ARMAGH suffered their biggest championship defeat in modern times when they were dumped out of the Ulster provincial series by a rampant Monaghan side last Sunday at Casement Park.
Paddy O’Rourke’s team will now have an uncertain summer as they wait on their qualifiers’ opponents they are set to face on June 26.
Although the Armagh boss was talking up his side’s chances of sustaining a run through the back-door system, the fans, who found themselves trundling towards the exits before the end of last Sunday’s encounter, will need a lot of convincing.
With supporters being charged 23 for a place in the covered stand, a disappointing crowd of less than 12,000 supporters attended the game which was laced with controversy both on and off the field.
Brian Mallon looked a desolate figure as he waited for the team bus following the game. His straight red card at the end of the first period, for what could be described as no more than an awkward challenge on Monaghan’s Rory Woods, was one of the talking points. Had the Portadown man been on the field of play for the full 70 minutes, would it have made a significant difference to the result? It is highly unlikely.
Apart from the opening quarter, Monaghan were the better team. Seamus McEneaney’s side dominated in almost every department and, in Paul Finlay and Thomas Freeman, had classy attackers who supplemented a mobile and overall strong performance.
Both sides showed changes to the official programme. Armagh brought Vincent Martin into the defence and played Jamie Clarke in place of Ryan Henderson.
In another bizarre twist, Monaghan moved their full-back Darren Hughes into goal for the injured Shane Duffy, thus ignoring their sub-goalkeeper Sean Gorman who, in turn, did not travel to Belfast.
Monaghan’s road now leads to the Ulster semi-final and a possible decider against Down or Tyrone and Paul Grimley, who was on the winners’ touchline, said that teams would be keen to avoid Armagh in the qualifiers.
“This was a bad day for Armagh but they are better than this. Not many teams will want to draw them in the qualifiers,” suggested Grimley.
Whether or not Paddy O’Rourke bowed to pressure, to use a more attacking format than during the Derry win, is a matter of some conjecture but it is clear that the ‘open’ tactics suited Monaghan on a wide and fast Casement Park.
Strangely just two subs were used by the Orchard side. James Lavery and Kevin Dyas were introduced at half-time, but with the game beyond reach midway through the second half, there would have been no harm in giving another three players some game time.
Armagh led the game 0-4 to 0-1 after just 12 minutes following three great scores from Steven McDonnell and one from Jamie Clarke.
The Monaghan goal, which was quite similar to that conceded by Armagh in Celtic Park which saw defenders being drawn to the ball-carrying attacker, handed the winners a huge boost.
Monaghan, from the end of the third quarter until the 14th minute of the second half, hit nine points in succession. Gareth Swift’s injury time effort and second half points from Clarke and the effective Paul Duffy made little dent in Monaghan’s challenge.
Although Armagh showed glimpses of form against Derry in Celtic Park and against Down in the league decider, it was always believed that the real test would be against Monaghan. With Ronan Clarke still out, a root and branch change will be needed before the next game.
Apart from a few, the quality players have not emerged since the glory days of 2002, and a may take a ‘team-builder’ like Brian McAlinden to invent a new structure for the future.
Armagh struggled at midfield although James Lavery shored things up slightly in the second half. Aaron Kernan and Ciaran McKeever have certainly had better days in the orange jersey.
The winners used their extra man cleverly. Damien Freeman double marked McDonnell and, when necessary, took short kick outs and aided the attack.
Paddy O’Rourke has serious problems to face before June 26 irrespective of who the draw throws up as opposition. The Orchard boss has told the ‘Mail’ that Ronan Clarke is “nowhere near ready”.
Last Sunday was Monaghan’s day in the sun, their manager gambled and won handsomely.
As for O’Rourke, it will take a win against big opposition to install new confidence into his players. As the downward spiral continues, new heroes will need to emerge.
Steven McDonnell would, no doubt, love to see shared responsibility in the attack, but with Clarke still out, it looks like the pressure will remain firmly on the Killeavey man’s shoulders.