Derry beat Armagh after penalties in the Ulster SFC final with the Oak Leaf County entering the game without their manager Rory Gallagher — Shane Stapleton reports.
Derry 1-15 Armagh 0-18 (Derry win 3-1 on penalties): Ulster SFC final
Derry’s players have been through the mill all week, and found a way across the line to retain the Ulster SFC title.
They have seen their manager Rory Gallagher “stepping back” from the role after high-profile allegations were made by his estranged wife, with her interview this morning making front-page headlines on a major broadsheet paper, and of course this was nothing to do with this group of young men.
How they have managed to negotiate this spell has been a credit to each one, especially considering the incredible tension in Clones, and such a dramatic game going to penalties.
Armagh’s season ended with spot-kicks against Galway in last year’s All-Ireland quarter-final, and they should never have let it get that far once more.
They had a man advantage over Derry with Brendan Rodgers sent to the bin at the end of normal time, and ultimately the latter side were allowed to kill time.
The Oak Leaf County — led today by Ciaran Meenagh — hit three brilliant penalties out of the four they stepped up to, while Odhran Lynch was sensational in saving three.
Ciaran McFaul hit the winning kick to the roof of the net, and minutes later Conor Glass was hoisting the Anglo-Celt Cup to the clouds.
Both teams seemed to have it won in extra time as Armagh twice led by two points, but Shane McGuigan was commander-in-chief for a Derry side that would not go away.
When Lochlann Murray palmed one over the bar in the 91st minute, it looked to be game over.
Then Stefan Campbell drove forward to win a relatively soft free — with Murray adjudged to have fouled the number 11 — for Rian O’Neill to level at the death.
What is it about the Crossmaglen man levelling huge championship games with pressure frees before we go to penalties?
Meenagh refused to answer whether he would remain in charge after the turbulence of this past week, and few will criticise him for dodging that topic in such a moment.
For much of normal time, Derry led, and it wasn’t until the 71st minute at the start of extra time that the Orchard County nudged out in front.
Brendan Rodgers was man of the match in last year’s Ulster final when driving Michael Murphy in the wrong direction, and the Slaughtneil man was again to the fore here.
In the first half alone, Rodgers hit 1-2, with the goal coming from Ethan Rafferty’s indecision under the high ball.
First Conor Doherty and then Paul Cassidy had shots blocked and dropped short, but it was the latter than hung in the air for Rodgers to profit from.
The Armagh ‘keeper came out, then thought better of it, but being in no man’s land allowed what was a relatively tame connection steer the ball to the net.
Two minutes later, Shane McGuigan went for a point from the left and it also dropped short for a teammate to palm across an empty goal.
Though both high balls in were pointed attempts and not designed to go after the goalkeeper, the outcome highlighted an issue from which Derry could profit.
Odhran Lynch had a couple of tough moments at the other end. He tried a risky slicer when Armagh pressed up that connected with referee David Gough, and his restarts led to two points in a row for Armagh around the half hour.
Rian O’Neill scored some beautiful points from distance which he seemed to simply brush his foot through, while Rory Grugan popped over a couple of frees.
Given they had hit six wides, the Orchard County might have done better than be 1-5 to 0-7 behind at half time, but the Oak Leafers could point to four wides and three efforts that didn’t reach the posts.
The talk in the match commentary was that the game opened up in the second half, and certainly the excitement grew throughout.
However, there had been 29 scoring opportunities in the first and that figure dropped to just 21 in the latter 35 minutes.
Derry fisted over the first score of the second half but Niall Loughlin might have handpassed it across goal for a palmed goal.
Given how much difficulty Armagh had in drawing their rivals back in all day, another green flag might have created enough distance to see them home.
The Orchard Men toiled to draw level but always seemed to be that point or so behind, with substitute Campbell supplying that extra drive for the men in orange.
McGuigan continued to impact the scoreline through beautiful points and a lovely centred kick to set up the erstwhile quiet Glass to score.
A McGuigan free on 61 minutes was the final score of normal time for Derry, with Rodgers missing an easy fisted score on 66 minutes that would have widened the gap to three points.
Instead, O’Neill rifled over a ’45, before his late free from the ’14 — after Rodgers had to resorted to a black-card challenge on Jarly Og Burns due to a dangerous turnover in Derry territory — allowed him to level.
Rory Grugan has been substituted back on and won a mark about 40 yards out, which he dropped short.
However, the notion that an uncontested free for such a basic skill under no pressure could decide an Ulster title should require a re-think on the nonsensical advance mark rule.
As it was, the game went to a dramatic extra time and penalty shootout conclusion.
Many would have preferred a replay but then the game will live long in the memory precisely because it didn’t.
The balloon in Clones was filled to breaking point so no result — in the form of a draw — would simply have let the air out of it. In sport, there are winners and losers, no matter how it happens. Why not finish with drama?
Yes, it is tough on the person that misses, but such is life. It is hardly much different to an amateur player being under the microscope after a costly red card.
Both Rafferty and Lynch saved kicks but it was the latter who came out on top, and on goes the Oak Leaf charge.
Derry will face Clare, Monaghan and Donegal in the All-Ireland series, while Armagh have Galway, Tyrone and Westmeath coming up.