by Richard Bullick
Experienced campaigner Marian McGuinness insists Armagh ladies are ready to end a four-year Ulster Senior Football Championship famine for Orchard county teams when they face Cavan at Inishkeen this Sunday (6pm).
Avoiding first division sides Donegal and Monaghan makes this a good draw for the orangewomen and also their Breffni rivals, who have former Armagh manager James Daly at the helm.
Daly’s presence in the opposition dugout gives this tie an extra edge and the fact McGuinness has worked in Cavan as a physiotherapist for the past nine years is another added dimension for the Carrickcruppen player.
“With work and living down there at least some of the week, I’d know some of the Cavan girls quite well and obviously James is a familiar figure so this will feel like a real derby battle, but first and foremost both teams must see it as a great opportunity to make an Ulster final,” she says.
“Next Monday is a Bank Holiday in the south but it will still be a very different feeling going into work on the Tuesday depending whether we’ve won or lost. This is a big game for ourselves and Cavan and it should be a cracking contest.”
Neither the Armagh male nor female footballers have won a provincial championship match at adult level since 2014, the summer McGuinness and her colleagues claimed a surprise Ulster title in unforgettable fashion.
Fresh from promotion from the NFL’s third division, Armagh ladies reeled off a hat-trick of impressive victories over top tier teams Tyrone, Donegal and Monaghan to be crowned provincial champions for the first time in seven seasons.
Orchard captain Caroline O’Hanlon lifted the trophy in front of an estimated 22,000 spectators in a packed Clones for an Armagh team managed by Daly, who will be on the opposing side this weekend as the new Breffni boss.
Armagh have fallen at the first hurdle in each of the three intervening years, starting with Monaghan gaining revenge in the 2015 semi, in between the Orchard crew winning the NFL Division Two title and reaching the All Ireland last four for a second successive season.
The following season, having only narrowly missed out on the NFL Division One play-offs, Ronan Clarke’s ladies started as semi-final favourites against a Farney side which had struggled during the league.
But it was a Killyclogher horrow show as Armagh spectacularly capitulated and then last season there was Orchard heartbreak as Sean O’Kane’s side led Donegal 1-8 to no score at the interval of a wind-affected semi in Greencastle, only to be overhauled.
So Armagh have a point to prove in the provincial championship and, with only four teams at senior level, they are a tantalising 60 minutes of football away from what would be only the fifth Ulster final appearance in Orchard history.
“Those of us fortunate enough to be involved in 2014 have amazing memories but we’ve had a lean run in Ulster since and it’s definitely time for fresh success. This is a huge game for both teams, with a place in the final at stake,” says McGuinness.
“Someone remarked recently that Aimee Mackin hasn’t been on the winning side yet in an Ulster Championship match even though she has established herself as one of the top players in the country with two All Stars to her name already.
“That’s hard to believe but it shows we’re well overdue a win and everyone’s massively motivated for next Sunday. We were down having a look at the ground during the week, it’s an excellent venue, and I just can’t wait for the match itself.”
McGuinness was absent through injury when Armagh met Tyrone at the same stage of the competition in Inishkeen five years ago and, although at the heart of the triumphant run in 2014, circumstances mean she has been a peripheral figure during the years of famine since.
An ankle injury in training after that Ulster final kept her out of the subsequent bid for All Ireland glory and its lingering legacy ruined the following season, which contributed to her taking a year out of county football in 2016, getting involved instead in volunteering overseas.
Spending time in India provided perspective and she returned to the county set-up last season, eventually regaining her starting spot at wing back for what was a truncated Championship campaign, but the energetic, versatile 32-year-old has been a real revelation this year.
“In spite of being a physio in my professional life, I tried to come back too soon from the injury and paid the price. I never really got going in 2015 and after that I stepped away from county football because I needed to regather myself.
“By nature I’m a competitive person and it’s extremely frustrating when you’re restricted by injury or not even getting to play. So rather than just struggle on or hang up the boots I decided to take a year out and hopefully come back with fresh hunger and renewed drive.”
However by the end of last season she was one of a group of experienced players whose ongoing commitment to the Orchard cause was likely to depend upon who would be managing Armagh in 2018.
“County football is a big commitment and, especially for older players who have been putting in the effort for many years, I think having a management team who could enthuse and inspire confidence was a significant factor in whether to continue or retire.
“Obviously I’d played under Lorraine (McCaffrey) and Fionnuala (McAtamney) at club level for Carrickcruppen and worked with them both in the county set-up previously, so their appointment was welcome and that positive sense was reinforced when we sat down with them.”
No retirements among Armagh’s half dozen 30-somethings last winter was a vote of confidence in the new joint managers and McGuinness says the mood in the Orchard camp is excellent in spite of the first phase of the season not quite going to plan.
“I saw (Armagh team-mate) Sarah Marley quoted last week about how much she was enjoying her football this season and I think an awful lot of the players would say the same. The managers are giving us good guidelines while also allowing us to express ourselves.”
Two disastrous second half spells saw Armagh’s NFL Division Two campaign begin and end with agonisingly narrow defeats to Tipperary, who secured a second successive promotion, and the orangewomen were also pipped by a Waterford winner in injury-time in Lurgan.
So Armagh’s goal of returning to the top flight of league football at the first attempt didn’t materialise but McGuinness is adamant Armagh’s Championship chances haven’t been harmed in the process.
“We wanted to win Division Two and felt we were capable of that, so failing to reach the final was a disappointment, but I don’t think there are any fundamental deficiencies we can’t rectify for the summer, starting with this Cavan clash.
“There has been healthy reflection since the league campaign, players taking personal and collective responsibility for what went wrong. No disrespect to the other teams but, to a large extent, we’ve only ourselves to blame.
“We looked genuinely good at times this spring but when the heat came on our plans just seemed to go out the window and we were punished severely. I think those experiences underline the importance of sticking to the underpinning plan while also, within reason, playing with freedom.
“But the league’s gone, it’s all about Championship now and there’s a burning desire within the playing group to do something this summer because the last two have been a real anti-climax in spite of us being a first division side.”
Even though Armagh’s hopes of promotion were dashed, McGuinness can take much personal satisfaction from the first phase of the season, having nailed down a starting spot at wing forward, where she played in the All Ireland Intermediate title triumph of 2012, and chipped in with a significant scoreboard contribution.
She even eclipsed her illustrious buddy O’Hanlon in the scoring stakes, finishing ahead of her in the Orchard charts after the regular league games with 1-3 to 0-5, albeit the triple All Star did miss the last three fixtures while away at the Commonwealth Games.
“I know the calibre of Fionnuala and Lorraine from working with them at club level and trust them to know what’s best for the team. I’d love to start and finish every game but will put everything into any job I get.
“Playing wing forward regularly this season has allowed me to work on my fitness, confidence on the ball and just generally applying myself fully to support those around me in what is a very potent forward division.
“I don’t mind doing the dirty work and in this team a brave block is as appreciated as a point but getting a few scores for Armagh is a nice change,” admits McGuinness, whose early goal in the Athletic Grounds in February laid the foundations for a convincing victory over traditional rivals Tyrone.
“It has also led to a bit of banter with my best friend. Caroline has been my biggest source of support in football since I was 15 and I think she’s even happier about it than me, to be honest. Sure I’ll not be threatening her career record anyway!” says McGuinness, with a self-deprecating chuckle.
“I think our team has great attacking capacity and opponents can’t just think about trying to contain Aimee as we’ve other forwards well capable of doing damage. As long as we play well across the board and create enough chances, the scores should come.”
A typically cheery character, McGuinness seems especially enthusiastic as she contemplates this Cavan clash because she’s evidently enjoying her football this season and is convinced there’s much more to come from the team.
From that Ulster title triumph, Marian knows how sweet success can be but has also been through enough in recent years to really appreciate each chance which comes her wear to wear that orange jersey in big games.
“We’ve Niamh Marley training with us again now, six months after her cruciate op, and seeing how hard she’s working just to get back is uplifting for those of us fortunate enough to be fit at present.
“I know what it’s like being injured during the season and we want to give the rehabbing players like Niamh and Tiarna Grimes a sense they’ll have something good to come back to this summer.”
The first step is getting to the Ulster final, which means overcoming Cavan, and McGuinness knows former Orchard boss Daly will have the Breffni women well primed.
“James is a good manager and we know he’ll have Cavan well structured, disciplined and motivated for this match. They’ll be ready for us, but we know what they have too. We watched their league final together on television earlier this month during a team bonding day.
“Both teams will be keen to bounce back from losing out to Tipperary in the league and knowing we’re playing for a place in the Ulster final is fantastic incentive.
“The Armagh set-up is a happy place to be at present, we’re well prepared and believe we’ve got the ability to do well this summer but there’s no point talking ourselves up unless we deliver where it counts, on the field, and that’s the exciting challenge everyone’s really relishing,” she concludes.