Classy Armagh remain on course for title
Laois 0-13…Armagh 0-15
A champions' display from Armagh was enough to kill off the championship dreams of Mick O'Dwyers Laois before a 75,000 capacity in the All-Ireland quarter final at Croke Park this afternoon.
In the end, the legions of pundits who had lined up behind the All-Ireland champions were proved right as the Orchard County drew on their experience and skill to defeat the O'Moore men by 0-15 to 0-13 in a tightly contested clash.
For their part, Laois produced a display which was well above and beyond what many expected of them, but Armagh's ability to control the game, whilst playing within themselves for the duration, was enough to guarantee them a semi-final place against either Galway or Donegal later in the month.
While Mick O'Dwyer's men can look back on a number of factors which mitigated against them - the virtual non-appearance of marksman and captain Ian Fitzgerald and their noted halfback shortcomings, to name but two - on the day Joe Kernan's juggernaut never showed signs of stopping, and the Armagh side could have won by more.
The game's first blood went to Laois, with Brian 'Beano' McDonald taking a point on their first attack in the opening minute of the game. The reply was swift, with Armagh marksman Oisin McConville pointing back immediately.
From there, the pattern of the first half quickly emerged. Laois contended hard and fast for possession, with the gameplan priority of moving the ball to their half forward line of Ross Munnelly, Mick Lawlor and Gary Kavanagh as quickly as possible.
For their part, Armagh relied on gathering breaking ball, in particular around the midfield area, and feeding Oisin McConville or Stephen McDonnell up front. Scores began to be traded - a fisted point from Gary Kavanagh had its reply in another McConville point. A Beano McDonald kick responded to by Aidan O'Rourke. Then McDonell and Beano traded points.
Worryingly for Laois, two high balls into the square exposed the aerial inadequacy of fullback Colm Byrne, who lost breaking ball to Diarmuid Marsden on both occasions, forcing two magnificent saves from Fergal Byron in the Laois goal - efforts which served to keep the O'Moore men in touch at critical stages in the half.
Meanwhile, at the other end, Laois began to miss scores during periods of possession - a failing notably absent from the Armagh game. But the Orchard men had not, as of yet, claimed the absolute midfield dominance some pundits had threatened.
As the first half drew to a close, Laois began to gain in some confidence, and Armagh made some uncharacteristic possessional errors, enough to allow Mick Lawlor and Gary Kavanagh in for points on the half hour. A third run from Kavanagh could well have resulted in a goal, had the Laois corner-forward held his nerve - instead a fisted point was in order.
Once again, Armagh responded in kind. John McEntee and Marsden both pointed with some grace, before McConville stepped up to point and injury time free to level matters at 0-7 points apiece at the interval.
If the first half had appeared evenly balanced, the champions began to assert themselves from the second throw-in. McEntee and McConville were suddenly getting ball that was absent in the first half, and their runs all too often sliced through a muddled Laois half-back line.
But it was a score from Armagh's half-back, Andrew McCann, that re-opened their account. Now the trading of points resumed but this time round it felt that Armagh were firmly in the driving seat. Marsden, McConville and Loughran all found the spot, with Gary Kavanagh, Darren Rooney and Beano McDonald - who was now single-handedly carrying the Laois attack - all replying in kind.
A critical 12-minute period in the middle of the half saw possession, and goal-bound traffic, all switch the way of the champions. Corner-forward Ronan Clarke claimed his point for the day as McConville emerged to strike two more - one a free.
Meanwhile, Laois were busily preoccupied in losing the game. The first half sharpness and speed of Padraig Clancy and Noel Garvan in the middle had faded, and sub Colm Parkinson - whose playing style suits an open, fast game - was tellingly subbed by Micko.
While Garvan pulled a point back to someway stop the rot, the Armagh backs Kieran McGeeney, McCann and Enda McNulty were roasting the Laois forwards, some of whom appeared to have gone AWOL at halftime.
Again, Beano was called on, and he scored two more points - but the on-field absence of Ian Fitzgerald, who must surely have had one his quietest days in the blue and white, meant the scoring task facing Laois, with the clock ticking down, was simply too much.
Forward dynamo Oisin McConville reappeared for two more scores at the close - enough to maintain Armagh's advantage. Truth be told however, the margin should and could have been greater, and Joe Kernan's men spent the last quarter of the match teasing the Laois side, and playing well within themselves.
Fears of a physical Armagh onslaught never materialised - if anything Laois were the more wayward side when it came to dangerous play - but neither did predictions of a walkover.
O'Dwyer, and Laois, can be proud of a campaign which has seen them win the Leinster championship, and hold the All-Ireland champions for as long as they did. Ultimately, it seemed a case of too much, too soon for the O'Moores.
For their part, Armagh can look back at an efficient day at the office - no major injuries were occurred, and the mental strength of the side, along with their proven footballing ability, remains clearly undiminished a year on.
As for their hunger to retain Sam, after today there can be little doubt. Donegal, or indeed Galway, are going to have a serious mountain to climb.