July 26th, 2018

As the woman who scored the only Armagh goal against Cork in the Orchard’s sole All Ireland final appearance to date, Mairead Tennyson is still the obvious, if slightly cliched, choice for interview whenever the orangewomen meet the Rebelettes in a big game.

by Richard Bullick

Unless and until the Orchard crew return to the September showpiece and actually lift the Brendan Martin Cup, that iconic Croke Park showdown with Cork in 2006 will retain a special place in Armagh memories and there’s no name more synonymous with it than Tennyson.

Then in their first ever season in the senior ranks, Armagh went into that All Ireland final as rank outsiders against seemingly invincible champions Cork, but gave the odds-on favourites an almighty scare before losing by an agonising single point.

The devastation of being pipped at the post set against the team’s superb performance and the thrill of scoring a stunning goal at headquarters means Mairead’s memories of that epic Cork clash are bitter-sweet, but she still gets asked to relive that stunning goal.

“Mags McAlinden gave me the ball and I remember my defender left me and space opened up.  There was a big red jersey coming at me, so I side-stepped, just hit it without looking up and it went in the net.  It was a magical moment but the memories would be much more special if we’d won,” reflects the then half forward.

Tennyson’s goal had put the underdogs five points up by the end of the first quarter after a storming start but the dream died thanks to a predictable Cork comeback and Armagh not getting the breaks their heroic display deserved.

It finished 1-7 to 1-6 to the reigning champions and exceptional Cork went on to win another nine All Irelands in the next 10 years, but Tennyson and Armagh are still searching for the holy grail and an historic first triumph.

She is one of only four players who took the field that day who will feature again as players this Saturday and, with Cork’s entire original golden generation gone now, the quartet are all on the Armagh side.

Goal-scorer Tennyson is joined by two players whose exploits in 2006 were rewarded with All Stars, midfield maestro Caroline O’Hanlon and the then Caoimhe Marley (now Morgan), in spite of the corner back being harshly sinbinned at Croke Park, plus Maebh Moriarty.

Having broken her leg earlier that year, Moriarty, who has returned to the Orchard ranks this summer after an absence of six seasons which included a long spell in Australia, won her race against time and made it onto the Croke Park pitch towards the end as a sub.

All four of those 2006 survivors have since captained Armagh while that team’s goalkeeper Fionnuala McAtamney, who like Tennyson made that season’s All Stars shortlist, and one of the joint managers back then, Lorraine McCaffrey, now share the Orchard helm.

Armagh were watching closely as their fellow TG4 Senior Championship Group Two teams met at St Brendan’s Park in Birr on Saturday, quite a coincidence considering the venue’s great resonance for Tennyson as the scene of the second significant chapter of her history with Cork.

Having dropped down to the Intermediate ranks for 2012, Armagh immediately won the second tier title and, as they had seven years earlier, found themselves facing Cork in the All Ireland, albeit an August qualifier in Birr rather than the Croke Park showpiece, in their first senior season.

Again the Orchard upstarts only lost by the minimum margin in another agonising near miss, but one lasting legacy of that match is Tennyson’s successful conversion from useful forward to tenacious corner back.

Missing several regulars at the back, Armagh moved Tennyson to the last line of defence for the second half after reportedly passing out in the changing rooms at half-time, though she suggests the reality was a little less dramatic.

She’d been based in Britain for a few years with work but returned in time to feature in the latter stages of Armagh’s All Ireland Intermediate title-winning run in 2012, including coming on in the decider defeat of Waterford at Croke Park.

“Being part of that was a bonus but, although I was there fully for the following season, I wasn’t at the standard I needed to be and was just about being picked in the forwards.  I ended up playing at the back in the second half against Cork because we were short there.

“I didn’t actually faint as such at half-time, just felt light-headed.  It was a hot day and the changing rooms in Birr are especially small and cramped.  Mind you it could have easily looked like I was still out of it in the second half for I hadn’t a notion what I was doing as a defender – I’m sure Caoimhe Morgan wanted to kill me,” laughs Tennyson self-deprecatingly.

Mairead must have impressed Caoimhe though because, when the new season came around and, still wanting to be a forward, she sought out shooting coaching, her old mate Morgan told her not to bother because her future lay in defence!

Accepting proved a good decision as Mairead’s defending helped the Orchard outfit to a famous Ulster Senior Championship success and earned her the All Star No 2 jersey in recognition of some outstanding displays by the feisty Silverbridge livewire.

Her absolute brilliance in the All Ireland quarter-final demolition of Laois still sticks in the mind, though she damaged her shoulder badly late on and had a real race to be fit to face Cork in the semi.

She won that battle but Armagh found themselves on the receiving end of a superb performance from Cork, with their manager Eamonn Ryan admitting that previous Orchard displays against them had got his team exceptionally pumped up for the clash.

So Cork ended Armagh’s season for a second year running by winning 5-16 to 2-11 and went on to retain their All Ireland title, but Tennyson still has amazing memories of celebrating the Ulster title triumph in a packed Clones and receiving her All Star at the Dublin banquet in November.

Yet the year might have turned out very differently given that she had actively contemplated an even more radical conversion, no pun intended, than switching from forwards to backs on the gaelic football field.

In the spring she missed a National League game to try out, again pardon the pun, for the IRFU’s new professional programme for rugby sevens, which had the carrot of contracts to travel the world playing for your country, with the ultimate aim of qualifcation for the Rio Olympics.

It’s ironic that we were recalling this at the weekend, less than 24 hours after Ireland’s superb upset of full-timers England at the World Cup in San Francisco, because Mairead was to follow her own alternative route to California after the rugby dream didn’t work out.

She relished every minute of the All Stars tour to San Diego in March 2015 and, the following spring, again had to pinch herself after captaining Armagh to the top of the NFL Division One table for the first time ever, under Ronan Clarke.

Unfortunately, from winning their first three league games, they somehow missed out on a place in the first division semi-finals for the first time since playing Cork in 2008, and again the Rebelettes are central to this story.

Armagh made a wasted trip to Cork for their final fixture, which fell foul of the weather, and lost the rearranged game at Abbotstown seven days later by three points when a two-point defeat would have been enough for a play-off place.

The team’s misery was compounded by the LGFA mistakenly announcing Armagh had qualified for the semis, sparking an unseemly outburst by the County Board, but Tennyson’s real regret is the Orchard outfit’s failure to grasp their opportunity.

“I think we were eight down that day before we started playing and you can’t give them that type of headstart.  Against Cork the first 15 minutes are massive and that’s something we must get right this Saturday.”

Since Abbotstown, Armagh have achieved their first ever victory over Cork and Tennyson says the importance of that success shouldn’t be underestimated in spite of the obvious differences between a February league game in Clonmore and a championship clash at the height of summer.

“That win was so important for us because we’ve had a fair few games against Cork where we felt we could have beaten them but ultimately fell short.  As well as that 2006 final, they’ve ended our season twice in recent years.

“There was some satisfaction from having competed well with such a strong team but frustration too that we were knocking on the door but not getting over the line.  Beating them in Clonmore cleared a significant psychological hurdle for us.

“Although Cork had lost their longest-serving stalwarts by then, that group of players went on to retain the National League title so for us it was far from meaningless.  It was a deserved victory and everybody did their job very effectively.

“Cork didn’t win the All Ireland last year for the first time since 2010 and any team would take time to adjust to losing the likes of Briege Corkery and Rena Buckley, but they’re still a serious side and very realistic contenders who will want to claim the title back.

“On their day, Cork can be unbelievable but we’ve had an honourable history against them and done enough to ensure that there has been respect coming back.  Rather than fearing them, it seems to bring out the best in us.

“They’re a team we relish playing against, they’re such a footballing side and don’t dominate by being dirty though they’re impressive physically and bring a real running threat.  They’ve plenty of forward firepower, with maybe even more options now than in the old days.”

After shipping a nightmare 9-21 in the Ulster final against Donegal, Armagh defended much more effectively as a team in the Monaghan match, keeping potent opponents to just five points in the second half.

“When Donegal got those goals just before half-time and then went so far ahead, the wheels come off for us.  That hurt because we always pride ourselves on honouring the jersey so come the Monaghan match we were determined to bounce back and show some character.

“Everyone was bitterly disappointed about what happened at Brewster Park but this is a great team to play in because there’s no pointing fingers or blame culture.  We went away and reflected on our individual displays and produced an improved performance.

“We’d lost our previous three against Monaghan but believed we could beat them.  Missing chances made it difficult for us but we knew we were right in the game.  Not getting the win in the end was disappointing but both the point and the performance mattered.

“Getting something from the Monaghan match has kept our fate in our own hands and, although there’s plenty to improve, we can face Cork in positive spirits.  In Clones, we proved our resilience, coming from behind and doing so in spite of injuries up front.  Aimee (Mackin) and Kelly (Mallon) couldn’t start but other girls came in and showed their worth within the group.”

Still going strong at 34 and enjoying her football, Tennyson has welcomed the All Ireland Championship’s new format as it means more matches, and she sees each experience as beneficial for an ambitious team refreshed by young talent.

Armagh may have more of the old faces from the noughties than Cork but they too have had considerable renewal since that last championship meeting in 2014 with the Mackin sisters, Clodagh McCambridge, Tiarna Grimes and Megan Sheridan having come through meantime, augmented by Caroline O’Hare’s conversion to goalkeeper and exile Moriarty’s return.

Only 13 of the 29 Armagh players togged out for that semi-final will be on duty in Ballinasloe with former captain Mags McAlinden having retired and Niamh Marley, Sinead McCleary, Siobhan Mackle, Niamh Henderson and Louise Kenny being notable losses for various reasons.

Since 2014 Cork have lost eight exceptional players who each started in at least eight winning teams in All Ireland finals including 10-time All Star Briege Corkery, Brid Stack, Rena Buckley, Deirdre O’Reilly, Mulcahy, Geraldine O’Flynn, Angela Walsh and Nollaig Cleary.