Champions march on


Gaelic Games: This is the essential stuff of summer. Big Joe Kernan and Micko prowling the touchline like old grey wolves, their scarred, lupine features turned to the sun, snouts sniffing the air for signs of weakness and vulnerability, writes Tom Humphries.

This was an afternoon which had their scent all over it. Laois running and passing in wan imitation of the verve and pace of Kerry 28 years ago. Armagh brawny and cautious, playing just two up front. Kernan is bigger and stronger than Micko. So are his team.

It's 2003. Strength prevails.

It ends when a Laois attack disintegrates in the 71st minute. Oisín McConville takes possession just inside his 45-metre line. That concluding moment seems to sum up the difference. McConville has scored seven points. Now he is mopping up behind his midfield. They wear you down, Armagh, they wear you down.

And now they are back to another All-Ireland semi-final when just two months ago their detractors were forming a queue to tramp down the dirt on their grave.

They come back again to Croke Park later this month with as much certainty and experience as any team left in the campaign. They do what they do. If you don't find it beautiful, even in a rugged, mountainy way, well, then that's your trouble.

It's no harm that they have lingered. Armagh bring a fine sense of colour and theatre to these affairs. You can see them locating their passion and their will, getting ready to use those qualities as the game nears. They are the game's most compulsive huddlers, gathering together in the tunnel before they hit the pitch, again before the national anthem and then yet again for a quickie before throw-in. They were late out for the second half, unable, it seemed, to drag themselves away from each other.

That melding together pays off. In a sense this was a game which Armagh had no right to expect to win. Laois are younger. Laois had the momentum, the crazed, giddy feeling which comes with breaking out for the first time.

And they had Micko. Mick O'Dwyer knows as much if not more than all the managers left in the championship.

Armagh, though, have the belief.

This was as cerebral , as tactical a game as you will see in a decade of watching football. It was a staring match in which Laois blinked first. After Beano McDonald launched the game with an early point, the sides drew level with each other nine times. The ball was rifled from one end to another like a basketball game. 76,195 paying customers roared in accordance with the metronomic regularity with which the ball crossed midfield.

Armagh kept doing what they were doing, implacably and relentlessly, however. Laois made five substitutions, running repairs to a team which was getting busted by bigger men and seeping confidence as it happened. Armagh made one substitution, eight minutes from the end. Nothing radical. Just Paddy McKeever in for Ronan Clarke.

The sides had evenly shared 14 points in the first half and they stayed neck and neck for the first 12 minutes after the break, swapping points keenly.

Armagh's marking was suffocating, however. Orange jerseys grew like scutch weed all over the park. They were playing with Tony McEntee close to his own goal, leaving Laois's corner back Aidan Fennelly with nobody to mark. Fennelly looked disconcerted. Corner backs like to bump shoulders with forwards when they are working.

Level till the 50th minute, and then Armagh chiselled a crack into the game. Bang, Bang, Bang, Bang. Loughran, McConville, Clarke, and McConville again. Four points in it suddenly and Laois getting small in the rear-view mirror.

Laois looked jaded. Midfield wasn't working for them. They could run at Armagh but it was like running straight into concrete bollards.

If barging into concrete was what was required, well, of course they would do it. They narrowed the gap to a couple of points, but McConville hammered another free over. Laois were running at the end but the game had left them behind.

"They put it up to us," said Joe Kernan afterwards, "especially in the first half, when we gave the ball away to much. We'll have to improve an awful lot if we are to win a semi-final."

Maybe they will, but Kernan is wise enough to know that come high summer every win is sufficient unto the day. Armagh don't play with abandon - that's for beautiful losers - they play with efficiency and control. That was good enough yesterday and it may be good enough again.

Laois and Armagh were entertaining. They needed to be. Football needed a reprieve. So did Croke Park. By the time the cast for the curtain-raiser had been ushered off the audience had a throbbing sense of entitlement.

Seldom can a warm-up act have caused such a precipitous drop in temperature. Tyrone and Fermanagh was the sort of appetiser that makes people settle their bills and leave. As a game it set the whole argument about the merits of Ulster football back 20 years.

Tyrone won at a canter. Fermanagh expired before our very eyes, their great summer adventure snuffed out ruthlessly by their neighbours. Had it been boxing it would have been stopped as early as the 16th minute, when Eoin Mulligan fed Seán Cavanagh for a Tyrone goal which made the score 1-5 to 0-1. You knew then there was no coming back for Fermanagh.

Mickey Harte took the plaudits afterwards, but you suspected he would have liked something a little more challenging.

"It was impressive I suppose," he said. "But it needed to be. We have memories of the last time we came here to play championship football. We know we have nothing won yet."

Nothing won yet. Another clamorous afternoon beckoning. Not long now till September's reckoning.