Gerard O'Kane

GERARD O’KANE: A final of the highest quality

I COULD easily be writing this column and replacing the words Derry and Armagh such was the paper-thin difference between the sides on Sunday past.

Nearly 100 minutes of action could not separate the two teams and it eventually came down to the lottery that is penalties. Without going into the whole debate of the rights or wrong of penalties, personally I don’t mind penalties being used to settle a game if a match has to be decided on the day.

On Sunday in Clones, the two teams went at it hammer and tongs and threw everything they had at it. They were bound to be physically and emotionally spent after the game had finished. As a supporter being at the game it was draining so to be on the pitch and involved in the heat of the battle would have been exhausting to say the least.

In some quarters, there seemed to be a lack of appreciation of the quality on show on the day. The quality was evident when I was at the game and even more so when I was able to watch it back again in the cold light of day.

Take the scores over the course of the 100 minutes. Look at the two points from Brendan Rogers in the first half, the two scores from Stefan Campbell when he was brought on, Ethan Rafferty’s two scores, the outside of the boot scores from Conor Glass and Ciaran Mackin and I have not even mentioned some of the colossal points from Rian O’Neill and Shane McGuigan.

There was an abundance of scores, all kicked under the most intense of pressures to rival any game. Derry themselves also manufactured four fisted points from McGuigan, McKinless, Loughlin and Murray. If you rewatch them, the three latter scores all involved the sharpness of hands and movement from the players, again all under intense pressure. After this, add in the defending of Eoin McEvoy, some brilliant tackling and a great block from a Murnin shot.

The now customary touch-tight defending from Chrissy McKaigue is an art in itself, the quick hands in and hands out approach, to always keep an attacker on the outside and never let him get inside the cover.

This sounds like a tribute to the Derry players more so than Armagh in a game that finished level but what can be said about Conor Glass that has not already been said? It’s no coincidence that the upturn in fortunes over the last 24 months for both Glen and Derry has coincided with his return from Australia. He is what they describe as a clutch player, always delivering the big moments at the right times.

It is not a case of happening to be in the right place at the right time just by luck. He just makes everything he does look so effortless and his decision making and discipline into the bargain is of the highest quality.

There is so much to enjoy about this Derry team. Some 47 years had passed since Derry won their one and only back-to-back Ulster Championships so these lads have forever etched their name into Derry history.

As for Armagh, it will take a few days to get over this one. The game literally was 50-50 and although Derry led for the most part of normal time, this was due to a goalkeeping error giving them a bit of breathing space and Armagh battled back well to make this an even contest.

Indeed, in extra-time, when they were a point up, had Jarly Óg Burns had opted for goal and it came off putting them four up, there is a fair chance it would have been lights out for Derry. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and no one can predict what would have unfolded after that.

They were still two points up in the last four minutes of extra time and Derry battled back to go one up so its hard to know, but it might be a fair assessment that a forward thinking player receiving that ball might have opted to go for goal.

Another bit of regret might be the decision not to start Stefan Campbell.

Each game can be treated on its own merits and I have to confess I only ever see mostly highlights of Armagh games, but every time I do see them, Stefan always looks dangerous and one of Armagh’s better performers.

He came on the pitch in the 40th minute and kicked two points thereafter and was fouled for the free at the end to equalise.

Rian O’Neill was the only Armagh forward to score from play, kicking great efforts off either foot so having Campbell there from the start would have given Derry a fair bit more to think about.

There is not much to be levelled at either team by way of a criticism – sometimes the dice just doesn’t fall for you and unfortunately for Armagh this is how the game ended on Sunday.

It now seems like an anti-climax moving forward into group stages where only four teams will be eliminated.

Derry are at home to Monaghan on Saturday week but it is hard to get excited about this match this week and given it is not knockout by nature and there is a fair degree of predictability in the groups.

In the next four weeks, it will take something really special to try to match the atmosphere experienced at Clones on Sunday.

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