Ulster SFC Semi-Final:
Armagh 1-12 Down 0-11
Armagh roared out a message that they intend to be major All-Ireland contenders again this season when they swept aside Down’s challenge to qualify for the Ulster SFC final.
And they did it while playing with just 14 men for almost the entire second half, after Martin O’Rourke was sent off.
The Orchard men will meet Fermanagh in the decider on June 20, and on the evidence of this display, a process of rebuilding can go hand in hand with continued success for the Orchard county.
Ronan Clarke was the man who broke Mourne hearts with a sterling display at full forward, hitting three points and creating the openings for many more scores.
Armagh quickly got into their stride, opening up a 0-5 to 0-2 lead by the end of the opening quarter.
Ronan Clarke won virtually every high ball punted in his direction and clipped over two points.
Stephen Kernan, Brendan Donaghy and Stephen McDonenll, from a free, were also on target, with Danny Hughes and Ronan Murtagh responding for Down.
The Mourne men lost centre back Liam Doyle with a knee injury on 20 minutes, and fell further behind when Kernan ran on to an Aidan O’Rourke pass to drill home a 25th minute goal.
But Down responded positively to the double setback, and Ambrose Rodgers’ move to midfield helped them nullify Armagh’s influence.
Aidan Carr stroked over three long range frees, and at the break, just three points separated the sides, Armagh ahead by 1-5 to 0-5.
But the Orchard county lost a man after just two minutes of the second half when Martin O’Rourke, a vital link between defence and attack, was sent off for a high challenge on Damien Rafferty which earned him a second booking.
Carr continued to strike accurately from placed balls, bringing Down to within a point, but Armagh recovered their composure for Stephen Kernan to follow up a McDonnell score with a sublime point from distance.
Ciaran McKeever stood firm in his duel with Benny Coulter, holding the Down ace scoreless, and while Luke Howard also kept Stephen McDonnell scoreless from play, the former Allstar, along with Clarke and Kernan, formed a potent full forward line which shared a 1-8 total.
But the clinching scores came from more unlikely sources, centre back Aidan O’Rourke and substitute Brian Mallon, who came off the bench for his first championship appearance since 2006.
Armagh: P Hearty, A Mallon, F Bellew, F Moriarty, B Donaghy (0-1), A O’Rourke (0-1), C McKeever, P McGrane, K Toner, C Vernon, P McKeever (0-1, f), M O’Rourke, S McDonnell (0-3, 3f), R Clarke (0-3), S Kernan (1-2).
Subs: A Kernan for Donaghy, B Mallon (0-1) for McKeever, T Kernan for Vernon, P Duffy for S Kernan
Down: B McVeigh, L Howard, D McCartan, D Rafferty, A Carr (0-6, 6 f), L Doyle, P Murphy, D Gordon (0-1), J Colgan (0-1), R Murtagh (0-1), A Rodgers, D Hughes (0-1), J Clarke, B Coulter, R Sexton.
Subs: K McKernan for Doyle, P McComiskey (0-1, f)for Clarke, J McGovern for Sexton, S Kearney for Murtagh.
Wides: Armagh 9, Down 10
Armagh: M O’Rourke (2), B Donaghy
Down: J Colgan, D McCartan, S Kearney
Red cards: M O’Rourke (Armagh)
Referee: J McQuillan (Cavan)