Derry 1-15 Armagh 0-18 [aet, Derry win 3-1 on penalties]
Derry underlined their status as the number one team in Ulster by retaining their provincial title for the first time in 47 years. It took penalties – for the first time in a provincial final – and a performance that demanded a great deal of them.
Opponents Armagh stuck to the champions like limpets and constantly closed two-point gaps to the minimum without drawing level until the very end. In the end they suffered the devastation of losing a shoot-out just as they did against Galway in last year’s All-Ireland quarter-final.
Odhrán Lynch, the Derry goalkeeper, proved the weapon of destruction, saving three of the four penalties he faced – from Rian O’Neill, Aidan Nugent and his opposite number Ethan Rafferty – with just Callum Cumiskey finding a way past.
Shane McGuigan, Conor Glass and Ciarán McFaul hit the target to give Derry their win.
It was modern football in microcosm: two teams moving like one organism from one end of the field to the other, massing on the outskirts of each other’s territory when in possession and trying to engineer the opening for a shot or falling back to block all approaches when they weren’t.
From the opening three and a half minutes during which they held uninterrupted possession – culminating in a point for the excellent Shane McGuigan – Derry were the more effective at this for most of the match. To Armagh’s credit they caught them at the end but it was a scramble.
Most significantly for the champions, they survived a crisis at the end of the extra-time when Armagh, trailing for the whole match and only taking the lead for the first time in the 71st minute, had opened up a two-point lead, 0-17 to 1-12 when goalkeeper Rafferty drilled over his second point from play.
Sustained attack, good decision-making and panicky defending by Armagh provided two frees, which Niall Toner and McGuigan – from distance – converted. Seconds later, Lachlan Murray was running in to fist the lead point.
That wasn’t the end of the drama, as a free in the last minute gave Rian O’Neill the chance to equalise and he took it, forcing the ‘finish on the day’ protocols.
It was a triumph of resilience for Derry, who also won Ulster last year after extra-time. They were also dealing with the controversy of the past few days, which saw their manager Rory Gallagher step back from his role in the wake of domestic abuse allegations made by his ex-wife.
Selector Ciarán Meenagh took charge of the team and was asked about the impact on preparations.
“The facts speak for themselves. I did not think we played well in the first half. We played below par. We were disappointed at half-time and then we led for most of the second half but we could never put Armagh away.
“They hung in there and with the crowd behind them and they had momentum and then when it went into the second half in extra-time we said we were getting a second chance. We had played the first half against the breeze with 14 men and we were only a point down.”
Armagh had nearly won the match in ordinary time but a mark called by Rory Grugan dropped short and after a scuffle for possession, referee David Gough signalled the end of 70 minutes.
The goalkeepers had immense influence on the match. Lynch obviously performed the conventional duties at the death saving the penalties but he had also defended his line well, comfortably commanding the air in front of goal.
As an outfield contributor, he was second best to Rafferty, who spent long phases of the match directing and orchestrating Armagh’s attacks, particularly after half-time whereas Lynch was prone to getting caught in possession.
Derry’s big players stepped up when needed. McGuigan had as good a match as he has ever played for Derry, scoring four from play as well as three frees. Glass was a dynamo at centerfield, covering back in defence and taking an important mark during the late comeback.
His partner Brendan Rogers had a great first half, scoring 1-2 – the goal punched in, in the ninth minute. In an eventful afternoon he was black-carded for taking down Jarlath Burns for O’Neill to convert the free and take the match to extra-time.
Glass paid tribute to McGuigan. “He’s the best forward in the country at the minute – between him and Clifford and Con O’Callaghan. They’re just freaks of nature. Shane is just full of confidence. He said at half-time, get the ball to me and we did and he came up with the big plays.”
Derry will proceed to Group Four of the round-robin, joining Clare, Monaghan and Donegal whereas Armagh will join Galway, Tyrone and Westmeath in Group Two.
DERRY: Odhrán Lynch; Chris McKaigue, Eoin McEvoy, Conor McCluskey; Conor Doherty, Gareth McKinless (0-1), Pádraig McGrogan; Conor Glass (0-1), Brendan Rogers (1-2); Benny Heron, Paul Cassidy, Ethan Doherty; Niall Toner (0-2, two frees), Shane McGuigan (0-7, three frees), Niall Loughlin (0-1).
Subs: Ciarán McFaul for Heron (47 mins); Lachlan Murray (0-1) for Loughlin (60); Pádraig Cassidy for C Doherty (63); Heron for Murray (70); Loughlin for McGrogan (82); Murray for Heron (83).
ARMAGH: Ethan Rafferty (0-2); Conor O’Neill (0-1), Aaron McKay, Aidan Forker; Ciarán Mackin (0-1), Greg McCabe (0-1, mark), Jarly Óg Burns (0-2, one mark); James Morgan, Shane McPartlan; Jason Duffy, Barry McCambridge, Rory Grugan (0-2, two frees); Andrew Murnin, Rian O’Neill (0-6, three frees, one 45), Conor Turbitt.
Subs: Stefan Campbell (0-2) for Grugan, Aidan Nugent for McPartlan (both 44 mins); Ross McQuillan (0-1) for McCambridge (58); Oisín Conaty for Murnin (63); Grugan for Duffy, Callum Cummiskey for Forker (both 70); Connaire Mackin for Ciarán Mackin (77).
Referee: David Gough (Meath).