to year. The fact of the matter was we weren’t. We were limping out of the championship over the last few years and we weren’t playing attractive football. In our first game back at our home ground in 16 years, we were probably outnumbered (in support). That’s a reflection of the quality we’ve played these last few years.”
That home minority among the 13,107 crowd in the Athletic Grounds on Saturday evening will have to see plenty more from Armagh if they are to be convinced the good times may be returning.
Armagh didn’t score for 21 minutes, a period divided by the half-time break, but their character here was admirable.
After seeing a six-point lead disintegrate and transform into a one-point deficit by the 45th minute, Armagh pulverised Down in midfield and finished with four unanswered points.
With captain Steven McDonnell taking more of a backseat role in setting up scores and winning frees, Jamie Clarke grabbed the sharpshooting baton, finishing with 1-2, while Kernan, former Mayo forward Billy Joe Padden and Malachy Mackin kicked seven points from play between them.
Armagh boss Paddy O’Rourke revealed after that they were keen to make their critics eat their words.
O’Rourke said: “We took a lot of criticism coming into this match and that hurt players and they responded very well to it. They were an easy team to motivate. Yes, they had been written off. These players would have shown before they’re real championship players.”
O’Rourke, Down’s 1991 All-Ireland winning captain, would hear nothing of divided loyalties and mixed emotions at the final whistle. “At the minute, it feels as good a day as I’ve had in football. I’ve taken criticism for things when they’ve gone the other way. I’m just pleased for the players.”
For McCartan, he was ruing the possibility his team might have believed their own hype. All-Ireland runners-up last year, the talk beforehand was just how much they were going to challenge for Ulster honours this season, all the while forgetting the challenge presented by the Orchard county.
Led by the classy Martin Clarke, Down appeared to justify their pre-match favourites tag when their star centre-forward pumped over a sensational free 10 minutes after the interval.
But it turned out to be their penultimate score of the game.
“Look, it was set up beautifully for them,” reckoned McCartan. “You guys (in the media) did your job beautifully and the rug was pulled from underneath us. We tried to warn our guys as much as we could and I had experienced it myself in the past. If some of that stuff gets into the psyche it can be troublesome.
“I’m not blaming (the media) but we were built up and based on what? Our record in the Ulster championship was there for all to see and how the conclusions were made by some people was strange.”
Although he didn’t legislate for Padden and Mackin scoring freely, McCartan was satisfied with the way Armagh’s Clarke, who enforced the Down manager to move Dan McCartan off him shortly into the game, was quietened before he put in a strong last 10 minutes.
Clarke’s sixth minute goal was superbly taken. Taking a long ball from Ciarán McKeever, Tony Kernan offloaded to Clarke on his shoulder and Brendan McVeigh was left stranded by the shot.
After going 1-6 to 0-3 behind in an exciting opening 20 minutes, Down responded well Mark Poland weaved his way through the Armagh defence for a virtuoso goal in the 23rd minute.
Down kicked on and the difference was just two at the break — Armagh leading 1-8 to 1-6.
But with Armagh conceding frees at an alarming rate — their first-half tally was 15 as opposed to their rivals’ seven — Down made more gains and took the lead after a strong start to the second-half.
“I knew that we would get back in the game,” said O’Rourke. “It was only a matter of getting the next score. When we got one on board then we pushed on. We wasted a few chances to keep our noses in front and then go back level but the boys had a lot of belief in themselves and I think it showed.”
Scorers for Armagh: J Clarke 1-2; A Kernan 0-5, three frees; BJ Padden 0-3; M Mackin 0-2; S McDonnell (free), K Dyas, T Kernan 0-1 each.
Scorers for Down: M Clarke 0-5, four frees; M Poland 1-1, one free; P McComiskey 0-2; D Rooney, D Hughes 0-1 each.
Subs for Armagh: B Mallon for O’Rourke (59); J Murtagh for Clarke (72).
Subs for Down: C Maginn for J Clarke (24); R Murtagh for Coulter (54); A McArdle for Fitzpatrick and C Laverty for McComiskey (both 60); E McCartan for Poland (67).
Referee: C Reilly (Meath)