By Mark Jones
DUBLIN — In the end it came down to a coat of paint. Agony for Dublin and ecstasy for Armagh, who booked their place against Kerry in the All-Ireland football final following Sunday’s nervewracking semifinal at Croke Park.
Dublin’s opportunity to earn a replay, which in truth they didn’t deserve, came when they were awarded a free 30 meters out in the dying seconds. Appropriately, the responsibility fell to their best player, Ray Cosgrove. The team’s top scorer all summer, with six points already in the bag against the Armagh defense, it seemed as if Cosgrove had solved Dublin’s perceived freetaking problem.
As he stepped up, the only winners would surely be the GAA with another massive payday in the offing. The shot started out to the right, curled back, back a bit further, and then agonizingly bounced off the post back into play. Seconds later, referee Michael Collins blew the final whistle.
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If Armagh have still to overcome favorites Kerry on Sept. 22 before reaching the Promised Land of a first-ever All Ireland title, they were entitled to savor their moment in the sun. They had come so close in three semifinals in recent seasons only to leave Croke Park with nothing to show for their efforts. This time they had closed the deal.
And even if it was a desperately close one-point game, Armagh held an edge in most areas and, crucially, they managed to finish an unspectacular contest by far the stronger of the two teams. Trailing by two points going into the closing minutes, they kept their composure with scores by the impressive Ronan Clarke, John McEntee and then a fisted effort from Oisin McConville that ultimately made the difference.
For a short period during the second half, that outcome had looked unlikely. When midfielder Ciaran Whelan leveled matters at 1-7 with a stunning goal, Dublin appeared to have the momentum. Three times from that moment, they opened up two-point advantages, but unlike their previous semifinal disappointments, Armagh refused to panic and stuck to their game plan.
Kieran McGeeney began to make inroads from the half-back line and John McEntee, who failed to be deterred by some wayward shooting, linked the play magnificently. Meanwhile, Dublin were beginning to falter as two of their subs, Darren Homan and Collie Moran, missed easy scoring chances.
Written off by many commentators, Armagh’s response in victory was typically defiant. “When people are criticizing you, if you’ve any heart at all and you know you have the ability, you’re going to answer those questions, ” said manager Joe Kernan. “See, the Croke Park thing, it was down to hype. So we lost three matches at Croke Park and it was the end of the world then, but it’s not the end of the world now.”
If the game was spoiled by poor finishing from both teams, the Armagh attack always looked the more potent. Clarke gave Paddy Christie a difficult afternoon, while Steven McDonnell also got the better of his marker, Coman Goggins. If clubmates McGeeney and Dessie Farrell largely cancelled each other out until the final quarter, when the Armagh captain started to make an impact, the Dubllin forwards only flitted in and out of the contest.
Once again, the promising Alan Brogan failed to enhance his reputation and Shane Ryan was substituted at halftime. Only Cosgrove offered the necessary consistency, and if his missed free cost Dublin a place in the final, he should have some consolation toward the end of the year with an All-Star award.
Dublin manager Tommy Lyons admitted that once his side had beaten Meath in the Leinster championship semifinal, his sights were on the All Ireland title. “I’m bitterly disappointed, and there’s just no hiding the bitterness of defeat; it’s a horrible, horrible feeling,” he said. “Armagh couldn’t keep coming to Croke Park without some element of luck going their way. The law of averages apply and we were worried about that, but we’re not afraid to take our beating.”
Unlike the opening period of the first semifinal, which saw Kerry produce some astonishing football against Cork, this was largely a prosaic affair for 35 minutes. Too many wides — Armagh eventually ended with 12 to Dublin’s nine — and only Cosgrove produced moments of quality before two late scores by McConville left it 0-6 apiece at the interval.
Dublin brought Moran in for Ryan, and then they lost the influential Darren Magee to an eye injury, but by now the stodge of the first half had been replaced by some flowing football and a long ball by John Toal was bundled over the line by Paddy McKeever for the game’s first goal. That made it 1-7 to 0-7.
Dublin’s reply was both swift and spectacular. Ranging up from midfield, Whelan took a short pass and smashed a perfect shot past Benny Tierney in the Armagh goal to level matters once again. Suddenly, the tempo increased and when Cosgrove hit his sixth point, in the 61st minute, Dublin were in front by 1-13 to 1-11 — soon Cosgrove was to take center stage one more time.
“No, I didn’t look at the free; I turned away when it left his foot, I actually thought it was going three feet wide,” said Lyons. “It’s a cruel way to lose a game, but that’s not where the game was won or lost. Ray was outstanding. That was his best team performance of the year.”
No consolation for Dublin or for Cosgrove then. Armagh march on to a first final since 1977.