by Richard Bullick
Joint manager Lorraine McCaffrey will be defending an impeccable record when her Armagh ladies side meet title holders Donegal in this Sunday’s Ulster final at Brewster Park (3.45pm).
Reigning provincial champions Donegal will undoubtedly be regarded as favourites after defeating fellow first division team Monaghan in emphatic fashion by 3-17 to 1-9 at Healy Park on Saturday evening, ending a run of 10 successive finals for the Farney women.
Indeed the only other occasion on which Monaghan haven’t made the decider this century was when they were beaten in the 2007 semi-final by an Armagh team managed by McCaffrey, Hayley Boyle and Jacqui Clarke.
In fact, Armagh have never lost an Ulster Senior Championship match when McCaffrey has been part of their management team and the Fermanagh native will feel at home with this season’s showpiece taking place at the Enniskillen venue.
With the Ernemen having reached the corresponding provincial final, it could prove a dream double for McCaffrey, but for now her full focus is on trying to plot what would be the third Ulster title triumph she has been behind with Armagh ladies.
Although openly proud of her Fermanagh roots, at this stage McCaffrey surely qualifies as an honorary Armagh woman given her significant contribution and exceptional commitment to the Orchard cause.
In McCaffrey’s first spell sharing the Orchard helm, previously unfancied Armagh made their big breakthrough by winning the county’s first two Ulster titles in their first two senior seasons, overcoming Monaghan and Tyrone in the finals of 2006 and 2007 respectively.
That management team stood down at the end of the latter season but, after a full decade away, McCaffrey returned to take the Orchard reins last winter along with Armagh’s All Star nominee goalkeeper from the 2006 All Ireland final, Fionnuala McAtamney.
Until two weekends ago, Armagh hadn’t won a single provincial championship match since the famous upset of Monaghan in the 2014 final at a packed Clones, but they came from four down at half-time to see off former manager James Daly’s Cavan in a pulsating semi at Inniskeen.
“We hadn’t done ourselves justice in the first half, especially our conversion rate, but the players knew what they had to do and they really stepped up against strong opposition who weren’t going to make it easy for us,” reflects Lorraine.
“I’m delighted for the girls to be back in an Ulster final, for people have no idea of the effort they put in. Winning big games is what makes the effort worthwhile and hopefully their hard work will be rewarded again against a good Donegal side.
“Donegal are favourites and we respect them but there have been some good battles between the teams in recent years so I don’t think there’s any difficulty convincing the players that this is a winnable battle.
“We didn’t know who our opponents would be for the first week after winning the semi-final so that allowed us to focus on ourselves. It’s about believing, embracing the experience and producing the performance we’re capable of.
“Everyone’s genuinely looking forward to what is Armagh’s first final in four years and I’m sure the team will get great support as was the case for the semi-final and indeed down through the years “
McCaffrey and McAtamney have brought belief back into the Armagh set-up, tapping into the Orchard culture of hard work and honesty honed during the glory years of the mid-noughties. They’ve happy players full of fresh hope, energy, enthusiasm and enjoyment, even excitement.
Incidentally, had Monaghan came through the other semi, this Sunday’s showpiece would have been between two of only four counties in Ireland under female management, but instead Donegal will be the Orchard’s opponents at Brewster Park.
This will be the first time Armagh and Donegal have met in an Ulster final and indeed this Sunday’s opponents were only crowned provincial champions for the first time in 2015, but they have won the title twice in the last three seasons and will be formidable opponents.
The Orchard outfit inflicted the only two defeats suffered by Donegal throughout 2015, winning well in the NFL Division Two final after losing the regular league game and then just getting over the line in an epic All Ireland quarter-final a few months later.
But newly-promoted Donegal delivered a convincing victory over their former manager Sean O’Kane’s Armagh in his first game at the Orchard helm in NFL Division One at the start of last season and then produced a miraculous comeback in the Ulster semi-final at Greencastle.
Armagh had scored an unanswered 1-8 with the wind behind them in the first half but added only two more points after the break to eventually lose by four against opponents whose confidence was high on the back of reaching the Division One final.
This time, under new manager Maxi Curran, Donegal missed out on the NFL top four play-offs but they looked ominously strong against a Monaghan team missing Cora Courtney, with Caoimhe Mohan, Grainne McNally and Laura McEneaney also absent, but still packed with plenty of established stars.
Skipper Sharon Courtney, top-scorer Ellen McCarron, goal-scorer Niamh Callan, Ulster’s leading goalkeeper Linda Martin and Hazel Kingham have won club All Irelands with Donaghmoyne.
They have also enjoyed success in county colours with the likes of the trio of Emyvale McAnespies, Ciara, Aoife and Eimear, and their clubmate Therese Scott, while midfielder Muireann Atkinson made this season’s NFL Team of Division One.
After the teams exchanged opening points in Omagh, Monaghan cancelled out Eilish Ward’s fifth minute penalty with three successive scores but then Donegal notched 2-4 in a 12-minute spell, with their star forwards Geraldine McLaughlin and Yvonne McMonagle getting the goals.
It was 3-6 to 0-5 at the break and, although Callan netted for Monaghan after Donegal got two of the first three scores of the second half, Maxi Curran’s side posted nine of the game’s last 11 points to win by the exceptionally commanding margin of 14.
Donegal won without captain Karen Guthrie, who was attending her brother’s wedding, but she will be back alongside Katy Herron in midfield for the final, with the All Star Hegarty sisters, Ciara and Niamh, highly influential figures in the No 6 and No 11 jerseys respectively.
As well as that quartet in the engineroom and a top pairing up front, Donegal have other capable performers in the likes of Treasa Doherty, Deirdre Foley, Ward and Aoife McDonnell, who kicked three points in the semi.
However Armagh have vastly experienced defenders who have coped previously with Donegal’s attacking threat and plenty of forward fire-power of their own with Aimee Mackin complemented by the likes of Aoife McCoy, Lauren McConville, Kelly Mallon and Fionnuala McKenna.
As always the orangewomen will look to the incomparable Caroline O’Hanlon to dictate terms from midfield and McCaffrey and McAtamney have significant food for thought as they ponder their final line-up.
Blaithin Mackin has been a starter since coming into the panel at the start of 2016 and made a significant impact off the bench against Cavan on her return from injury but another comeback kid, Tiarna Grimes shone too, as did Maebh Moriarty in her first Armagh match in seven seasons.
That trio have put their hands up for starting spots, leaving other players like Marian McGuinness, who has established herself in the team again this season, looking over their shoulders in spite of frequently performing well.
Whoever misses out on the initial line-up will be valuable bench back-up along with Inniskeen sub Shauna Grey, Megan Sheridan, young Niamh Reel and Rebecca O’Reilly, who started all but one of Armagh’s eight games in this spring’s National League.
Armagh have an experienced, familiar look, but with several useful fresh faces since their last Ulster final appearance including Aimee Mackin, her younger sibling Blaithin and Lurgan girls Clodagh McCambridge and Grimes.
Along with captain Morgan and her sister Sarah Marley, who have previously picked up Donegal dangerwomen McLaughlin and McMonagle, Aimee Mackin and McCambridge are the only Armagh players to have been on the field for every minute this season so far.
Although the Cavan game was the first time Aimee Mackin had tasted victory in an Ulster Championship tie, she was Player of the Match against Donegal in two big games in her first season with Armagh, the 2015 NFL Division Two decider and All Ireland quarter-final respectively.
Already a double All Star, she has top-scored in all nine Armagh matches this season but reproached herself for hitting eight of the Orchard’s dozen wides in the Ulster semi in spite of registering 1-4 from play.
Armagh must convert a higher percentage of chances created against Donegal while containing the scoring threat of their potent opponents. Interestingly, McLaughlin got a great goal in the Monaghan match but her five Healy Park points were all from frees.
Donegal deserve to be branded favourites but Armagh were underdogs for all three games in their last successful Ulster Championship campaign, including coming from behind at half-time to beat this Sunday’s opponents in the Lisnaskea semi-final.
Many of the same players will be back on McCaffrey’s Fermanagh soil this weekend when Orchard fans will hope to banish bad memories of the recent men’s match at Brewster Park and a win would lift the sense of Armagh gloom which hurling and camogie misery have added to.