Kieran McGeeney wasn’t too happy with aspects of their performance, but acknowledged that the emerging crop of new players in Armagh certainly have the potential to compete for an Ulster SFC title this year and beyond.
With Ciaran McKeever, Caolan Rafferty, Stephen Harold and Gavin McParland introduced as subs and Aaron Findon, Stefan Forker and Stefan Campbell held in reserve, there was a feeling Armagh didn’t show anything like their full hand.
Yet as Fermanagh boss Pete McGrath commented afterwards, they would not have looked out of place playing in the Division Two final or possibly, Division One.
“I believe that any time you can win in Croke Park is important,” said McGeeney, after winning a second national title as a manager, to add to the Division Two trophy he won with Kildare in 2012.
“Just for your own preparation mentally, going into a game knowing you’ve played on that pitch and you’ve won. To have those memories is important and to build that type of habit of expecting to win here is important.
“I read somewhere that the only thing less important than the division two final was the division three and four finals, but that’s the competition we’re in and it was the only one we could win.
“It (division three) limits us because we’re not in the top teams in the country – that’s the truth of it.
But that’s where we’ll aspire to get to and we have good players, and in the league we’ve unearthed a few more.”
This was Armagh’s first appearance in Croke Park under McGeeney’s reign, but it won’t be the last based on this display.
They do look capable of building on last year’s run to the All-Ireland quarter-finals and although they played for 44 minutes of this game with 14 men after the dismissal of Finnian Moriarty for two yellow cards, their physicality and greater know-how left them comfortable winners.
U21 midfield duo Ethan Rafferty and Ciaran O’Hanlon were superb, Andrew Murnin and Jamie Clarke impressed in attack in a game they never looked like losing once they recovered from a sluggish start.
Fermanagh settled quickest and scored the first three points of the game inside seven minutes through the excellent Tomas Corrigan and two Sean Quigley frees.
The Erne county also led 0-4 to 0-1 after 13 minutes, but only managed to score two points over the next 35 minutes as Armagh took over in midfield and grew in ascendancy.
They carved Fermanagh open a few times but missed a number of goal chances while Erne ‘keeper Thomas Treacy also pulled off two outstanding saves from Kevin Dyas, making his first appearance in ten weeks after a medial knee injury, and Murnin. Points from Jamie Clarke and Aidan Forker helped Armagh edge ahead for the first time at 0-5 to 0-4 by the time Moriarty was sent-off.
Fermanagh didn’t make good use of the extra man and it was Armagh who played with a greater sense of purpose after the dismissal.
They led by 0-8 to 0-6 at half time, Rafferty and Tony Kernan accurate from frees, and effectively won the game with four unanswered points in the opening ten minutes of the second half.
The excellent Corrigan brothers Tomas and Ruairi scored Fermanagh’s only points from play (four) and while Ryan McCluskey and Ryan Jones tried hard, poor shot selection and terrible turnovers ensured the Erne county were always chasing the game.
They rallied a bit to reduce the deficit to 0-13 to 0-10 with ten minutes to go but Armagh’s much stronger bench was a factor with Stephen Harold landing two late scores.
Pete McGrath felt the loss of injured midfielder and captain Eoin Donnelly had been a blow to Fermanagh and was keen to talk down the significance of the defeat.
“We wanted to win and came here trying to win, but if we had won that trophy I’d have been telling the players to put it under the bed somewhere because our main focus for the year is on beating Antrim on May 31st, and that most definitely hasn’t changed,” said McGrath.
T Kernan 0-6 (5f), E Rafferty 0-3 (3f), J Clarke, S Harold 0-2 each, K Dyas, C O’Hanlon, A Forker 0-1 each
S Quigley 0-7 (6f, one ‘45’), T Corrigan 0-3, R Corrigan 0-1.
C McKeever for McKenna (HT), E McVerry for Forker (47), S Harold for Murnin (58), G McParland for E Rafferty (62), C Rafferty for O’Hanlon (66)
D Kille for Daly (HT), A Breen for P McCusker (54), C Jones for R Corrigan (56), D McQuade for Flaherty (60), C Cullen for O’Callaghan (70)
Derek O’Mahoney (Tipperary)