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Armagh grabbed victory from the jaws of defeat only for Monaghan to do the same in a thrilling Ulster Championship semi-final battle against Monaghan at a scorched Pairc Esler.

Jemar Hall, Armagh and Monaghan's Aaron Mulligan.
Armagh's Jemar Hall is tackled by Monaghan's Aaron Mulligan. Photograph: Columba O'Hare/

Throughout a frenetic first half, Armagh’s point-scoring was superb but they repeatedly left the backdoor ajar and the Farneymen ran goal after goal through their defence. 

Conor McManus scored the first and then Jack McCarron seized on a misplaced kickout from debutant goalkeeper Shay Magill to bag the second. When McCarron set up Michael Bannigan to palm home the third, Monaghan led by seven points and although the outstanding Rian O’Neill replied with his fifth point of the game, Darren Hughes sliced through the Orchard rearguard with a simple one-two and beat Magill with a low drive that restored the gap to seven points and it was 0-14 to 4-9 at the interval.

Armagh tightened up defensively in the second half as Monaghan played a more conservative, possession-based game. 

The Orchard County matched Monaghan score for score but their hopes were dwindling when they trailed by seven points with 50 minutes gone. 

Then the game dramatically turned their way.

Rian O’Neill leapt to catch a Magill kickout and picked out substitute Conor Turbitt who bravely sent the ball into the net with a deft flick of his wrist and when Andrew Murnin added a point there was suddenly just three points between the Ulster rivals. 

Armagh grabbed the momentum and Ross McQuillan and Rian O’Neill both registered points before Tiarnan Kelly beat two Monaghan defenders and placed a shot past Rory Beggan to give Kieran McGeeney’s side a one-point lead.

Crowds were back in Pairc Esler, albeit a much reduced number. Photograph: Columba O'Hare
Crowds were back in Pairc Esler, albeit a much reduced number. Photograph: Columba O'Hare

Oisin O’Neill doubled his side’s advantage and it seemed certain that Armagh, with the wind in their sails, would kick on to a famous win.

But the game took another twist.

Nerveless Conor McManus, an injury doubt before the semi-final, kicked three consecutive frees to edge his side ahead in injury-time and then O’Hanlon added the insurance point to break Armagh hearts at the finish.

However, there is no doubt that this Armagh side is making progress and another season in Division One will certainly benefit young players like Rian and OIsin O’Neill, Jarly Og Burns, Conor Turbitt and Tiarnan Kelly who should be a force again in 2022.

Manager McGeeney summed up the year: “It was decent but there’s much more in them.” 

Meanwhile, Monaghan deserve great credit for battling back with such tremendous heart. The game was over-shadowed by the death of Monaghan U20 captain Brendan Óg Duffy who died in a two-car collision on Friday night just hours after he had captained his county to a semi-final victory of their own. The team wore black armbands at Pairc Esler.

Monaghan captain Ryan Wylie said: “I woke up this morning to the news and my heart sank.

Armagh's Andrew Murnin.
Armagh's Andrew Murnin. Photograph: Columba O'Hare

"When you see things like that, a young lad at the peak of his powers just after a great game and win, then everything just changes. It was great to get the result, but it is irrelevant and it puts everything in perspective.

"We gathered this morning and we were thinking of him. The last five minutes, that's the way Brendan Og would have played, with heart, and that was for him."

Monaghan: R Beggan (0-2 frees); K Duffy, C Boyle, R Wylie; K O'Connell, K Lavelle, R McAnespie; D Hughes (1-0), N Kearns (0-1); M Bannigan (1-1), A Mulligan, D Ward (0-2); C McCarthy, J McCarron (1-1), C McManus (1-6, 0-4 frees)

Substitutes: R Farrelly, K Hughes, K McMenamin, C Walshe, S Carey (0-1), F Kelly, S O'Hanlon (0-2), D Wylie, A Woods, B McBennett, D Malone.

Armagh: S Magill; J Morgan, A McKay, R Finn; C O'Hanlon (0-1), G McCabe, C Mackin (0-1); N Grimley (0-1), O O'Neill (0-3); J Hall, R O'Neill (0-6, 0-3 frees), J Og Burns (0-2); R Grugan (0-3), A Murnin, S Campbell (0-1)

Substitutes: R Grugan, C O'Neill (0-1), B Donaghy, C Turbitt (1-1), S Sheridan, P Burns, R Kennedy, A Forker, R McQuillan (0-1), B Crealey, T Kelly (1-0).

Ulster Senior Football Championship semi-final. Final score: Monaghan 4-17 Armagh 2-21

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