Armagh advanced to their first Ulster semi-final in five years on Sunday but they were made to sweat the whole way by a young Down side.
It was a game that had everything. Five goals, a red card, great scores, high-stakes drama and an unlikely match winner in Andrew Murnin, who many (including the Armagh management) thought wouldn’t see any of the action.
While many will look to the sending off of Caolan Mooney as the game’s vital moment, it’s important to note that Down came roaring back to force extra-time thus being afforded 15 players for the additional 20 minutes.
Where the game was really won and lost was the substitutes bench. Both teams replacements performed well with a special mention to James Guinness who kicked a booming score with the clock in the red to force the extra-time. Paul Devlin and Owen McCabe also contributed to the scoreboard for Down while Cory Quinn impressed during his cameo, setting up Devlin to kick a beauty in extra-time.
However, while the Down replacements performed extremely well, apart from Kilcoo’s Devlin they were all championship newcomers.
Armagh, on the other hand, were able to introduce experienced campaigners who didn’t just come on as fresh legs but also contributed handsomely to the Orchard County’s final tally.
Of the 2-17 scored by Armagh, 2-3 came from the substitutes bench.
In this week’s edition of the Championship Deep-Dive, we take a look at the impact the Armagh substitutes had on the outcome of the game.
Many people were surprised by James Morgan’s omission from the starting XV given his reliability for both Armagh and Crossmaglen. However, he was sprung from the bench after just five minutes when Paddy Burns pulled up.
Morgan got on a tonne of ball throughout the next 85 minutes and would go on to have a smashing game playing in a slightly more advanced role than we are used to seeing him in.
Just six minutes after his introduction, Morgan burst through on the right wing before taking an off-load from Ethan Rafferty and kicking a beautiful score with the outside of the foot.
A lot happened in the next 42 minutes. Armagh looked in control for large parts but Down pegged them back before scoring a goal and dominating the remainder of the first half before losing Caolan Mooney to a red card on the stroke of the short whistle.
Armagh made great use of the extra man in the second half, reeling off score after score before taking the lead for the first time since the 22nd minute.
Leading by a point with less than 20 minutes to go Armagh seemed to strike the killer blow when Mark Shields sauntered up-field before ghosting into the penalty area and rounding Rory Burns to put Armagh four in front.
That should have been that for Kieran McGeeney’s side, however, credit to Down who came roaring back in the final five minutes with a goal and two points to force extra-time.
Momentum seemed to be on the Mourne men’s side. They dominated the first period of extra-time and looked to be heading in at the half three points in front. As it transpired, Ryan Kennedy narrowed the gap to two which set up one of the most famous ten minutes periods in this rivalry’s storied history.
Andrew Murnin was introduced and Armagh started to go route one. It was effectively the last roll of the dice. The first ball pumped in breaks towards Stefan Campbell. ‘Soupy’, as he is affectionately known, had already contributed a score in normal time but missed a golden opportunity to seal the win at the death.
However, that didn’t deter him one iota as he chipped the breaking ball beautifully into his stride before rounding the defender and kicking a score with his left foot to reduce the deficit to one.
All of a sudden the momentum swung back in Armagh’s favour as the sheer presence of Andrew Murnin inside clearly troubled Down.
Ben Crealey (another substitute) began to dominate the kick-out. The ball finds its way to Charlie Vernon who sends it into Murnin first time. The Lurgan man makes no mistake as he wins the ball, rounds the defender and kicks the equalising score.
Next comes the game’s most significant moment. Murnin’s presence has Down at sixes and sevens. Armagh are aware that the long ball is causing problems.
A Down attack breaks down and Armagh counter in a flash working it up-field until they are within range of Murnin. Eventually, Rian O’Neill sends a high hopeful ball in and he rises high to flick home one of the most unique goals the Ulster Championship has seen.
The fact that Armagh had an experienced quartet such as Morgan, Shields, Campbell and Murnin to bring on proved vital on the day. Without these four, Armagh would probably still be searching for that elusive win in Ulster.
One question remains, however, do they start against Cavan?