ARMAGH 2-14 CAVAN 1-14
Richard Bullick at Inniskeen
Armagh ladies exorcised a few demons as they dug deep to come from four down at half-time and earn a place in the Ulster final with this deserved victory over former manager James Daly’s Cavan.
There was sheer Armagh joy in the Inniskeen sunshine on Sunday evening after Caoimhe Morgan’s Orchard heroes had displayed fantastic character to come away with the win which this side so badly needed.
Too often over the past couple of years Armagh have found themselves on the wrong side of the result in tight games and another defeat here would have been a devastating setback in spite of all the positive vibes coming from the Orchard camp.
Armagh hadn’t won a provincial championship match since the Ulster title triumph of 2014 under Daly but now they are back in the Clones showpiece on Sunday week against Donegal or Monaghan after getting the job done in a pulsating semi-final in front of an excellent crowd.
The image of Cavan’s last shot being blocked down by an orange sea of Orchard defenders summed up Armagh’s ferocious commitment on an evening they had also shown welcome opportunism and a ruthless streak at the other end during that second half.
Trailing by four at the break after failing to take several goal chances, Armagh got a flying start to the second period as they reeled off five scores in the opening six minutes to get their noses back in front.
Then two goals in the space of just over a minute in the last quarter when Cavan were reduced to 14 players by the sinbinning of corner back Joanne Moore for a cynical challenge on the magnificent Caroline O’Hanlon proved decisive in a game which had ebbed and flowed.
This was expected to be a cracking contest between teams which had drawn 2-14 apiece in February’s National League game before having their promotion hopes ended with agonisingly narrow defeats to Tipperary in the Division Two knockout stages.
Played out in perfect conditions for football, this tie didn’t disappoint as the lead changed hands on numerous occasions before Armagh made that conclusive surge, with Kelly Mallon and Aimee Mackin raising green flags in quick succession.
Lorraine McCaffrey and Fionnuala McAtamney’s team tagged on three points in the following four minutes courtesy of the imperious O’Hanlon and a second score of the evening each for impressive prospect Tiarna Grimes and the forceful Lauren McConville.
Aimee Mackin top-scored for a ninth Armagh match out of nine this year with 1-4 from play but the orangewomen weren’t over-reliant on the double All Star, who also hit eight of her team’s 12 wides to a total of nine by Cavan, as she finally got to taste victory in an Ulster Championship match in her fourth inter-county season.
Mallon scored 1-2 while O’Hanlon, who reclaimed the job of left-footed free-taker from Mackin, kicked four points, two of which were from play, supplemented by those two apiece for fellow midfielder Grimes and Crossmaglen’s McConville.
It was a wonderful weekend for the incomparable O’Hanlon who the previous afternoon had shone as her Manchester Thunder netball team beat British SuperLeague leaders Wasps Netball live on Sky Sports.
Skipper for that last Ulster title triumph, triple All Star O’Hanlon covered every blade of grass on the immaculate Inniskeen pitch while current captain Morgan, who incidentally led the team in their previous provincial final in 2010, was an inspirational presence for Armagh at the back with countless crucial interventions in defence and increasingly frequent forays forward.
From Morgan, who turns 35 next month, to young Grimes and another teenager just returning from injury, substitute Blaithin Mackin, Armagh had heroic contributions all over the field in the course of a great team effort.
The heat had little effect on evergreen stalwarts Sharon Reel, a warrior who sums up this side’s spirit, and fellow 34-year-old Mairead Tennyson, who were joined in the Orchard defence by a familiar face making a triumphant return to county colours.
Maebh Moriarty’s last Armagh match was as captain in the 2011 All Ireland qualifier defeat by Sligo and she has spent much of the intervening time in Australia, but the Clann Eireann legend rejoined the panel a couple of months ago and has worked tirelessly to get back up to speed.
She replaced Carrickcruppen’s Rebecca O’Reilly from the team which started April’s NFL semi-final and looked like she had never been away with a composed performance at the back which highlighted her astute footballing brain.
Moriarty’s club colleague Clodagh McCambridge was the only player under 30 in the Orchard defence but she has established herself as an increasingly influential figure in this team and made some storming runs to supplement her defensive work.
Tenacious corner back Sarah Marley showed why she was recently chosen in the NFL Division Two Team of the League and, having missed out on the victorious Ulster Championship campaign in 2014 through a broken ankle, she will particularly look forward to the forthcoming final.
Experienced campaigner Marian McGuinness, who typically put herself about before giving way to Dromintee’s Shauna Grey in the later stages, can now look forward to going back into work as a Cavan-based physio today (Tue).
The Orchard outfit’s first substitution had seen Blaithin Mackin make her return following thumb surgery at the expense of Fionnuala McKenna fairly early in the second half and she will be pushing hard for a starting place in the final.
Apart from coming out quickly for a crucial punch in the opening minute of the second half, Armagh goalkeeper Caroline O’Hare hadn’t a huge amount to do on the evening but, along with McCambridge, Grimes and the Mackins can now look forward to playing in her first Ulster showpiece.
Squad depth has significantly increased with the return to fitness of several players and the addition to the panel since the regular league games of Moriarty, Caoimhe Murray and Tanya McCoy followed by Aveen Donaldson and Armagh Minors duo Cait Towe and Megan McCann.
For now, Niamh Marley is restricted to the role of animated water-girl but this win will encourage the Lissummon powerhouse as she works towards a return following last November’s knee operation.
Cavan got the opening point after just 13 seconds on Sunday evening from Aisling Doonan, who added another a minute later, but she only got one more from play in the rest of the game to go with three frees.
A Mackin effort from wide left just failed to open the Orchard account but, when McKenna’s shot was blocked down after McCoy and O’Hanlon attacked from deep, McConville ran hard from Mallon’s 45 and won a free which O’Hanlon landed.
Bronagh Sheridan pointed for Cavan but Armagh almost scored a goal in the sixth minute, O’Hanlon hitting the post and Aimee Mackin’s rebound being saved by the keeper.
Aisling Sheridan and Aimee Mackin exchanged wides but Grimes got Armagh’s second score after McGuinness won a turnover in defence and O’Hanlon combined well with Mallon and McConville.
Aimee Mackin kicked a towering point on the turn and another good score a minute later before Doonan and Mallon traded frees, the latter well bought by O’Hanlon, ahead of the welcome water-break for the teams midway through the half.
McConville made a great run into the danger zone but dropped the ball on the keeper and a Cavan wide was followed by good pressure from Sarah Marley which made Aishling Sheridan’s shooting angle more difficult and she just hit the outside of the post high up.
Two missed goal chances by Aimee Mackin either side of a wide by the same player looked like they could be costly when Beth Farrelly McGee bundled home the rebound in the 27th minute after Aishling Sheridan’s shot was blocked.
With Bronagh Sheridan having pointed a few minutes before, that put Cavan a goal clear and, although O’Hanlon kicked a free won by Mackin after both teams spurned chances, Ulster midfielder Donna English pointed twice in injury-time.
Armagh had one more chance of a major right on the blow but Aimee Mackin’s shot rolled right across the face of goal and McConville, sliding in soccer style, just couldn’t poke it in at the far post so it was 0-6 to 1-7 at the break.
O’Hare’s alertness right at the start of the second half averted danger and Armagh quickly capitalised at the other end with points from Aimee Mackin, Mallon, a pumped up O’Hanlon, who also made several great runs, Mackin again and McConville in a real purple patch.
Doonan was wide with a potentially equalising free and although Aishling Sheridan did level the scores, Moore’s sinbinning was subsequently punished by Armagh even though Mallon couldn’t convert the resulting free and Aimee Mackin kicked a wide following big runs by Grimes and Tennyson.
English scored again and Doonan landed a good point either side of O’Hanlon missing a reasonably straightforward free but then came Mallon’s goal after Aimee Mackin hit the post and then the latter found the net herself in spite of being fouled.
O’Hanlon quickly added a point followed by a second of the game from Grimes, who was twice involved in the move and showed such composure for a young player who has been out injured for two months.
English hit her fourth point of the day but McConville cancelled it out with a good score after O’Hanlon had worked hard to win the ball, putting Armagh six ahead with four minutes of normal time remaining.
An Aishling Sheridan score sandwiched by a Doonan free and point from play halved the deficit and an Aimee Mackin miss kept Cavan within a goal but it never came and the Orchard celebrations at the final whistle showed how much this win meant to the Armagh team.
Avoiding first division duo Donegal and Monaghan made this a good draw on paper for both Armagh and Cavan but the Orchard crew won’t fear whoever wins this Sunday’s second semi in Omagh.
McCaffrey afterwards expressed delight that her hard-working group of players have finally seen some rewards for their efforts this season and now they can go forward with fresh hope and increased confidence after what will hopefully prove a transformative victory.
ARMAGH: C O’Hare; S Marley, M Moriarty, C Morgan (capt); S Reel, C McCambridge, M Tennyson; T Grimes (0-2), C O’Hanlon (0-4, 2f); M McGuinness, F McKenna, K Mallon (1-2, 1f); A McCoy, A Mackin (1-4), L McConville (0-2). Subs used: B Mackin for McKenna (39), S Grey for McGuinness (53).
CAVAN: E Baugh; R Doonan, L Fitzpatrick, J Moore; S Greene (capt), N Byrd, S O’Sullivan; C Dolan, D English (0-4); G McGlade, B Sheridan (0-2), B Farrelly-McGee (1-0); A Sheridan (0-2), A Doonan (0-6, 3f), C Smith. Subs used: S McKenna for Smith (47), A Comyn for Farrelly-McGee (52), A O’Reilly for B Sheridan (56).
Referee: Gavin Corrigan (Down).