Ruthless Armagh produced a performance of ferocious intensity for February as they crushed their former manager James Daly’s Cavan by 20 points at Clonmore to stay top of NFL Division Two.
ARMAGH 2-17 CAVAN 0-3
The Orchard outfit also served up some fantastic football in difficult conditions and would have scored even more had the final ball in matched the quality of their approach play.
Any Armagh fans who braved the wind and rain, including the not officially retired Orchard stalwart Sharon Reel on her 35th birthday, were rewarded with a top drawer display underpinned by relentless effort from the team in orange.
Aimee Mackin typically topped the Orchard scoring charts with 2-5 while the incomparable Caroline O’Hanlon, fresh from another win with Manchester Thunder in netball’s British SuperLeague the evening before, adorned her first start of the season with six points.
There were three points for Blaithin Mackin and one each for skipper Kelly Mallon, Aoife McCoy and sub Mairead Watters, the Crossmaglen forward’s first point for Armagh.
However what will actually live longest in the memory from this National League game is the orangewomen’s wonderful defensive effort, which restricted shell-shocked Cavan to a meagre three points in this match.
Remarkably, Cavan didn’t register from play after the second minute and their last score came early in the second quarter of an afternoon when the visitors had first use of the elements at their back but still trailed by six points at the interval.
Even with the victory long since secured, Armagh defender ferociously in the closing stages with every player showing huge hunger in working tirelessly to deny Cavan even a consolation score.
Excellent corner back Sarah Marley made a stunning save on the line that any keeper would have been proud of and Forkhill’s Megan Sheridan had also denied the visitors a goal when the ball bounced over Orchard net-minder Anna Carr.
Given the goalkeeping gloves for the first time since the corresponding game against Cavan in the second NFL fixture of last season, a 2-14 apiece draw at Templeport, Carrickcruppen’s Carr showed her worth as a more than useful understudy to Caroline O’Hare.
As well as making several valuable saves, she seemed to psyche out Cavan’s Andrea O’Reilly, who hit the post in first half injury-time with a penalty which would have halved the Orchard advantage at the break.
Carr for O’Hare was one of four changes to the Armagh team which started in the 15-point away win against Laois the previous Sunday, with O’Hanlon, Clann Eireann’s Niamh Coleman and Colleen McKenna of Grange also coming in.
Siblings Niamh and Catherine Marley, the former suffering from a tight hamstring, who had made their comebacks against Laois after missing all of last season with cruciate ruptures were left out here along with Silverbridge teenager Niamh Reel.
With Coleman and O’Hanlon paired in midfield, the former’s Clann Eireann clubmate Tiarna Grimes was deployed in a more advanced position than usual for Armagh whose other wing forward Shauna Grey is also a recognised defender.
The formation meant Armagh had a reassuringly solid look with the full back line of Sarah Marley, Maebh Moriarty and Aveen Donaldson providing firm foundations but they also carried real attacking threat in the Mackin duo up front, the direct running McCoy, captain Mallon and midfield maestro O’Hanlon.
Beaten finalists in Division Two last season, Cavan actually posted two points in the first two minutes and then only one more during the remainder of the afternoon.
O’Hanlon had the hosts on level terms by the seventh minute, her first score coming after an attack down the left by McKenna and McCoy carried on by Aimee Mackin and Mallon and the second after a free won by Coleman was played short.
Aimee Mackin put Armagh ahead with a point from an acute angle on the right a minute later either side of Sheridan cutting out two Cavan attacks.
Blaithin Mackin kicked a good point and McCoy came agonisingly close to an Armagh goal when she rolled the ball against the base of the right post after Coleman claimed the Cavan kickout.
Having rounded off a great overlapping run down the right against Laois by kicking a wide, Sarah Marley’s similar foray against Cavan led to the Orchard’s opening goal from Aimee Mackin.
McCoy was whistled for over-carrying as she bore down upon goal with defenders hanging off her and Aimee Mackin couldn’t convert a free before O’Reilly kicked one for Cavan in the 18th minute.
The orangewomen were keeping possession nicely and, although a number of promising openings didn’t deliver scores, their conversion rate was an improvement from the opening game.
Mallon kicked a straightforward free when the Cavan keeper came a long way out to dive at the feet of Blaithin Mackin, who later pointed after Marley and Moriarty launched an attack from deep defence.
An O’Hanlon intercept was followed by a perfect pass to McCoy but she stumbled and Blaithin Mackin’s subsequent shot was deflected behind for a 45 from which Grey and Blaithin both had shots charged down.
Cavan were awarded a penalty when Ciara Finnegan hoisted a free into a crowded Armagh goalmouth and the Breffni side’s star attacker Aisling Sheridan ended up on the floor but O’Reilly hit the upright from the spot-kick and the whistle went for half-time.
Aimee Mackin pointed just 12 seconds after the resumption, paving the way for the hosts to hit 1-11 without reply, and although she and Grimes then kicked towering wides, Blaithin Mackin sent over her third point after Coleman claimed a Cavan kickout superbly.
Cavan registered three wides punctuated by an O’Hanlon point but a superb sweeping breakout by Armagh ended in Aimee Mackin’s second goal with the referee playing advantage for McCoy being fouled.
A brilliant pick-up by Mallon coming from deep and her superb ball to McCoy yielded another O’Hanlon point for an Armagh team who were working hard, moving nicely and generally taking good options.
Aimee Mackin floated a shot high across the posts after a storming run down the right by Clann Eireann’s Clodagh McCambridge, a physically impressive presence at centre half back.
After five minutes without a score, Armagh rattled off five points in three minutes, McCoy finally getting on the board after a strong surge and O’Hanlon’s fifth point from play coming amid three more by Aimee Mackin.
Even though Armagh were now 18 points up, their whole-hearted defending as a team in increasingly atrocious conditions was more like a team hanging onto a slender lead in a championship match than one cantering home in an early league game.
Ballyhegan schoolgirl Grace Ferguson and her returning clubmate Eve Lavery came on for McKenna and Mallon either side of the introduction of Watters in place of Blaithin Mackin.
Watters became Armagh’s sixth scorer of the game and the fitting introduction of host club Clonmore’s promising pair Sarah Quigley and Emma Conlon for their first Orchard appearances at adult level added to the feel-good factor.
There was still time for former All Ireland Player of the Year O’Hanlon, who worked as hard as anyone and was an influential figure, to kick a fine free in injury-time to take Armagh’s margin to a barely believable 20 points against one of their main promotion rivals.
ARMAGH: A Carr; S Marley, M Moriarty, A Donaldson; M Sheridan, C McCambridge, C McKenna; N Coleman, C O’Hanlon (0-6, 1f); T Grimes, K Mallon (capt; 0-1, 1f), S Grey; A Mackin (2-5), A McCoy (0-1), B Mackin (0-3). Subs used: G Ferguson for McKenna (53mins), M Watters (0-1) for B Mackin (55), E Lavery for Mallon (56), E Conlon for McCoy (59), S Quigley for A Mackin (59).