ARMAGH 1-7 CORK 1-19
Richard Bullick at Ballinasloe
Aimee Mackin came off the bench to kick three important points when a Cork scoring spree was threatening to dash Armagh hopes of All Ireland quarter-final qualification in Ballinasloe on Saturday.
Prolific forward Mackin hadn’t been fit to start for an Armagh team missing captain Caoimhe Morgan through injury, but converted two frees and added a good score from play after being introduced midway through the second half of her side’s 12-point loss.
The Orchard crew went into this final group game at Duggan Park knowing defeat by up to 15 points would still secure their ticket to the All Ireland quarter-finals and a place in next season’s TG4 Senior Championship.
That was a significant cushion but Armagh’s spot in the last eight felt very vulnerable as slick Cork raced clear in the third quarter, scoring an unanswered 1-6 to go 13 up by the mid-point of the second half.
Playing into the wind, the orangewomen were in real danger of being swept away by the white tide as Cork cut loose, but dug deep to avoid disaster and hold out for the result required to progress in the competition and retain their precious senior status.
Had the Orchard outfit fallen to a defeat of 17 points or more, they would have had to face Cavan in a relegation semi-final on August 11 with the losers condemned to a showdown with Waterford or Tipperary the following weekend to avoid the drop.
Instead Monaghan must now fight for survival while Armagh get the chance to make amends for their 28-point drubbing by Donegal in June’s Ulster showpiece when the teams meet again in this Saturday’s All Ireland quarter-final.
So the result was an enormous relief for Lorraine McCaffrey and Fionnuala McAtamney’s side, though understandably there were no excessive celebrations after being beaten and acting captain Kelly Mallon made clear that Armagh must show significant improvement next time out.
The unaccustomed scenario for a championship match of a double-digit defeat being enough for progress to the next round made this a slightly strange game and the concerning sight of star turn Caroline O’Hanlon limping off late on may also have contributed to a slightly muted mood at the end.
Armagh have a rich history of putting it up to Cork and, although Saturday’s tie won’t rival previous encounters for a prominent place in Orchard ladies footballing folklore, there was ironically less heartache here thanks to that qualification lifeline.
Celebrating losing doesn’t come naturally to such competitive people and, rather than this being a moral victory or agonising near miss like in several previous Cork clashes, it became a survival scramble blighted by profligacy for a second game running.
Armagh’s hopes of scalping Cork, who won an incredible 11 All Irelands in 12 years up until 2016, were undermined by some more of the wasteful finishing which cost them victory in the opening group game at Clones that ended in a draw with Monaghan.
The swirling wind was a factor in Armagh missing four frees but perhaps more frustrating was the poor option-taking on several occasions as patient approach play was followed by ill-advised shots and McCaffrey accepts this is something her team must improve upon next day.
Armagh’s attacks tended to be more laboured than the opposition’s but they do deserve credit for the resilience shown in not folding when the heat came on and responding well in the last quarter when an All Ireland exit was staring them in the face.
“It got tighter than we would have liked but I wouldn’t say we were worried on the sideline about the margin, just focused on ensuring the team kept performing to their ability because then the scoreline would take care of itself,” insisted McCaffrey.
In spite of full back Morgan’s absence, the temporary loss of her understudy Rebecca O’Reilly with a blood injury and stalwart Sharon Reel’s sinbinning early on, the Orchard defence deserves credit for letting in only one goal against a team which had hit the Monaghan net seven times the previous Saturday in spite of self-confessed first half rustiness.
Cork came in waves in the second half in Ballinasloe as a succession of backs carried from deep with comfort, conviction and pace in dangerous raids, but their plethora of useful forwards were fairly well shackled.
From busy sweeper Maebh Moriarty through Sarah Marley, O’Reilly, Mairead Tennyson, Clodagh McCambridge, Tiarna Grimes, Reel, Marian McGuinness, sub Megan Sheridan and those further forward working back, everyone in front of goalkeeper Caroline O’Hare played their part.
“Our defensive display has been much improved in recent weeks and our workrate, especially in the first half here, was exceptional. Maybe we weren’t able to quite match that in the second half but you’ll always get that honest effort from Armagh Ladies and I’m proud of the fight in this team,” said McCaffrey.
The original golden generation who backboned Cork’s remarkable decade of dominance have all gone but this is still a team with impressive pedigree, plenty of big game experience and a good recent record which includes the 2017 National League title and this season’s Munster Senior Championship.
They have a team full of runners from deep with an array of useful forwards and vibrant impact players to bring on, while the fact double All Star Marie Ambrose, Brid O’Sullivan and Eimear Meaney were among the unused subs reflects formidable depth.
After a scoreless first 11 minutes, all six of Cork’s starting forwards got on the board in the next 11 minutes and their two attacking subs, Orlagh Farmer and soccer star Saoirse Noonan, also registered when they came on.
The orangewomen worked hard, none more so than the relentless Lauren McConville, and they must take satisfaction from qualifying from a tough group, as the only NFL Division Two team to make the Senior Championship quarter-finals.
McCaffrey insisted afterwards that Armagh’s somewhat defensive formation reflected Cork’s goal threat rather than being an understandably negative nod to the quarter-final qualification equation.
“We went out to win this match and definitely didn’t set up to not lose by more than 15 points. As always we went for a system based upon what we felt was best for playing against the opposition on the day.
“For periods we did very well but maybe didn’t have quite enough consistency throughout. We’re not entirely happy with some elements of our play but the most important objective was to reach the next round and we’re pleased to be through.
“I don’t think the scoreline really reflects the game but we fought until the end and, when the win was beyond us, still closed out the game in terms of what we needed to do to progress. Our last score was well worked throughout the whole team and we’ll go into the quarter-final in positive spirits.”
Blaithin Mackin showed her prowess in catching high balls in and being able to break them down to diminutive menaces McConville and Aoife McCoy might have brought Armagh joy but that busy pair were deployed pretty deep.
A lack of closer support perhaps exacerbated Blackin Mackin’s compulsion to go for low percentage shots while O’Hanlon often felt obliged to take on too much herself on runs from midfield.
Armagh’s hopes had suffered a double blow before throw-in with two significant changes to their published line-up, captain Morgan being replaced by Carrickcruppen’s O’Reilly and double All Star Aimee Mackin by her younger sibling Blaithin.
The Orchard outfit faced two further challenges in the early stages, O’Reilly taking that horrible blow to the face making a brave block in the Armagh goalmouth after just 20 seconds, which led to lengthy treatment and eventually forced her off to the blood-bin in the eighth minute.
In the fifth minute, her clubmate Reel, who again contested the throw-in with O’Hanlon here, left Sligo referee Gus Chapman with no choice but to sinbin her after catching a Cork player under the chin.
However, Armagh had their share of chances in a scoreless first 10 minutes, with stand-in skipper Mallon and O’Hanlon missing a free apiece, won by McConville and McCoy respectively, while Doireann O’Sullivan kicked one wide for Cork and also hit a post high up.
An Orla Finn free in the 10th minute fell short but she soon scored the game’s opening point from play and then the Munster champions produced a quick burst of three points in two minutes late in the first quarter.
Eimear Scally, promoted to the Cork starting team in one of two late changes to their published line-up, cut in past O’Reilly’s temporary replacement Sheridan to set up a score for Libby Coppinger and points followed for Aine O’Sullivan and captain Ciara O’Sullivan, a woman with eight All Ireland Senior Championship medals.
A nice catch by Blaithin Mackin inside after a sublime ball by O’Hanlon from a midfield free only led to a charged down shot but she finished clinically to the net in similar circumstances two minutes later after a blatant rugby tackle on McConville.
Cork responded with points from Doireann O’Sullivan and Aine O’Sullivan, though the second should have been a free out as an Orchard defender was being held round the legs after breaking the ball, and then a McCoy shot was deflected behind for a 45.
Blaithin Mackin kicked a long-range wide and, although All Star defender Emma Spillane pulled a shot wide of the right post after a good run, Scally scored a point to put four between the teams.
Fionnuala McKenna cancelled it out with a nice strike from very long range but captain O’Sullivan immediately replied with a good point for Cork and Scally got another before the Orchard outfit finished the half strongly.
Kelleher was lucky to avoid a yellow card for dragging down Mallon, O’Hanlon, who had caught O’Hare’s kickout to spark the attack, pushed the resulting free past the left post and then Blaithin Mackin chipped wide, but two welcome points came in injury-time.
Firstly O’Hanlon ran through and tapped the ball over followed by a well driven point by McKenna after typically persistent good work by McConville and McCoy, but Cork had the last word with a Finn free before the break.
The Orchard crew were still in the game on the scoreboard but it effectively became a fight for championship survival within five minutes of the resumption as, either side of an O’Hanlon wide, Scally scored a point and then a goal, a stabbing low finish after a big run by midfielder Ashling Hutchings.
McGuinness and Moriarty had to be alert to prevent another major a minute later but Cork had taken their lead to 10 through another Finn free and Scally point by the time Mallon missed a free from an acute angle on the left.
Great movement led to a score for Cork captain O’Sullivan just before Aimee Mackin’s introduction, in place of sister Blaithin, on 42 minutes, but a towering point from Finn and one by sub Farmer made it 1-16 to 1-3.
It looked like the floodgates could really open but Ciara O’Sullivan kicked a wide after Melissa Duggan made a long run and there was a slight lull before the teams exchanged scores through a Mackin free and a point from play by Republic of Ireland international Noonan.
Teenager Noonan had netted twice coming off the bench both in the Munster final and against Monaghan but that was her only score here as Armagh lifted themselves for the sort of finish needed to save their season.
Mackin shot low at the keeper in the 55th minute after an attack featuring 16 passes but she then put over a fantastic free from an acute angle way out on the right and O’Hanlon quickly added a point via the right post and crossbar.
Farmer pointed but Armagh had the bit between their teeth now and, although McCoy agonisingly lost the ball after working herself a goal chance, a wonderful team move from deep was rewarded with a superb point by Mackin.
It was an inspiring score and, in spite of O’Hanlon’s worrying departure, Finn’s free in injury-time meant Armagh had still a goal to spare and they reached the final whistle with no further concessions, helped by Cork taking their tally of second half wides to seven.
Armagh had kept their All Ireland dream alive for at least another week and, rather than fearfully facing the claustrophobic pressure of the relegation play-offs, they can now have a real crack at Ulster champions Donegal with no external expectations on them.
ARMAGH: C O’Hare; S Marley, R O’Reilly, T Grimes; M Moriarty; M McGuinness, M Tennyson, C McCambridge; S Reel, C O’Hanlon (0-2), F McKenna (0-2); L McConville, A McCoy, K Mallon (capt); B Mackin (1-0). Subs used: M Sheridan for O’Reilly (temp 8-16mins, 38), A Mackin (0-3, 2f) for B Mackin (42), N Reel for O’Hanlon (61).
CORK: M O’Brien; E Spillane, R Phelan, M Duggan; M O’Callaghan, S Kelly, A Kelleher; A Hutchings, H Looney; C O’Sullivan (capt; 0-3), L Coppinger (0-1), D O’Sullivan (0-1); A O’Sullivan (0-2), E Scally (1-4), O Finn (0-5, 3f). Subs used: C Collins for Kelleher (ht), S Noonan (0-1) for A O’Sullivan (38), O Farmer (0-2) for D O’Sullivan (38), A Barrett for Kelly (56).
Referee: Gus Chapman (Sligo).