Under considerable pressure for most of the first half with class act Jamie Clarke creating havoc in the Armagh full-forward-line, Longford were extremely fortunate to be trailing by just three points at the break (2-5 to 1-5) and while the visitors to the Athletic Grounds on Saturday evening last proceeded to produce a better performance on the changeover some very poor finishing led to their eventual downfall in Division 2 of the National Football League.
Apart from landing a couple of scoring attempts straight into the arms of the opposing keeper Philip McEvoy, Longford were guilty of kicking a total of eight wides in the second half (including two frees) while their cause was certainly not helped by Sligo referee Michael Duffy who denied the midlanders a possible penalty in the closing stages of the game .
With six minutes remaining and a goal separating the sides (2-7 to 1-7), Sean McCormack was impeded on the edge of the Armagh square but there was no whistle from referee Duffy who failed to award even a free in front of the posts and the home county launched an immediate counter-attack which yielded a killer goal from substitute Tony Kernan to leave Longford six points down and apparently dead and buried.
Jamie Clarke played a great ball into another replacement Brian Mallon and while his close range shot was blocked down the rebound broke kindly for Kernan who finished his gift chance to the net. But resolute Longford showed a lot of character in recovering quickly from this shattering blow and after Sean McCormack converted a couple of frees in quick succession the same player was involved in the own goal conceded by Armagh in the 69th minute.
In his attempt to pick out Francis McGee, the effort from McCormack ended up with the ball deflecting off Armagh defender Declan McKenna into the back of the net as Longford were thrown a late lifeline with just the minimum of margins separating the sides, 3-7 to 2-9.
But the northern opposition did not panic in the tense and exciting finish and clinched a hard earned victory when Tony Kernan pointed a ‘45’ in stoppage time after the dangerman Jamie Clarke had a shot blocked wide in a goal attempt.
After also suffering narrow defeats in the previous setbacks against Wexford and Westmeath in the so competitive Division 2, Longford are not experiencing much luck in their quest for survival and are now in serious relegation trouble with four more tough games to come against Galway (home), Derry (away), Laois (home) and Louth (away) in the coming weeks.
Rooted at the bottom of the table, pointless Longford must beat Galway (who drew with Westmeath in Tuam last weekend) at Glennon Brothers Pearse Park on Sunday next to have any realistic hope of avoiding an immediate return to Division 3 and are clearly lacking in confidence at the moment with so many scoring chances being squandered and which has cost them very dearly indeed.
At least there was some good news for manager Glenn Ryan with the return of Paul Barden to the team while David Barden, Colm P Smyth and Niall Mulligan have also recovered from their respective injuries and were all brought on in the second half as Longford improved considerably in making a brave bid to get something from the game against Armagh.
While showing an obvious lack of sharpness and who kicked three wides in the first half, Paul Barden played a brilliant ball into Francis McGee for the Longford goal in the 10th minute while the Clonguish man (out of action for a few months) had a shot cleared off the line by Armagh defender Gary McCooey in the 16th minute.
Paul did not appear for the second half and was replaced by his brother David, who was going through for a definite goal chance in the early stages of the second half but he was brought down in a very robust tackle by opposing defender Brendan Donaghy who was fortunate to get away with just a booking for a bad foul.
Claims for a penalty perhaps so close to the square but the referee (who issued several yellow cards in his general poor handling of the game and hit Longford with a few harsh decisions) awarded a free which was converted by Sean McCormack with three minutes gone on the changeover.
Soon after Armagh replied with a point from a free fired over by wing back Aaron Kernan, one of five Crossmaglen players making their return to the county colours and what a difference that made.
But there was no further score until the 57th minute with another Aaron Kernan free coming completely against the run of play as Longford missed chance after chance with the otherwise prominent Colm P Smyth shooting badly wide from close range when he seemed certain to score.
Longford went 25 minutes without getting a score in the second half and that is not good enough at this level. The famine was ended when Francis McGee landed a very good point from near the sideline in the 63rd minute and then the frantic finish materialised as the sides shared a total of 2-3 with Armagh fortunate enough to emerge victorious.
Throughout this entertaining encounter, it was Armagh who held a decisive edge at centrefield with their No. 8 James Lavery particularly impressive and Longford struggled badly in the first quarter of the contest in conceding a couple of goals in quick succession.
A wonderful piece of skill from the outstanding Jamie Clarke saw him weave his way through before placing the ball into the back of the net with a superb finish in the 6th minute and the Armagh magician worked his magic again three minutes later in putting Stefan Forker clean through for the second goal.
That left the home side in a comfortable 2-0 to 0-1 lead with Francis McGee landing a fine long range point for Longford in the 2nd minute and the same player grabbed a badly needed goal for the visitors in the 10th minute.
A hectic start, to say the least, and it could have been even worse for Longford as Forker (also a big threat in the full-forward-line) had another goal attempt blocked while Barry Gilleran made a very vital interception as Clarke attempted to put Caolan Rafferty clean through.
Keeper Damien Sheridan then dropped a dipping shot from Forker with Clarke waiting to pounce but the danger was cleared and Armagh added two points to their tally through Forker (17 mins) and Clarke (19 mins) to lead by 2-2 to 1-1.
Scores were then exchanged twice with Sean McCormack (frees in the 20th and 25th minutes) on target for Longford while Kevin Dyas and Forker (free) replied for Armagh who then increased their advantage to five points (2-5 to 1-3) when Clarke had little space but still managed to shoot over the bar in the 29th minute.
Longford managed to remain in contention with a brace of points from Sean McCormack (free and play) in the closing stages of the first half and there was a lot to admire about his second strike from a tight angle in the 35th minute.
McCormack and McGee were the only players to get on the scoresheet for the away side at the Athletic Grounds and the wild manner in which Longford continually pressed the self destruct button in their second half attacks was very frustrating to watch, much to the sheer dismay of their loyal supporters who made the trip to Armagh hoping for a change of fortune but it was not to be.
With the Leinster Championship clash against Dublin this Wednesday night, senior supremo Glenn Ryan decided to rest U-21 players Padraig McCormack and Robbie Smyth who were selected to start in the forward division against Armagh but both should be back in contention to face Galway in the National League on Sunday next.
ARMAGH: Philip McEvoy; Gary McCooey, James Donnelly, Stephen Finnegan; Aaron Kernan (0-2, frees), Brendan Donaghy, Ciaran McKeever; James Lavery, Stephen Harold; Caolan Rafferty, Stefan Campbell, Kevin Dyas (0-1); Jamie Clarke (1-2), Johnny Hanratty, Stefan Forker (1-2, one free).
Subs:- James Morgan for S Finnegan (25 mins); Declan McKenna (own goal) for G McCooey (47 mins); Tony Kernan (1-1, point from ‘45’) for J Hanratty (51 mins); Brian Mallon for S Campbell (51 mins).
LONGFORD: Damien Sheridan (Dromard); Dermot Brady (Longford Slashers), Barry Gilleran (Longford Slashers), Peter Foy (Cashel, transferring to Longford Slashers); Michael Quinn (Killoe Young Emmets), Kevin Diffley (Ballymahon), Shane Mulligan (Mullinalaghta St. Columba’s); John Keegan (Mullinalaghta St. Columba’s), Michael Brady (Longford Slashers); Bernard McElvaney (Ballymore), Donal McElligott (Mullinalaghta St. Columba’s), Aidan Rowan (Cashel); Francis McGee (Dromard, 1-2), Paul Barden (Clonguish), Sean McCormack (Killoe Young Emmets, 0-7, six frees).
Subs:- (Blood): Enda Dalton (St. Jude’s, Dublin) for S McCormack (8 mins); S McCormack for E Dalton (14 mins); David Barden (Clonguish) for P Barden (half-time); Colm P Smyth (Abbeylara) for K Diffley (half-time); Niall Mulligan (Longford Slashers) for J Keegan (58 mins).
Referee: Michael Duffy (Sligo).