He would have been entitled to feel smug or wag a finger in the general direction of his detractors after a torrid 18 months, but Eamonn Burns instead used his winning platform to heap praise on his unfancied Down team after they pulled off the county’s first Ulster championship win over Armagh in 25 years.
Insisting that “I don’t read it (criticism) for starters” the Down manager made it clear he is on the sideline for one reason and one reason only. If you take this job, you know what you’re going into from the start.
"You know you are not going to be everybody’s friend and by the end of it, you are probably going to be nobody’s friend. All I am concerned about is how these guys are. I played 25 years ago when Down were cream of the crop, so it’s not about me and it was never about me. This is an important step for the players.”
Newry was packed out yesterday with 16,168 enjoying easily the best 35 minutes of the Ulster championship to date following a gripping and incident-packed first half.
Burns played on the last Mourne side to come out on top in this derby fixture with Armagh winning the five clashes since, and even without the suspended Kieran McGeeney to guide them, Armagh’s forwards were expected to be the winning of this first round clash in Pairc Esler.
Instead, their much-vaunted attack bombed with only Andrew Murnin and Jamie Clarke on form, with five of their six forwards replaced before the end.
Down started both halves superbly and barring a good second quarter from Armagh, when Mark Shields and Murnin found the net to leave them 2-4 to 0-9 ahead at half-time, Down controlled the game.
Once they built up a lead, they knew how to hold onto it and Armagh’s policy of trying to run through them was doomed from the start.
Displaying a new-found workrate and organisation, the rookies Shay Millar and Niall Donnelly were two huge success stories. With Armagh struggling badly on their own kickouts, Donnelly excelled when they went long and Millar’s transitional work ensured two debuts to remember.
The first half was end to end and Down, starting their Ulster championship campaign at home in Newry for the first time in 18 years, got off to a flier with the opening four points inside nine minutes.
Both sides were in trouble under the long ball and Armagh started poorly until they were thrown a lifeline through Mark Shields’ goal after 13 minutes.
Oisin O’Neill’s high ball was caught and dropped by Murnin, and Shields burrowed through into the square to blast home from close range.
Aaron McKay tagged on a point, before moving into fullback to mark Connaire Harrison to release under-pressure Charlie Vernon to midfield.
Harrison cleaned Vernon on a couple of occasions, pulling the trigger to score what seemed a certain goal only for Armagh ‘keeper Blaine Hughes to somehow block it.
Murnin then grabbed Armagh’s second goal in the 22nd minute. Stefan Campbell’s initial shot was saved by Cunningham and Murnin jinked inside before squeezing a shot inside the near post.
That put Armagh in the lead for the first time and Aidan Forker and Paul Hughes followed it up with points to put them three clear.
Down then scored three in a row from the excellent Darragh O’Hanlon, Harrison and Millar. Stephen Sheridan’s long range effort was the last action of a breathless first half and nudged Armagh into a 2-4 to 0-9 interval lead.
The second half could never live up to the excitement of the first, though it did bizarrely last 48 minutes after a scuffle near the end and a flurry of yellow and black cards.
Down picked up where they’d left off with the first four points, Mooney popping up with his second of the game with a fine curling effort. Armagh sub Anto Dufy relieved some of the pressure with a dubious point that looked to have drifted wide of the near post but the players off the Orchard bench made little impact.
Scorers for Down:
D O’Hanlon 0-4 (2f), C Mooney, C Harrison 0-2 each, C Maginn, S Millar, R Johnston, B O’Hagan, D McKibbin 0-1 each, J Johnston, M Cunninghan 0-1 (f) each.
Scorers for Armagh:
A Murnin 1-0, M Shields 1-0, A McKay 0-1, A Forker 0-1, P Hughes 0-1, S Sheridan 0-1, A Duffy 0-1, G McParland 0-1 (f), J Clarke 0-1 (f)
M Cunningham; A Doherty, G McGovern, D O’Hagan; D O’Hanlon, C McGovern, C Mooney; K McKernan, N Donnelly, P Turley, C Maginn, S Millar; J Johnston, C Harrison, R Johnston .
D McKibbin for Donnelly (53), B O’Hagan for Harrison (53), N McParland for Doherty (BC, 56), J Murphy for R Johnston (58), A Carr for Turley (70), M Poland for Maginn (70)
B Hughes; J Morgan, C Vernon, P Hughes; A McKay, B Donaghy, Mark Shields; S Sheridan, J McElroy; A Forker, O O’Neill, R Grugan; J Clarke, S Campbell, A Murnin.
N Grimley for Vernon (43), A Duffy for O’Neill (48), G McParland for Grugan (58), N Rowland for Forker (65), C McKeever for Campbell (76), C O’Hanlon for Murnin (76).
Conor Lane (Cork)
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