Jamie Clarke living up to star quality as Armagh march on

Kieran McGeeney’s more clinical side head into another All-Ireland quarter-final

Armagh 1-17 Kildare 0-17

After a blazing night’s entertainment on Jones’s Road, Kieran McGeeney finally caught a break. Six years exactly after his Kildare side lost one of these games to Kevin Cassidy’s outrageous point, his Armagh team came through another epic with the balance tipped by a scrappy goal. They were probably good enough to win the argument anyway, but Andrew Murnin’s first-half dribbler made the ultimate point.

This was one of those relentless, fizzing qualifiers that enriches everyone. Kildare paid for being that bit sloppier than Armagh at crucial times. Their first and last wides of the day were bafflingly poor efforts from in front of the posts – a skewed Daniel Flynn shot from play a couple of minutes in and a skied Kevin Feely free with five minutes to go.

The Feely free was a killer. Kildare had held grimly on to Armagh as McGeeney's side kicked for home over the previous 10 minutes. Jamie Clarke, mesmerising all night but especially so now, had kicked a point and sent Brendan Donaghy away for another, but although Kildare's breath was short and their limbs were aching, they were hanging tight.


Survival mode means just that, though. You've got to get all that's for the getting, with nothing wasted and nothing spared. Feely had already nailed four frees of varying degrees of difficulty, but this was certainly on the handier end of the scale. It would have drawn them level as the clock ticked 65. But he didn't. And from the kick-out, Ethan Rafferty nailed a towering primal scream of a point at the other end.

Game, set, match.

“We had chances,” lamented Cian O’Neill afterwards. “We definitely had chances. Just a little bit of composure let us down at the end. Once again, like the Leinster final, we had a lot of opportunities in the first quarter and the last quarter and we didn’t take them. That was disappointing. To be fair to Armagh, they created chances on the counter and ultimately took most of them. You have to give them credit for that.”

For that and plenty more besides. For Armagh to be back at this stage and competitive must count as one of the biggest achievements of McGeeney's career. It's not actually that long since they last played in Croke Park – the 2014 All-Ireland quarter-final against Donegal. But of the team that started that game, only four lined out on Saturday night. By contrast, Mayo had 12 starters the same from 2014 and 2017. Monaghan had nine. Kerry had eight.

Tactical nous

McGeeney has showed an acute sense of tactical nous as well. Armagh changed tack here from how they’ve been playing all year. Perhaps conscious of how Galway frustrated Kildare in the Division Two final, they sat a good bit deeper than they had in other games and essentially played with just Clarke in their forward line for much of the night.

If it sounds like a low-risk strategy, it was actually the opposite, since it required one player to strap the bulk of the team’s attacking threat to his own back. But then, when that player is Jamie Clarke, maybe it’s not such as risk.

The display he gave in response here was incredible. When you are one attacker in a whole half of Croke Park, you can’t take a play off. You can’t let someone else do the running. You have to show for every ball and you have to do something with it every time. Clarke scored four points from play, but to break it down to cold numbers feels a little antiseptic. He was an adornment to the game on Saturday night.

“The thing about Jamie is, Jamie always wants the ball,” said Armagh selector Paddy McKeever afterwards. “He always shows. Even sometimes when he has a quieter game, he’s capable of doing something special to turn it.

“But I think the fact that he was there for virtually every release, every ball that was coming from midfield, his work-rate in showing for the ball marked him out for how special he was today. The amount of assists he had, the free-kicks he won. Sometimes it’s not always getting the goal or posting up 0-6 or 0-7. His work rate was phenomenal tonight.”

Murnin's goal came five minutes before the break after good work down the left flank by the always dangerous Aidan Forker. With referee Derek O'Mahoney playing a fine advantage, Forker wriggled out of a bear hug to play Murnin in, and though the full-forward's shot was blocked by Mick O'Grady, the ball squirted away from goalkeeper Mark Donnellan as a result. It was as good as in when Murnin followed up to make sure.

That secured 1-8 to 0-8 half-time lead for Armagh but Kildare rallied through the third quarter. Their problem was they were able to get upsides without ever gaining significant lengths. On a night when the sides were level eight times, Kildare led on three occasions but never for more than a minute at a time. They were always gasping for air.

On a breathless night, that was the difference.

ARMAGH: Blaine Hughes; James Morgan, Charlie Vernon, Paul Hughes; Mark Shields, Brendan Donaghy (0-1), Aidan Forker (0-1); Stephen Sheridan, Niall Grimley (0-2, frees); Aaron McKay, Stefan Campbell (0-1), Rory Grugan (0-2, one free); Jamie Clarke (0-4), Andrew Murnin (1-1), Gavin McParland (0-3).

Subs: Joe McElroy (0-1) for McKay (39 mins); Ciarán O'Hanlon for Forker (45 mins); Ethan Rafferty (0-1) for Murnin (49 mins); Oisin O'Neill for Campbell (49 mins); Anthony Duffy for Grugan (64 mins).

KILDARE: Mark Donnellan (0-1, free); Mick O'Grady, David Hyland, Ollie Lyons; Peter Kelly, Johnny Byrne, Keith Cribbin (0-2); Kevin Feely (0-5, frees), Paul Cribbin; Fergal Conway (0-2), Niall Kelly (0-2), David Slattery; Paddy Brophy (0-3), Daniel Flynn (0-1), Ben McCormack (0-1).

Subs: Cathal McNally for McCormack (45 mins); Fionn Dowling for Slattery (50 mins); Cian O'Donoghue for Keith Cribbin (black card, 59 mins); Eamonn Callaghan for Niall Kelly (65 mins); Tommy Moolick for Flynn (68 mins).

Referee: Derek O'Mahoney (Tipperary).