Derry vs Armagh Derry's Conor Glass, left, and Ben Crealey of Armagh [Inpho/Bryan Keane]

Armagh surprise puts Derry on the brink

Armagh 3-17; Derry 0-15

Three losses in a row -- to Donegal in the Ulster Championship, then to Galway and now Armagh in the All Ireland series has seen Derry’s season plunge from the apex of league champions to possible early exit by mid-June.

What was seen originally as a blip while changing into championship gears now appears to be a case of the wheels coming off the Oak Leaf vehicle being driven by Mickey Harte.

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After the way Armagh totally dismantled them in their own backyard at Celtic Park on Sunday, Derry now  are in do-or-die territory with a last game to garner points against Westmeath, who themselves were unlucky to go under to Galway in Mullingar.

Jim McGuinness, the Donegal boss, was the first to notice how the Derry defense could be easily unhinged at certain moments. Surely we thought, Harte and his backroom team will have all that ironed out by now?

They set off on the right foot on Sunday but by game’s end they had conceded a whopping seven goals in their last two championship games - four against Donegal and three against Kieran McGeeney’s chargers.

The Orchard County is now guaranteed a top-two finish and if they manage to beat Galway in their last group game, they will get a by to the quarter-finals without worries about partaking in the preliminaries.

A bright start from the home side gave way to defensive calamity in a game that was over long before the final whistle.

For Derry, it seems as if their endeavor to win the McKenna Cup and Division 1 of the National League has left them running on fumes. Most of the 11,000 crowd felt that the team would find their form in this home match and with three changes in the line-up, it was hoped the freshening  up of the side would also pay dividends.

Emmett Bradley, Conor Glass (mark) and a free by sharpshooter Shane McGuigan gave Derry the perfect start as they raced into a 0-3 to 0-1 lead after only six minutes. Little did we know that would be as good as it was to get for Harte's team as a horror show was about to unfurl.

Careless passing and easy turnover as well as pockets of space in their defense told Armagh there were scores there for the taking… and they didn’t have to be asked twice.

A breakdown in possession led to a Ross McQuillan gift goal after 13 minutes. With men ahead of the ball and passes going astray, the losers had a few more scores before Conor McCluskey was dispossessed by Tiernan Kelly in the middle of the park.  Armagh had sprung the trap and a host of their players sprinted forward and it was left to Oisin Conaty to set up for the first goal.

Derry answered with a point but within five minutes Odhran Lynch was retrieving the ball from his own net for a second time. Once again Derry got ahead of the ball and when it was turned over Conor Turbitt slotted home the easiest of goal to put his side 2-3 to 0-4 in front.

Once again all Derry had in answer was a Diarmuid Baker point as Armagh’s confidence grew to lead by 2-8 to 0-6 at the interval… a scoreline few could have predicted.

Harte’s pep talk at the interval had immediate effect as his side kicked over a series of fine points to cut the eight point deficit back to five thanks to the accuracy of Glass, McGuigan (free) and Ethan Doherty.

The signs were there still in defense that all was not well and only good fortune prevented a turnover from Ethan Doherty’s pass ending up nestling in the net. They hadn’t long to wait for the third green flag to arrive and it came from the McGuinness tactical spot with a long kick out.

Ross McQuillan made a brilliant catch and immediately put Rian O’Neill through on goal and the star turn of the side lashed home to restore Armagh’s eight point advantage again.

It was an emphatic answer to whatever spirit had mustered in the second half and although the likes of Glass tried to rally his forces, there was no way back after a black card for the already booked Ciaran McFaul meant Derry had to fight to the finish with only 14 players on duty.

From a position of being one of the top three teams in the country beside Dublin and Kerry, Derry now have to hope they can snatch a third place spot against Westmeath  and with that they will face an away play-off in the preliminary quarter-finals. It means that they will be out for four weeks in a row, something that could get them back on track. Truth is though they are only a shadow of their former selves and need a new defensive plan before their goals against tally reaches double figures.

Armagh: B Hughes; B McCambridge (0-1), A McKay, P McGrane; J McElroy, C Mackin, A Forker (0-1); R O'Neill (1-1), B Crealey; S Campbell, R Grugan (0-1), T Kelly (0-2); O Conaty (0-2), N Grimley (0-1), C Turbitt (1-4, 0-1f, 0-1m) Subs: R McQuillan (1-0) for  McGrane (blood sub) 10-62 mins; J Duffy for  Campbell, 49 mins; O O'Neill (0-1) for R O'Neill, 55mins; G McCabe for Forker, 55mins; S McPartlan (0-1) for  Crealey, 65 mins; A Nugent (0-1f) for Turbitt, 66 mins; D McMullen for Mackin, 73 mins.

Derry: O Lynch; C McCluskey, C McKaigue, D Baker (0-1); C Doherty, D Gilmore, E Bradley (0-1);  C Glass (0-3, 0-1m), B Rogers; E Doherty (0-1), E Mulholland, P Cassidy (0-1); N Toner, S McGuigan (0-7, 0-4f), Murray (0-1) Subs: C McFaul for E Bradley, 41 mins; D Cassidy for N Toner, 48 mins;

Ref: D Coldrick (Meath).