By Malachy Clerkin
They won’t just go away, you know. Just when we thought Meath’s demise meant it was safe to hold onto a decent lead in Croke Park with time running down, along come Sligo to take over the party-pooping responsibilities.
Six points down to Tyrone? A cakewalk. Five points and a man down to Armagh? With 12 minutes to go? Yawn, yawn, a stroll in the park. They may not have the flecks of genius that Meath had stitched into their being, but they have the cussedness.
And yet, they’re still little more than a novelty, a romantic interlude to keep the dreamers happy while the rest of the teams get on with trying to win the All Ireland.
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For sure, they came to Croke Park last Sunday and played some heroic football in patches, indeed, some beautiful football in phases, but few left convinced that they’ll take the replay. Armagh, and Joe Kernan in particular, simply won’t allow a second half car crash to happen twice.
For that’s what happened to Kernan’s side on Sunday. From early on in the game, they were on top, never quite pulling clear, but quite comfortably running as fast as they were chased.
They filched two identikit goals, long, searching balls from midfield flummoxing Sligo’s full back line and the cocksure finishing of Steven McDonnell and Diarmuid Marsden doing the rest. And those goals kept them at arm’s length handily enough because Sligo, for all their passion and bluster, simply didn’t look up to reeling them in.
Any time Peter Ford’s team looked like getting within touching distance, Armagh inched further clear through football’s most basic tactic, the long high ball pumped into the full forward line. Neither Padraig Noughton nor Neil Carew could deal with what was happening and it ended up costing a total of 2-3, Oisin McConville’s free-taking invariably punishing the chaos.
And really, that should have been that. Armagh into the semi-final as the stronger, nigglier, better team, the team with more match-winners and more scoring forwards, Sligo away home to the west with pats on the backs like the nice friendly underdogs they are.
But no. Sligo’s wing-back David Durkin took a swing at McDonnell, punched him in the ear, got sent off and all of a sudden, Sligo, perversely, were back in it.
The crowd started getting bolshie and in the great bowl that is the new Croke Park, bolshiness doesn’t take long in sounding like rabid fanaticism. And down on the pitch, the players started playing. Eamonn O’Hara started winning ball in midfield and using it intelligently, Dessie Sloyan sniped a point and Armagh started to hear the footsteps.
The Ulster champions just proceeded to crumble from there. Passes were hurried and miscued, shots at goal were hit with neither conviction nor direction. McConville missed a 45, John McEntee skewed wide. Sligo sensed there was blood in the water. Another Sloyan point and one from substitute Padraig Doohan left two between the sides. And still the crowd roared.
Still, if Armagh had shown an iota of composure during this time, they’d have won. If they’d slowed everything down, if they’d made more substitutions (they only used three), if they played keep ball for even 30 seconds, they’d be a game away from an All Ireland final. But for a team that’s been on the road for a number of years now, they showed an alarming tendency to panic. Even Kieran McGeeney, usually the coolest of heads, found concentration an elusive thing.
And so Sligo took advantage. With the crowd baying, the poured forward, center-back Brendan Phillips steaming up the left and hoisting a beauty to bring them within a point. The voice on the PA said there would be four minutes of additional time and Armagh’s hearts sank. Sligo’s momentum was such that four minutes was conceivably enough not just to save the game, but also to win it.
In the end, they had to settle for Dara McGarty’s fisted point and the chance to do it all again two weeks later.
By which time, Armagh really should have themselves sorted out.