Damian McErlain praised the character of his Derry minor players after they weathered difficult conditions in Clones to overturn a five point deficit and remain on course to retain the Fr. Murray Cup.
The young Oak Leafers only led at opposing ends of the 60 minutes, Caolan Devlin’s late point seeming to win it before an excellent Armagh team rallied to force extra-time four minutes into injury time.
And, if the quarter-final victory over Tyrone was a chance for McErlain’s team to showcase their considerable football ability, Clones provided the opportunity to illustrate their resolve and they seized it.
Holding Armagh scoreless for the opening period of extra-time, two more points from second half substitute Devlin, who finished with 0-6, were sandwiched between a score from Feargal Higgins. That provided a platform for a lead Derry had worked too hard to let go. Devlin, with three more points, two from frees, Higgins and Paddy Coney put the icing on a victory that was more about attitude than ability as the Derry manager conceded.
“It was absolutely superb character, and you don’t know you have that until a day like today,” said McErlain. “The last day (against Tyrone) we were always in control, but today we had to dig deep and show some composure.
“Armagh were causing us great bother, as we knew they would, because they have great forwards who can take scores. It was all about boys getting their composure, and at 17, 18 years of age, to show that level of composure, in the rain, it was very, very pleasing.
It was absolutely superb character, and you don’t know you have that until a day like todayDamina McErlain
“We brought a number of subs on who freshened the thing up, that was the way the game went. We were able to use the full panel there to get us through.”
‘It’s a squad game’ often seems one of those meaningless phrases managers throw about to appease players not starting but Sunday was the perfect example of how a substitutes’ bench can win a game.
It wasn’t just the seven points from those coming off the bench, it was the impact and the change of momentum they provided that highlights how crucial the modern day panel is.
Of course, that requires a manager brave enough to identify an issue and act quickly to address it. But, in McErlain, Derry have that man.
It had been a difficult opening half for the Oak Leafers against an Armagh team intent on knocking them off their perch as champions. And, in Rian O’Neill and Jason Duffy, the Orchard County had two players capable of hurting any side.
Armagh fully deserved their 0-7 to 0-3 half-time lead. Derry did not settle in the opening half and were struggling in front of the posts despite good scores from Paddy Quigg and Eoghan Bradley.
That changed in the second half and a Coney goal was the game’s pivotal score. Set up by another substitute, Seamus Higgins, and Conor Doherty, Coney needed two attempts to beat Armagh keeper Michael Nugent but his goal proved a defining moment, bringing the deficit back to 0-8 to 1-3.
It may not have been, though, had Ben McKinless not pulled off superb saves from Eoghan McDonnell and danger man O’Neill.
Armagh still managed to stretch their lead out to four again but the tide was turning.
Five points without answer from Eoghan Bradley, Dungiven’s Higgins’ twins and a brace from Devlin edged Derry in front as the game ticked into injury time.
Armagh, however, showed they possessed plenty of character of their own with an equaliser from Cathair McGeary which would have broken weaker teams than Derry.
And, so, to extra-time. Both sides had won and lost the game over the course of the previous hour with players tiring on the wide open spaces of St. Tiernach’s Park. It came down to desire and Derry proved they are not about to let their Ulster title slip without a fight.