LAOIS 1-10 ARMAGH 5-13
Richard Bullick at Emo
Armagh rattled up the highest score of the opening weekend of the entire Lidl National League as they launched their new season with a convincing 15-point victory over Laois at Emo.
There will be tougher tests ahead as the Orchard crew chase the Division Two title and sole promotion place on offer but this was a very satisfactory first outing of 2019 for Lorraine McCaffrey and Fionnuala McAtamney’s team.
Niamh Marley made an immediate impact on her return from long-term injury and played a prominent part in an impressive performance by an Armagh team missing several stalwarts from previous seasons.
Perhaps surprisingly, stand-in skipper Kelly Mallon, her fellow forward Aoife McCoy and the fit-again Niamh Marley were the only three starters from Armagh’s 2014 All Ireland quarter-final demolition of Laois who also started in Emo and all were influential figures on Sunday.
Laois have made progress since that 23-point pasting in Tullamore but they couldn’t contain Sunday’s visitors, who posted 2-9 in the first half as the poor weather which greeted the start of the match steadily improved.
When Aimee Mackin kicked the Orchard’s opening point after just 19 seconds, it must have brought back bad memories for Laois of the corresponding game in Silverbridge last season when she hit 3-7 in Armagh’s 3-12 to 2-6 win.
This time however Armagh had a much healthier spread of scorers, with double All Star Mackin’s 2-4 being backed up by McCoy’s 2-3 and 1-4 from Mallon while Niamh Marley and Blaithin Mackin contributed a point apiece.
Although official Orchard captain Caoimhe Morgan is still sidelined by the same injury, her youngest sisters Niamh and Catherine Marley both made welcome comebacks here after missing all of last season due to torn cruciates.
Armagh had the luxury of introducing Caroline O’Hanlon, who had hit 2-6 as skipper in that 2014 All Ireland quarter-final, at the interval and the 34-year old legend looked full of running as well as delivering a couple of sublime balls into the danger area.
Although listed in her traditional No 9 jersey, the triple All Star was never going to start this game having only recently returned to the panel so, like Lauren McConville 12 months ago, she had to watch from the bench as Armagh got their season underway.
The other midfielder from the published line-up, Clann Eireann’s Niamh Coleman, didn’t start either with Forkhill’s Megan Sheridan and Catherine Marley coming into a reshuffled side and Tiarna Grimes joining Niamh Marley for the throw-in.
With McConville in Australia, Fionnuala McKenna taking a year out and no sign of veterans Mairead Tennyson, Sharon Reel and Marian McGuinness so far this season, Armagh had five enforced changes to the team which took the field for last August’s All Ireland quarter-final.
Clodagh McCambridge came back in having missed that Donegal game through holidays, Shauna Grey was rewarded for her impressive impact as a sub that day in Healy Park, the two Marleys returned from injury, young Niamh Reel got a start and so did Crossmaglen’s Aveen Donaldson.
Donaldson’s previous starts for Armagh were in the famous first ever victories over Dublin and Cork under Ronan Clarke in 2016 and Sean O’Kane the following year, though this time she lined out on the left of a full back line featuring 33-year-olds Sarah Marley and Maebh Moriarty.
Aimee Mackin had an early goal disallowed for a square ball after the Laois goalkeeper palmed down Blaithin Mackin’s speculative punt but Armagh doubled their lead in the fourth minute as Mallon confidently converted a difficult first free with an assured strike.
Laois opened their account with a good point but Mallon landed a free won by young Reel after Niamh Marley and McCoy combined and then the captain pointed from play for her third score in as many minutes.
The hosts struck an upright and then kicked a wide before corner back Sarah Marley couldn’t round off an overlapping run with a rare point at this level and Aimee Mackin shot straight at the keeper after Alanna Havill had got a second score for Laois.
Emma Lawlor was wide with a free for Laois but Aimee Mackin kicked one for Armagh, again won by Reel, shortly after Niamh Marley had claimed a ball in spectacular fashion hurtling horizontally through the air.
Referee Des McEnery awarded a few soft frees against Armagh but midway through the half McCoy had to fight through hefty tackles to cancel out the point her full forward counterpart Aisling Keogh had hit for the hosts a minute before.
Aimee Mackin netted almost immediately to put Armagh six ahead though it took a timely intervention from full back Moriarty at the other end to prevent Laois quickly responding in kind.
Keogh pointed from play but McCoy got Armagh’s second goal in the 21st minute after Niamh Marley had broken the Laois kickout and then the two No 11s, Aimee Mackin and Lawlor, exchanged scores.
Catherine Marley had set up that Mackin point and she also did well in the lead-up to the successful free from the Shane O’Neills star in the 27th minute before big sister Niamh’s nonchalant chip pushed Armagh’s advantage into double figures.
It could have been more but Mallon hit the post after an unselfish lay-off by McCoy and the hosts had the last word of the half with another point from Lawlor in injury-time.
The Armagh management made three changes before the resumption with O’Hanlon, Coleman and Grange’s Colleen McKenna coming on in place of teenager Reel, Catherine Marley and Donaldson respectively.
Grey was sinbinned for no obvious reason right at the start of the second half and Lawlor pointed twice, the second from a free, for Laois who also kicked two wides in the first seven minutes before Mallon stemmed the flow with a free.
The Orchard captain then had a shot from an acute angle palmed away and Laois soon went up the other end for their only goal of the game, but McCoy pulled a point back before Grey’s return.
A surging Niamh Marley won a free which fell short from Mallon but Aimee Mackin bundled the ball home at the second attempt after her first shot was well blocked in the goalmouth.
Blaithin Mackin kicked an Armagh point, quickly cancelled out by a Lawlor free for Laois, and the visitors felt they should have had a penalty after a superb ball in by O’Hanlon, who was also denied a goal a minute later by a save on the line after her long run.
Mallon couldn’t find the net with the rebound after the Laois keeper saved at McCoy’s feet but both those Armagh forwards soon raised green flags within the space of 60 seconds to extend Armagh’s lead to 15 points.
Young Grace Ferguson from Ballyhegan got her first taste of senior inter-county football when introduced in place of Grey with eight minutes remaining and Crossmaglen’s Mairead Watters likewise when she took over from Niamh Marley with the game entering injury-time.
Sarah Marley and McCambridge saved low Laois frees on the Armagh goal-line either side of a point from midfielder Joyce Dunne and the team in orange had the last word with a McCoy point to round off a comprehensive victory.
Early league leaders Armagh now face their former manager James Daly’s Cavan at Clonmore this Sunday (2pm) when the Breffni women will be keen to record a first victory following their 0-13 to 3-4 home draw with All Ireland Intermediate champions Tyrone at the weekend.
Recently relegated Kerry had to come from behind to share the spoils in a 4-8 to 1-17 draw away to surprise package Clare while Waterford saw off newcomers Wexford 0-12 to 0-3 in the first fixture on Saturday.
ARMAGH: C O’Hare; S Marley, M Moriarty, A Donaldson; M Sheridan, C McCambridge, S Grey; N Marley (0-1), T Grimes; B Mackin (0-1), K Mallon (capt; 1-4, 3f), A McCoy (2-3); C Marley, N Reel, A Mackin (2-4, 2f). Subs: C McKenna for Donaldson (ht), N Coleman for C Marley (ht), C O’Hanlon for Reel (ht), G Ferguson for Grey (52 mins), M Watters for N Marley (60).