Tactical Ulster arm-wrestle ends all square between Armagh and Donegal

Kieran McGeeney and Jim McGuinness both agree the game will help their sides as the season goes on

NFL Division Two: Armagh 1-9 Donegal 0-12

It was all high-spirited handshakes and roguish smiles between Jim McGuinness and Kieran McGeeney at the end. Nobody won in the Athletic Grounds, but nobody lost either, and everybody seemed happy enough with that.

For the most part, this Division Two top of the table fixture in front of 11,252 spectators was a tactical arm-wrestle and when the final whistle sounded there was a sense these teams will be planning for each other again at the end of March in the divisional final at Croke Park.

Both teams could have won it near the end but a share of the spoils was probably the fairest return from a contest in which the biggest gap was four points, and that lasted roughly 60 seconds.

Donegal hit the woodwork three times in the second half and had a 65th-minute penalty saved when Oisín Gallen’s effort was stopped by Armagh goalkeeper Blaine Hughes.


The sides were level at the time of the penalty and remained so until Rían O’Neill, making his first appearance of the season, looked to have snatched victory for Armagh with a wonder point from out near the stand sideline at the start of injury-time.

Shane O’Donnell replied with a 73rd-minute equaliser for Donegal but there was still time for one last Armagh chance in the final play of the game, only for Jarly Óg Burns to drop his fisted effort short when it appeared the scriptwriters had penned the perfect ending to a momentous weekend for the Burns family.

“You could argue both ways for both teams,” said Armagh manager McGeeney afterwards when asked if it was a point won or a point lost.

“It was more tactical with not a lot of football but, listen, there were times I would have taken the point and times I was crying we didn’t get the three points. It was nip and tuck, and I suppose both teams learned a lot about themselves.”

Towards the end of the first half the two managers spent several moments exchanging opposing view about matters on the pitch, shouting up and down the sideline at each other – much to the delight of the crowd over their shoulders.

But afterwards they were both in agreement on the match.

“My own assessment would be that it was a great game for us and for Armagh as well,” said McGuinness.

“I think there was a lot of physicality and there were a lot of questions asked tactically and there were a lot of pressure-cooker moments where fellahs either did or didn’t deal with it. That’s why I say it was probably a good game for us and for Armagh, it will sharpen up both camps and hopefully we can push on from here.”

The pattern of the game during the first half was like watching the tide sweeping in and then drawing back out again – the team in possession going forward, the defending team swarming back and getting organised in that now familiar arc just inside the 45-metre line. Up and down it went. One team invading, the other retreating.

The only goal of the game came in the 18th minute when Andrw Murnin got in behind the Donegal defence and struck the ball beyond Shaun Patton. But if Murnin’s finish was tasty, the goal was created by the most sumptuous of passes from Ciarán Mackin, whose beautifully measured ball went over the top of the Donegal defence and sent Murnin straight through, 1-2 to 0-3.

Armagh pushed on to lead 1-5 to 0-4 approaching the half-hour mark but Donegal scored the last three points of the opening period to leave the minimum between the sides at the break.

The Orchard County went 23 minutes without a score – Joe McElroy ending their drought in the 52nd minute, but during that period Donegal registered 0-6 without reply.

Rory Grugan drew the sides level with a stunning point in the 54th minute, throwing dummies like confetti to the Donegal defence before slicing the ball over the bar. But Grugan kicked a wide which was just as stunning moments later, pulling a 13-metre free wide of the Donegal posts.

Donegal were handed a glorious chance to take all the points when Mchael Langan won a 64th-minute penalty.

A Jamie Brennan shot hit the post and Langan reacted quickest to grab possession on the rebound but was immediately dragged to the ground. Hughes saved Armagh with a good stop from Gallen’s penalty.

The O’Neill point would have been a fitting winner, but ultimately a draw was a fitting result.

“It’s great to have him there,” said McGeeney on O’Neill’s return. “He knows he has to get fitter, he’s only back training a while. Still and all, he scored a point that only two or three players in the country would score.

“That’s what you have when he’s on his game but we have to maybe give him a run a bit more.”

Chances are O’Neill and Armagh will get another run out against Donegal before this league campaign is over.

ARMAGH: Blaine Hughes; Peter McGrane, Paddy Burns, Aaron McKay; Conor O’Neill (0-2), Greg McCabe, Aidan Forker (0-1); Ciarán Mackin, Connaire Mackin; Conor Turbitt, Rory Grugan (0-2), Joe McElroy (0-1); Cian McConville, Andrew Murnin (1-1), Oisín Conaty (0-1).

Subs: Jason Duffy for McConville (h-t), Jarly Óg Burns for Connaire Mackin (42 mins), Rían O’Neill (0-1) for Forker (46), Stefan Campbell for Turbitt (51), Jemar Hall for Conor O’Neill (66).

DONEGAL: Shaun Patton; Mark Curran, Brendan McCole, Stephen McMenamin; Ryan McHugh, Caolan McGonagle, Ciarán Thompson (0-1); Hugh McFadden, Michael Langan (0-1); Odhrán Doherty, Ciarán Moore, Peadar Mogan (0-1); Paddy McBrearty (0-4, two frees), Oisín Gallen (0-4, two frees, two marks), Dáire Ó Baoill.

Subs: Shane O’Donnell (0-1) for McFadden (41 mins), Jeaic McKelvey for Doherty (49), Jamie Brennan for Ó Baoill (53).

REFEREE: Noel Mooney (Cavan)

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Gordon Manning

Gordon Manning

Gordon Manning is a sports journalist, specialising in Gaelic games, with The Irish Times