Down won't be contesting this year's Linden Cup final.

Their dreams of making the New Year's Day showpiece were ruined in a nightmare semi-final at Deramore last Sunday when they conceded two early goals. It was a blow they never recovered from.

In fact, the match got off to an electrifying start with four goals in the opening eight minutes and while hockey anoraks were asking what was the record number of goals ever scored in a semi-final, none of the home supporters really cared in the end.

Down got off to the worst possible start and went a goal behind after just 58 seconds. They were punished for some awful defending which set the tone for that nightmare start to the game.

They did come more into it after that, but the Armagh 'keeper wasn't forced to make a save during the entire 70 minutes.

The loss of Aaron Minnis with a nasty eye injury and James Erskine's broken wrist on the eve of the semi-final didn't help things. But that said, the locals will look at what might have been if they hadn't conceded those early goals and made more of their set corner set pieces.

Down pipped Armagh for the Senior Two title in the final game of a thrilling league campaign last season and the men from the orchard county were out for revenge. They passed the ball better, were much fitter and looked hungrier during those vital opening minutes.

The locals were simply caught cold. The defenders were all over the place and Stewart Kirkland made them pay when he earned his side a short corner after a scintillating run ended with his stick being chopped in the penalty area. From the resultant set-piece, Kirkland was on hand to drill the ball into the net.

Down were keen to get back on level terms if they could and Sinclair White gave his side some hope when he made it 1-1 when a bullet short corner strike which flew into the net like a rocket. The goal should have been the launch pad for Down to start passing the ball and getting a grip on their men in the middle of the park. But within two minutes of making it 1-1, they found themselves 2-1 behind.

Armagh's relentless pressure on the right flank saw them rightly awarded a penalty stroke. Down 'keeper, Mark Johnston, blocked an initial shot from Clarke and when Croft fired the rebound goalwards, it struck Down skipper, Jeremy McCready on the leg and umpire Browne had no hesitation pointing to the spot. Up-stepped Ansley McRoberts who placed the ball high to Johnston's left to restore his side's advantage in the seventh minute to deflate the high expectations of the Down supporters who were left with their heads in their hands after eight minutes when Armagh made it 3-1.

The goal was simplicity itself, with the locals guilty of what can only be described as schoolboy defending. Armagh were awarded a free on the edge of the penalty area and the ball was slipped left to Julian Davidson. With Down players guilty of ball watching, Armagh's vice-captain had all the time in the world to take aim and fire his shot past Johnston.

Down were left with a mountain to climb at this stage and the fact they were not playing at all well did not give much hope to their supporters who were in agony on the sideline.

Alasdair Duff and Minnis combined to send White scampering away down the left wing but he was tackled just as he was about to drift into the penalty area to shoot on goal. A minute later, Minnis was struck in the face in a freak accident and had to be taken to hospital for treatment.

A ball drilled into the penalty area struck White's stick and roared up into Minnis' face. The damage was immediately apparent and he had to be taken to hospital.

A David Warnock reverse stick effort flew inches past Johnston's post in the 13th minute, while at the other end, Paul Tate wasted a free for Down just when they needed to get themselves back into the game. Gavin Ringland then blocked dangerman Croft before McCready had to produce a timely intervention to deny Davidson.

Hutton should have put Armagh 4-1 ahead with the goal at his mercy, but Johnston produced a brilliant stick save to deflect wide a shot which had "goal" written all over it.

Ringland had a glorious opportunity to make it 3-2 in the 20th minute after being teed up by Stephen Ferguson, but the Down man's rising shot flew past the wrong side of Foster's upright.

McCready and Lennon combined to thwart Croft again before Down were awarded their second penalty corner of the game in the 24th minute. The ball came out to White who took aim and fired, but his powerful shot went inches wide. Mark Elliott deflected a pass into the path of Ferguson who was unlucky not to score, while Ringland was forced to drop deep five minutes before the interval to to block Davidson.

With the half nearing the end, Tate saw his shot saved, but he didn't get enough pace on the ball to work the 'keeper who must not have believed how little he had to do over the course of the semi-final.

Matthew Russell should have made it 4-1 for Armagh in the 31st minute and the Tate set up White and while the latter side-stepped the 'keeper superbly, he lost his footing just as he was about to pull the trigger. Davidson then went close at the other end before McCready produced a superb tackle seconds before the half ended to deny Clarke what would have been a clear run on goal.

Down were keen to up the tempo in the second half and work the Armagh 'keeper and within a minute of the restart they made it 3-2 with a great goal. Tate was in the right place at the right time to drill the ball under the 'keeper's foot into the net and while he was credited with the goal, White got the slightest of touches to deceive the 'keeper.

At this point in the game, Down were playing their best hockey of the semi-final. They started finding their men with passes, thanks to the skills of Tate and the impressive Adam McKee in the middle of the park who proved why he must be a regular starter for the senior side.

White's penetrating run was ended in the 40th minute and when Duff needlessly lost possession a minute later, Clarke should have punished him, but he made a mess of his shot. Chris Lennon, who saw considerably more of the ball in the second half, picked out Elliott whose shot was deflected for a long corner.

Down were gambling at this stage, committing men forward in a bid to take something from the game. There was always the danger they would be caught on the break and that's what happened. However, Down's defenders will be asking why Croft was allowed to run past four of them across the top of the circle, before producing a brilliant reverse stick shot which saw the ball fly into the bottom corner of the net.

Gibson had a great opportunity to make it 4-3 when through on the 'keeper, but he didn't connect properly with his shot and the chance was lost. In the 50th minute, Down pressure was rewarded with a penalty corner, but White's radar was slightly off and another bullet short corner strike saw the ball flash past the outside of the post.

It was now make or break and McCready seized the upper hand in the 53rd minute, carrying the ball deep into the Armagh half, but he lost possession and when the ball was drilled back in the direction it came from, Philip Hutton beat then cruelly exposed Johnston to make it 5-2. It was effectively game over.

To their credit, Down continued to attack and Gibson had the consolation of scoring the goal-of-the-game in the 82nd minute. A brilliant pass from Ringland, who broke up an Armagh attack on the edge of his own penalty area. His ferocious pass was controlled in an instant by Gibson who beat his marker, headed for the penalty area and beat the 'keeper with a sublime reverse stick shot.

It was too little too late, but the goal gave heart to the locals who conceded a sixth goal when Warnock scored. Armagh could easily have added to their tally in the dying minutes, but Johnston stood defiantly in the way until the end.