Donegal 1-14 Armagh 1-13
Summer was in the air in Letterkenny in more ways than one.
Donegal and Armagh meet in four weeks’ time in the Ulster Championship and they served up an exciting prelude here.
Patrick McBrearty’s 75th-minute point gave Donegal a win – their first in their last seven at O’Donnell Park – to preserve their top-flight status.
The nerves whistled as Donegal, who seemed utterly comfortable with a six-point lead at two different times but saw their lead chipped away.
Armagh, sensing that Donegal were on the ropes, got level through Rian O’Neill.
At that stage, there were 72 minutes on the clock and Donegal’s sequence of poor results here looked set to continue.
In 2009, Donegal gave up a nine-point advantage in a drawn encounter with Mayo and they were ropey here for a spell in the second half.
Declan Bonner's men found a way, McBrearty arrowing over after good work from Michael Langan. The return of Langan, an All Star nominee last year, will serve as a timely boost for Donegal, who continue to look something of a Rubik's Cube for their supporters.
Armagh had the carrot of a league final to grab here and if a raft of pre-match changes suggested that Kieran McGeeney wasn't particularly enamoured at the prospect, when he introduced O'Neill and Conor Grugan for the second half, it seemed that, perhaps, the Orchard were keen.
McGeeney and Bonner turned down requests for post-match interviews, in keeping with their support of the GPA’s boycott. It was a day when they perhaps were content enough to keep their views close to their chests.
Jason McGee thundered in for an early Donegal goal, planting past Ethan Rafferty after Jamie Brennan and Ryan McHugh worked the 11th-minute chance.
That had Donegal 1-4 to 0-2 ahead. Caolan Ward, with his fist, opened up a six-point lead, but Armagh hit back with a goal late in the first half.
Just when Donegal were looking firmly in command, Aidan Nugent steered to the net after Armagh recycled well when Shaun Patton elected to punch Jemar Hall's dropping ball clear. Ben Crealy got Armagh on the move again and Nugent, who scored 1-6 in all, fired home.
McBrearty and Michael Murphy hit back and Donegal were 1-10 to 1-5 in front at the short whistle.
McBrearty posted another to put Donegal in front by six, but the tide began to turn and the home side jittered.
In front of 5,650 on a baking hot day in the confines of a venue at which Donegal had only won twice in 13 previous attempts, the natives began to get restless.
O'Neill and Andrew Murnin were on the mark as Armagh inched their way back and Murphy didn't help home nerves when he dragged a 52nd-minute penalty wide after Brennan was taken down.
Donegal went 20 minutes without a score and they appeared in danger of self-combusting with Armagh nailing three-in-a-row. Nugent, twice, and O’Neill split the posts and Armagh were within two points with 10 minutes to go.
Although McBrearty managed to end the hosts’ famine, O’Neill brought the visitors level.
Even then, with the sun at its highest, the drama wasn’t done.
At one end, Ciarán Mackin shot wide. At the other, amid almost chaotic scenes, McBrearty conjured up a winner with the game’s penultimate kick.
When Ethan Rafferty launched the leather into the Letterkenny sky, Paddy Neilan called time and a coming together of several players after it was all done offers a jagged edge with their swords to cross soon again.
The stage is neatly set for their next encounter.
The stakes then will be considerably higher.
DONEGAL: S Patton; C Ward (0-1), B McCole, S McMenamin; P Mogan, E Gallagher, O McFadden Ferry; J McGee (1-0), H McFadden; S O'Donnell, R McHugh, C O'Donnell; P McBrearty (0-7, four frees, one mark), M Murphy (0-4, one free, one 45), J Brennan (0-2, one mark).
Subs: M Langan for Brennan (51 mins), N O'Donnell for McHugh (63), E O'Donnell for S O'Donnell (70+3).
ARMAGH: E Rafferty; A McKay, A Forker , J Morgan; C Mackin, G McCabe, J Óg Burns; S Campbell, B Crealey; C O'Neill, J Hall, T Kelly (0-1); A Nugent (1-6, three frees), A Murnin (0-2, one mark), J Duffy (0-1, one mark).
Subs: C Mackin for Morgan (16), R O'Neill (0-3, one 45) and C Grugan for Hall and C O'Neill (half-time), C McConville for Campbell (52), N Grimley for Kelly (66), J Kieran for Duffy (70).
Referee: P Neilan (Roscommon).