Neither side has ever won a league title, so this Sunday’s decider at Croke Park is sure to be close to championship fervor.
If Armagh were more efficient and clearly fitter in the decisive final quarter, it wasn’t as if a bemused Mayo limped away from GAA headquarters once more. With Armagh scheduled to meet Fermanagh in the Ulster championship on May 15, they are at a different stage in their preparation than Mayo, who don’t kick off their summer schedule until June.
So Mayo can take some solace from the fact that they went toe-to-toe with their opponents for much of the game and that it was only in the closing stages that the gaps in their defense began to appear. With Steven McDonnell, Ronan Clarke and Oisin McConville driving forward, the winners piled on six points in the final 10 minutes, while a fast-fading Mayo could manage only two.
“Armagh are much nearer championship fitness than we are, and that was pretty evident for most of the day and certainly in the closing stages, when we struggled with the pace,” Mayo manager John Maughan said. “We troubled them when we ran at them, but, unfortunately, we couldn’t maintain it.”
Aside from Armagh’s superior fitness and scoring power, their decision to detail Kieran McGeeney to mark Mayo’s playmaker, Ciaran McDonald, paid off handsomely. Relishing his role, McGeeney not only restricted McDonald to just a single point from play, but he also prevented him from spraying his trademark passes into the forward line.
In fact, if Armagh will have to be more clinical to see off Wexford, who beat them comprehensively on the opening day of the league, in the final, manager Joe Kernan was nevertheless satisfied with his team’s performance.
“We had to stop Mayo’s runners and once we did that, things turned our way,” he said. “People might have said Kieran McGeeney had a quiet game, but we didn’t see much of Ciaran McDonald out there. We applied some pressure and gradually chances began to present themselves. Everyone did their job and that was very pleasing.”
Mayo will rue a couple of missed opportunities, most notably when Alan Dillon’s crisp shot thumped back off the crossbar, and when Andy Moran had an appeal for a penalty waved away. However, they had some close escapes of their own at the other end of the pitch. First, goalkeeper David Clarke pulled off a magnificent save to deny McConville from the penalty spot, and then on the hour mark, Clarke again excelled himself by deflecting a McDonnell strike for a 45.
Losing the influential Mortimer brothers, Trevor and Conor, to yellow cards compounded Mayo’s sense of frustration, but then Armagh had to come up with a new midfield combination following the dismissal of John Toal and Paul McGrane. Substitute Malachy Macking deputized effectively, and the winners were ahead by 0-8 to 0-6 at the changeover.
Although there were signs that they were starting to struggle, Mayo were well in contention until that closing phase when Armagh turned on the power. McDonnell increased his tally to 0-6, and Clarke and McConville together contributed seven points from play.
Armagh will start as warm favorites on Sunday, but the high-scoring McDonnell was quick to urge caution.
“Wexford have proved that they’re a very good team,” he said. “Both Matty Forde and John Hudson have been getting very big scores, so they’ll take some stopping.”
MEATH 2-14, FERMANAGH 0-15
Meath gained a measure of revenge for a series of recent losses Fermanagh when they overcame the Ernemen at Clones to reach the National Football League Div. II final. Having lost five times in succession to Fermanagh in championship and league since 2000, Meath’s deserved success was long overdue.
In a similar manner to the Armagh-Mayo game, this was some understandably some way short of championship intensity. Meath were workmanlike without ever hitting top form, while Fermanagh’s performance was disappointing.
“The worst part of it was that we gave up a bit of hope in the second half, which is not something we do,” said losing manager Charlie Mulgrew. “Too many lads weren’t at the pace of the game.”
To make matters worse, Fermanagh contributed to their own downfall by allowing Meath to score the contest’s goals far too easily. Midway through the second half, goalkeeper Niall Tinney lost his footing at a kick out and the ball trickled toward Trevor Giles, whose lobbed shot for a point somehow dropped into the net. Giles’s raised hand was a clear indication that a point had been his target.
Then Joe Sheridan and Giles combined to put Niall Kelly through for a second goal, but the ball’s passage was made all the more easy by some indecisive Fermanagh defending.
“That was important for us because the complete defense and the all the half-forwards hadn’t played against Fermanagh in the championship,” said Meath manager Sean Boylan. “It’s great to get an extra game and it’s nice to be going back to Croke Park.”
Giles finished with 1-4, while Daiti Regan and Sheridan each added three points. Rory Gallagher with 0-7, including four from frees, and Colm Bradley with three points were the leading marksmen for Fermanagh.
MONAGHAN 1-13, DERRY 1-11
Meath’s opponents in the Div. II decider on Sunday will be Monaghan, who pulled off a surprise victory over Ulster rivals Derry at Clones. A fast start was offset by the dismissal of Rory Woods after just 19 minutes, and then Monaghan had to stave off a Derry revival in the second half.
With Tom Freeman firing in a goal after 10 seconds, and with their forwards ripping through the Derry defense, Monaghan were ahead by 1-9 to 0-4 at the interval. But a goal by Paul Murphy early in the second half signaled the beginning of Derry’s comeback, and with Johnny McBride, Paul McFlynn and Murphy at last finding the range, the deficit was down to a single point going into injury time. However, sub Nicholas Corrigan then hit a vital point to secure Monaghan’s place in a league decider for the first time in 20 years.
LEINSTER U-21 FINAL (REPLAY)
DUBLIN 0-13, KILDARE 0-11
Dublin upset the odds in the replayed Leinster Under-21 football final when they edged out Kildare at Croke Park. Without the suspended Mark Vaughan, they then also lost defender Willie Lowry, who was shown a straight red card, but with Kevin Leahy and Chris Moore in impressive scoring form, and with Bryan Cullen a controlling influence at the back, they now move on to play Down in the All-Ireland semifinal.