By Daragh Ó Conchúir
Laois 1-10 Armagh 0-10
Laois came out on top a real dogfight at O’Moore Park and advance to the second round of All-Ireland qualifiers, while Armagh’s disappointing season is over.
Both sides had suffered relegation to Division Three in the league and were desperate for a good championship run. Laois went as far as recruiting former Galway hurling manager, Anthony Cunningham into their backroom staff.
With so much at stake, it was no surprise to find both outfits set up to be tight defensively and to strike on the counter. In the end, a 16th minute goal by Conor Meredith proved the decisive score as Laois eked out the victory.
It was a wonderful score in terms of its execution but not without controversy in terms of how it came about.
Armagh had just taken the lead for the first time after the teams had shared four points between them, Stefan Campbell slotting his first point from a free.
The full-forward had a positive impact when coming deep for possession and after showing an eye-catching burst of pace to beat his man, it was his astute kick-pass that led to Rory Grugan being fouled for the free.
Mark Shields, who had registered Armagh’s first point, received a hand injury earlier in the move however, and was on the ground receiving treatment as play developed.
Manager Kieran McGeeney attempted to make a substitution prior to Graham Brody’s kickout and could be seen bellowing at referee Anthony Nolan before the resumption but the Wicklow official clearly didn’t hear him.
As the ball came to Meredith on the left and around 40m out, he was in the unusual situation of being faced with only one defender, due to Shields being out of commission. What’s more, it was the long-serving Ciarán McKeever in his way.
Sensing an opportunity, the former AFL man burned his opponent on the outside and with no-one in a position to cut across, unleashed a piledriver into the far corner that gave Patrick Morrison absolutely no chance.
Aidan Forker had a chance to nullify the score directly after creating the space well but shot straight at the advancing Graham Brody. It was a good stop by the Laois goalkeeper, who had appeared jittery when spilling a couple of balls until then.
Meredith’s finish for the goal was outstanding but the best of the play in the first half apart from that came from Armagh. Stefan Campbell pulled the strings when coming deep and had a big role as Armagh drew level, while Rory Grugan scored a fine point and provided one majestic assist for Michael McKenna’s equaliser just before the interval.
Laois raised the tempo considerably in the second half though, displaying greater intensity and forcing a plethora of turnovers. With that, they began to look more dangerous in attack and with 15 minutes played, they had moved three clear, with Donie Kingston providing two points and David Conway another.
Armagh were bound to raise the tempo in the closing stages and they did, as McKenna landed an excellent kick and Joe Feeney put one between them, after James Morgan’s defensive heroics.
The momentum was with them at this juncture but they wasted a number of good opportunities in the face of some excellent Laois defence it should be noted.
Andy Mallon went close to the equaliser but his effort dropped short, Kingston had chance to put two between them but did likewise and then Feeney had an attempt that slid to the right.
In the end, Jamie Farrell put the two between them and as Armagh poured forward, they were turned over and on the break, veteran Ross Munnelly sealed it.
LAOIS: G Brody, S Attride, M Timmons, G Hanrahan, D Strong (0-1) (A Farrell 44), K Lillis, D O’Connor, B Quigley, K Meaney (J Farrell 50, 0-1), C Begley, P Cahillane (0-1f) (G Walsh 58, 0-1f), N Donoher (M Campion 52), C Meredith (1-0) (G Dillon 70), D Kingston (0-4, 3fs), D Conway (0-1) (R Munnelly 54, 0-1)
ARMAGH: P Morrison, S Heffron, B Donaghy, J McElroy, A Mallon, C McKeever, M Shields (0-1) (J Morgan 19), C Vernon, A Findon, T Kernan, R Grugan (0-2, 1f), A Forker (0-1) (J Feeney 45, 0-1), M McKenna (0-2) (J Hall 54), S Campbell (0-3fs), N Grimley (G McParland 50)
REFEREE: A Nolan (Wicklow)