IT was a match where they were strongly challenged, but during the critical closing phase Armagh produced the goods to swing yesterday’s ESB All-Ireland MFC final at Croke Park in their direction.
The Orchard County youngsters have looked irrepressible at times this season, most pertinently in the Ulster championship against Tyrone and in the All-Ireland semi-final with Kerry. But on the biggest day of all they found their efforts to generate free-flowing football stifled by a dogged and unyielding Mayo team.
The game was a scrappy affair, yet Armagh proved adaptable to the conditions. They grimly stayed in contention throughout, played with plenty of force and resilience, and when the finish line was in sight they burst for it with serious conviction.
Trailing 0-7 to 0-6 down the final stretch, the match was very nearly placed beyond their reach in the 52nd minute. Mayo attacker Fergal Durkan knifed through the Armagh rearguard and timed his offload perfectly to release substitute Jack McDonnell. The Swinford youngster steamed in on goal but his blast struck Armagh goalkeeper Stephen O’Reilly and went out for a ‘45. And to twist the knife further for the Westerners, Aidan Walsh’s kick veered off target.
Following that escape, Armagh steadied themselves and pounced for the kill in the closing moments. Diminutive corner-forward Robbie Tasker, who was a bag of tricks all day, pulled them level in the 55th minute when he wriggled free to finish a free that had been initiated by a rousing catch around the middle of the pitch by Andrew Murnin. Then substitute Thomas McAlinden, atoning for an earlier goal miss, gathered a crossfield ball by Peter Carragher and stepped inside to point off his left.
Suddenly Armagh were in the ascendancy by a point and a match that had looked to be drifting out of their reach was within their domain once more. The hitherto mundane fare was forgotten as the match burst to life with a breathless finale.
Mayo strove furiously for the equaliser, but Armagh were calm and collected in retaining possession, before prising open the Connacht team’s backline. In the 61st minute a fine fetch by Carragher was matched by an accurate shot that split the posts and then in the 62nd minute Tasker applied the coup de grace by belting over a phenomenal shot from distance.
A 0-10 to 0-7 reversal proved heartbreaking for Mayo, the latest instalment in an ever-growing list of big day traumas for the Connacht county’s football teams at Croke Park.
Mayo played with terrific pluck and endeavour to match Armagh from the start and their defence frustrated the northern team’s much-vaunted attacking forces.
Keith Rogers was the embodiment of assurance at full-back, while Ciarán Charlton and David Gavin also produced first-rate displays of defending. To be in contention for so long and then lose out was particularly galling, and comes just 12 months after a Ray Dempsey managed Mayo team was denied All-Ireland minor glory at the same final stage by Tyrone.
Armagh surged two points ahead early on, with Rory Grugan converting a free and Eugene McVerry showing great poise to score another. Mayo’s riposte was swift as Brian Ruttledge and Danny Kirby provided the goods to land confident scores that tied the match at 0-2 apiece after ten minutes.
The remainder of the opening period was defined by the top-rate defensive displays from both sides. Rogers and Charlton helped Mayo frustrate Armagh forwards Rory Grugan and Gavin McParland, who had been instrumental in their semi-final success against Kerry. On the opposite side Declan McKenna and Niall Rowland were outstanding for Paul McShane’s Armagh team.
Accordingly, scores were at a premium until the interval, with Murnin pushing Armagh ahead in the 14th minute only for Cillian O’Connor to cancel that out for Mayo 60 seconds later. Then Eugene McVerry struck a fine point for Armagh in the 23rd minute, yet Fergal Durkan pointed for Mayo to ensure there was parity at the break at 0-4 apiece.
In the second-half the pressing issue was which team would make the decisive surge for the line. A goal would have had an enormous influence on the game, yet neither team were able to shake the enemy rigging.
Instead they kept trading points, Ruttledge and Charlton floating over points for Mayo while Tasker and McVerry responded in kind for the Ulster team. It was 0-6 apiece entering the final quarter, but it was notable how both teams’ play was becoming extremely ragged as nerves appeared to be afflicting both sets of players.
That was best illustrated by the errant shooting of Armagh during the third quarter as they owned the ball up front but could not convert, lashing six balls wide of the post.
Aidan Walsh smoothly converted a free for Mayo in the 50th minute, but just as Armagh looked set to be rueing those earlier misses they recovered their composure and produced a storming finale.
Scorers for Armagh: E McVerry (0-1f), R Tasker 0-3 each, R Grugan (0-1f), A Murnin, T McAlinden, P Carragher 0-1 each.
Mayo scorers: B Ruttledge 0-2 (0-1f), D Kirby, C O’Connor, F Durkan, C Charlton, A Walsh (0-1f) 0-1 each.
Substitutes: Armagh - C McCafferty for Finnegan (53), T McAlinden for McVerry (55).
Substitutes: Mayo – J Carney for Farrell (blood) (28), Farrell for Carney (half-time), Carney for Farrell (40), J McDonnell for Coen (44).
Referee: E Kinsella (Laois).
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