What a Sunday of G.A.A was on offer for the football purist. The ‘Gooch’ was back from injury, Mayo and Galway were locking horns in Pearse Park and there was no hurling to provide a distraction. Questions on the tip of everyone’s tongues were ‘how good are Kerry this year?’ and ‘have Mayo lost a step?’. This weekend was sure to give the first clue about where Sam was going to end up in September. After Dublin’s annihilation of Longford, it would need an impressive display from one of the big boys to convince even the most open-minded supporter that Sam wouldn’t be making the short trip from Croke Park to Donnycarney when all was decided.
That impressive display did not come from the Kingdom or the green and red of Mayo but from the top of the country. The performance of Rory Gallagher’s Donegal team in the first half was the most complete performance of any Donegal side since the beginning of the Jim McGuinness era.
Donegal started the game without Colm McFadden who was caught with a virus. One would be forgiven for thinking this may effect their scoring ability but when an early ball in over the blanket defense was collected by Paddy Mc Brearty and dispatched into the Armagh goal within two minutes it was obvious this wasn’t going to be the case. When this pattern continued for the next ten minutes with McBrearty collecting four balls over the smaller Armagh defenders, Kieran McGeeney’s men saw the beginning of their downfall. Looking up at the scoreboard after 12 minutes and seeing a scoreline of 1-3 to no score the damage of playing in division three was starting to become evident for a young Armagh team.
Donegal’s dominance continued with a wonderful left footed point from Mc Niallis from close to the sideline and a 50 metre bullet free from Michael Murphy to make it a score of 1-5 to 0-1 with 19 minutes on the clock. Not only were Armagh finding it difficult to break through the legendary Donegal defence but defending was proving next to impossible with a versatile Donegal attack that could either play it inside to the on form McBrearty or carry it through with the impressive Michael Murphy, McHugh and Toye connecting well around the midfield. Donegal were carrying the ball with fluidity and poise reminding us that they are no longer a system but a collection of extremely talented footballers.
The half continued in this form with Armagh registering their second point after twenty eight minutes. They seemed to be running out of ideas in attack which was outlined when Martin McElhenney of Donegal made a mistake in midfield which left Donegal susceptible to an Armagh counter attack which finished with a poor wide from a less than convincing move. Karl Lacey finished a beautiful move with great movement and build up to make it 1-8 to 0-2 in the 32nd minute.
The half was completed by a monster 60 metre kick from Michael Murphy which will have the likes of Dublin and Kerry going back to the drawing board as it was becoming obvious that fouling Donegal players outside the 45′ wasn’t going to hamper the Glenswilly marksman. Pat Spillane cheekily compared Armagh’s players to the ‘lads on the titanic serving drink when it was sinking’ due to their tactical rigidity and it was obvious that Kieran McGeeney had a job on his hands to turn around a game which Donegal dominated in defence, midfield and attack.
It looked like he had achieved just that when Jamie Clarke finally made his mark on the game at the start of the second half with a mazy run which ended up with him hitting the post and a poor follow up shot from Steffan Campbell.
Although Donegal were not attacking with the same devastating efficiency as in the first half, Armagh still failed to register a third score until the 42nd minute with a hard worked Kieran Keever point. They continued to show a lack of composure going forward with poor combination play between Caolan Rafferty and Aidan Forker after a Michael Murphy mistake.
Armagh continued to carry ball into tackles but were left to pay in the 44th minute when Donegal punished them with a swift counter attack which led to Martin O’ Reilly’s first championship goal. Back to back points for Armagh followed but this could not hide the inexperience with James Morgan getting the first yellow card of the game in the 47th minute in a confrontation with Eamon McGee.
Donegal’s superior strength, fitness and skill allowed them to close the game out without too much effort in an uneventful final twenty minutes leaving the final score 2-11 to 0-8. Referee Coleman may have been expecting a much fierier affair between two of Ulster’s football strongholds but in the end it petered out in a game which looked like men against boys.
Although many will point to an inexperienced Armagh side, Donegal played in a manner which few teams would have been able to compete against. Their defence was packed and organised as one would expect but the way they changed from defence to attack using the link play of Michael Murphy was so efficient and fluid that it would take a great effort to compete against it. The versatility of attack whether they hit a high ball on top of McBrearty or carried it through the hands of a talented half back and half forward line proved that Donegal are no longer a one trick pony and with Colm McFadden to come back into the team it will be hard to look past them being there or thereabouts in the business end of the summer.