Job done for Donegal today in the Athletic Grounds – it wasn’t pretty at times but the bottom line is that they’re back in Division One next year and will also have a re-match with Monaghan to look forward to in three weeks’ time in the divisional final.
As per the McKenna Cup encounter between the teams in January, Charlie Vernon was given the onerous task of keeping tabs on Michael Murphy; Vernon was switched onto the totemic forward in place of Gary McCooey a few minutes into today's contest, in a bid to curb Murphy's influence after Donegal had stormed out of the blocks.
Murphy’s club-mate Neil Gallagher started today, a huge boost for the team as they look to bigger days ahead. He lasted about 50 minutes before being taken off as Jim McGuinness tries to gradually integrate him back into the side. If McGuinness can coax the same amount of time out of the big man in Celtic Park next month, he’ll be relatively happy. Gallagher is crucial to Donegal’s attempts to win primary possession and today he won several kick-outs, both clean and breaking ball for his team-mates. Paul Durcan’s restarts have been both bad and brilliant throughout the league but with Gallagher in the middle things seem so much easier. Mark McHugh was the man to make way before throw-in, the Kilcar man troubled with a hamstring problem, so Donegal in effect had a three-man midfield with Gallagher joined by Rory Kavanagh and Martin McElhinney.
Karl Lacey and Frank McGlynn immediately switched at the start of the game and Lacey had his best game of the campaign to date, looking like the rampaging half-back of old – hopefully he has timed his return to form to perfection with big games on the horizon. McGlynn also looked impressive today and his placement in the game with Derry will tell us a lot about Jim’s thinking. Centre forward Mark Lynch has been the standout performer for the Oakleaf men thus far and it is quite likely that Frank will be the one detailed to pick him up. With Leo McLoone more suited to playing a marauding centre back role as opposed to being given marking duties, McGlynn v Lynch seems the obvious match-up.
The visitors were in total control in the opening exchanges today, a penalty from Murphy putting them five points clear. Armagh eventually got motoring while Donegal seemed to stall somewhat, allowing the Orchard County back into the game. Jamie Clarke goaled after a piercing run through the middle and he followed up with an outrageous point from the wing – from this stage of the game until half-time the match descended into shutdown. Both teams were suddenly bereft of ideas and neither team could muster any sort of incision once they got inside the opponents 45. The awkward cross-field breeze didn’t help with wayward shooting a feature of both teams' play.
Aside from his five-minute cameo, Clarke was well marshalled by Neil McGee. The double all-star has been one of his team’s most consistent performers so far this year and no forward in the country would relish pitting their wits against him. McGee’s Gaoth Dobhair colleague Odhran MacNiallais did well again today but more from a defensive point of view as opposed to the promising attacking displays we’ve seen from him this year. Playing as a wing-forward, MacNiallais is learning game by game what is required of an inter-county player in that position; time and again today he was back helping his defenders, sweeping up ball and instigating attacks. His time spent at centre field with his club no doubt a huge aid in this sense.
Thankfully the fare improved after the break and it was Donegal who started to move through the gears. Just as the teams lined up for the second half, some Armagh followers in the stand were commenting on Murphy’s physique, cheekily inferring that ‘he must be on the juice’; whatever juice he is on is certainly doing the trick because soon after he got the game’s pivotal score, a trademark blistering finish to the net after fielding a high ball in from Kavanagh. The captain seemed to get away with a nudge in the back on his marker Vernon although the lack of protest from the Armagh Harps man suggested he was beaten in any case. While Murphy came out on top in their personal dual, it was a great battle between him and Vernon throughout.
From then on Donegal always had Armagh at arm’s length, picking off scores on the break whenever they were needed. The ferocious intensity and hunger that has been this team’s calling card was in evidence in the closing stages as time and again possession was ripped from on-rushing Armagh attackers and swarms of Donegal players raced forward en masse. The only negative was a black card incorrectly shown to substitute David Walsh; without doubt the Naomh Bríd clubman committed a foul but not one of the famous (maybe even infamous) five categories that are deemed as black card offences - a yellow card would have the right colour card.
Anthony Thompson was excellent in this closing period, as indeed he was for the entire game; the Naomh Conaill workhorse endured a torrid 2013 where he was never able to shake off niggling injuries and didn’t look 100% fit at any stage. This year though he’s been a constant in the team and in such flying form is a huge player for the side.
Patrick McBrearty was introduced for the final furlong and he picked off two delightful points to show that he is bang in form as he prepares to lead his county into the provincial U21 decider back here at the Athletic Grounds on Wednesday night.
For Armagh its relegation to Division Three and a far cry from the early part of the century when they were our nemesis for so long – five years in a row they beat Donegal in the Championship but next year they’ll be plying their trade in football’s third tier. They have to now lift themselves for an Ulster joust with Cavan, the team replacing them in Division Two.
McGuinness’ men now move onto Croke Park for a final with Monaghan where they will try, just as the hurlers did today in Sligo, to cap a good league campaign with some silverware.