The 0-14 to 1-10 win was thoroughly deserved as the Orchard County boys fought back in the closing stages to rifle over three injury-time points when all seemed lost, centre-forward Ryan Gaffney snatching the winner.
Down went into the game firm favourites, but Armagh never allowed the Mourne men to settle. The winners’ defence hassled and harried the opposition while the forward looked dangerous.
In hotshot Gaffney they had a marksman par excellence as his winner brought his personal tally to eight points, six from placed balls. Considering the lashing rain and diagonal cross wind, accurate striking wasn’t easy but Gaffney mastered the conditions.
Down were unlucky to lose both centre-back Conor Woods and centre-forward Paul Braniff with injuries in the second half but Armagh were still worthy winners.
From the start Armagh signalled they were prepared to deliver a shock. They played with confidence and tackled for every ball. During the first half the teams were level six times before Eoin Clarke gave Down a narrow 0-7 to 0-6 half-time lead.
Woods was stretchered off injured within a minute of the restart and points from Gaffney and Conor Corvan sent Armagh into a 0-8 to 0-7 lead by the 40th minute before the game took a rare turn.
In another storming Armagh attack, within a minute, Cathal Carvill gathered the sliotar close to goals but he was held in the ‘square’ with Derry referee Eamon Hasson pointing to the penalty spot. Up stepped Conor Corvan but his strike flew wide.
Within 60 seconds at the other end, ‘Magic’ Johnson fired to the net as he latched on to a long distance free from Paul Braniff. Three minutes later half-back Kevin McGarry hit a point and Down led 1-8 to 0-8 on 47 minutes.
As the game entered injury time Gaffney narrowed the gap, from a free, to 1-10 to 0-12 before former Down player Ruairi McGrattan lofted over a long distance free to level the argument. Then up popped Gaffney as the five extra minutes ticked away to fire over the winner for a 0-14 to 1-10 Armagh victory.
“Down beat us somewhere away in the 20s last year and beat us in the Christy Ring Cup, but we are there now and we will certainly enjoy this victory,” beamed manager Michael Johnston, a member of the St John’s Club in Belfast, “I won’t worry about planning the downfall of my home county. Good job, however, that it isn’t the minor final as I have two sons in the Antrim minor team.
“You can hear the cheers of the boys in the dressing room there and that tells you what it is all about.”
ARMAGH: S Doherty; B Mallon, C Clifford, JJ Hughes; B McCormack, R McGrattan (0-3, a ‘65, 2f), N Curry; K McKernan (0-1), J Corvan; C Carville, R Gaffney (0-8, 6f), M Lennon (0-1); C Corvan (0-1), F Woods, M Moen.
Subs: D Carvill for Woods (50).
DOWN: Graham Clarke; M Hughes, C Coulter, S Ennis; K McGarry (0-1), C Woods, M Ennis (0-1); A Savage, E Clarke (0-2); S Nicholson, P Braniff (0-3, 2f), S Clarke; B Ennis, G Johnston (1-2, 2f), J Coyle (0-1).
Subs: Gabriel Clarke for Woods, inj (36), A Clarke for Braniff (49), S Hughes for Nicholson (60).
Referee: E Hasson (Derry).