Armagh 2-17 Wicklow 2-07

All-Ireland SFC Qualifiers Round 1B

A spate of missed frees cost Wicklow dearly this afternoon at the Athletic Grounds in Armagh as Johnny Magee's charges failed to capitalise on a strong showing and fell short of getting their noses ahead of Armagh at any stage, before succumbing to a ten-point defeat thanks to two late goals from Jamie Clarke.

A scrambled first-half strike from John McGrath kept Wicklow in the contest, but Armagh pulled away to lead by 0-09 to 1-02 at the interval, before Wicklow played some of their best football in the tie in the third quarter.

James Stafford’s major, just a minute after his introduction, kept the tie alive and reduced the gap to the bare minimum with 15 minutes to play.

However, that was to be the last score from Wicklow as Armagh closed out their win thanks to two wonderful Ethan Rafferty points and Clarke’s brace.

The opening ten minutes gave the 6,000 crowd no indication of the free-scoring contest that was to follow as Andrew Murnin registered the only point from play.

While Wicklow racked up wides from frees, Armagh’s misses were of varying degrees – shots dropped short and off the upright, while their one wide was a goal attempt by Aidan Forker that sailed past the near post after Robert Lambert inexplicably punched a high ball with no attackers around him.

Two majestic Jamie Clarke points gave Armagh a little breathing space as the Orchardmen moved into a 0-05 to 0-01 lead, but they failed to find the net and really kill off Wicklow, coming closest when an astute diagonal pass from Clarke was fisted onto the post by the diving Michael McKenna.

Wicklow went for the long ball option early and often and it bore fruit in the 25th minute when John McGrath fielded a high Darren Hayden delivery and scuffed his shot, sending it bouncing over the onrushing Matthew McNiece.

The Garden County duly drew level, but a couple of key moments prevented them from taking the lead. Ciarán Hyland looked to have secured a turnover against Tony Kernan but just failed to get the ball under control with Brendan Donaghy tackling, just when it looked as if a path to goal was opening up for Wicklow once again.

Then a woeful attempt at a score from John McGrath bounced and was collected on the Armagh goal line, only to be worked up the field and sent over the bar by a glorious hook shot from Clarke.

Armagh led 0-09 to 1-02 at the interval but Wicklow produced some excellent football in the third quarter, culminating in Stafford’s toe-poked goal on 55 minutes.

Again Darren Hayden was the provider for the Garden County with a high, hanging ball that gave Stafford and Charlie of Vernon plenty of time to wrestle for position in the small square. The Wicklow man got the edge and half-volleyed the ball in, reducing the lead to a single point, 0-14 to 2-07.

Stafford’s goal highlighted a potential weakness in the Armagh defence, but feeding the big man was dependent on Wicklow winning sufficient possession in the middle third and in this regard they fell short late on, allowing Armagh to take over the battle for restarts and monopolise possession.

Ethan Rafferty added two gorgeous strikes to stretch the home lead once again, before Clarke’s late burst settled the tie and sent the Armagh supporters away happy - albeit with niggling concerns about their side’s discipline in the tackle, and their vulnerability to an old fashioned high ball.

However, any future opponent of Armagh in the Qualifiers could not help but be impressed with the sublime scoring from Clarke, Ethan Rafferty and Michael McKenna over the course of the 70 minutes.

Armagh: M McNeice; A Mallon, C Vernon, S Connell; J Morgan, B Donaghy, M Murray; C Rafferty (0-02), E Rafferty (0-04, 0-01 free, 0-01 ’45); S Campbell (0-01), M McKenna (0-03), A Forker (0-01); T Kernan, A Murnin (0-02), J Clarke (2-04).

Subs: D McKenna for Forker (52), M McConville for Connell (52), C O’Hanlon for Kernan (58), S Forker for Campbell (68), G McParland for Murnin (69)

Wicklow: R Lambert; A Murphy, R O’Brien, C Hyland (0-01); D Healy, P McLoughlin, M Kenny; A McLoughlin, D Woods; S Kelly, N Gaffney, D Hayden (0-01); P Cronin (0-04, 0-02 frees), T Kelly, J McGrath (1-00).

Subs: C McGraynor (0-01) for Gaffney (HT), P McWalter for Kenny (HT), J Stafford (1-00) for Woods (54), D Odlum for McGrath (55), P Cunningham for Kelly (55), B McCrea for Cronin (68)

Referee: Eddie Kinsella (Laois).