Armagh maintained their 100 percent record in NFL Division Two this season by overcoming challenging circumstances on Saturday to beat traditional rivals Tyrone in their own backyard.
TYRONE 1-6 ARMAGH 1-9
Richard Bullick at Garvaghey
Double All Star Aimee Mackin kicked 1-5, just a point less than the entire Tyrone team managed, with two points apiece for her younger sibling Blaithin and skipper Kelly Mallon, though the Orchard rearguard deserves to share the plaudits.
Full back Maebh Moriarty’s magnificent textbook tackle midway through the second half won’t be bettered anywhere this season while Clodagh McCambridge had clawed a Tyrone free from under her own crossbar in the second quarter.
Armagh goalkeeper Caroline O’Hare, so brilliant in the corresponding game in the Athletic Grounds last season, had already produced a stunning save in just the third minute and she was assured under the high ball all day.
The one exception came early in the second half when another dropping bomb held up in the breeze and the Tyrone forward came in ahead of O’Hare to punch to the net.
That put the hosts in front for the first time but Armagh got the goal back within seven minutes when Niamh Marley claimed possession, Caroline O’Hanlon went on a long run and her ball in was fisted home by Aimee Mackin.
Armagh had led 6-5 at the interval in spite of facing into a very strong wind, which wasn’t entirely end to end, on what was a bitterly cold evening, though at least it stayed dry during the game.
Following a morning of rainfall, this Lidl National League game was switched from Healy Park to Tyrone GAA’s Garvaghey complex where, much to their annoyance, the Orchard crew were forced to play on an under-sized, artificial pitch.
There were real concerns that the surface could cause significant harm to players, especially Orchard captain Mallon who has an achilles problem, but the Harps forward bravely led her team to within sight of victory.
She was withdrawn for her own safety towards the end and had to watch helplessly as Armagh kept possession for a couple of minutes unbroken but withdrawing deeper and deeper against a Tyrone team just a single goal adrift.
The final whistle brought great relief for Armagh, though the sweet win points weren’t entirely enough to appease skipper Mallon, who was still furious an hour after the game.
Her justified disgust was shared by Armagh joint manager Fionnuala McAtamney, who revealed that the visitors only found out about the switch of venue via social media three hours before throw-in.
This NFL fixture was supposed to be on a double bill with a men’s match at Healy Park but Tyrone GAA got nervous with the heavy rain and pulled the plug, though the alternative venue left an awful lot to be desired.
Armagh got their opening point of the evening courtesy of Aimee Mackin after just 28 seconds, with midfielder Emma Jane Gervin replying in the second minute, the first of four times the teams were level before the break.
Aimee Mackin pointed from play and kicked a free, full forward Niamh O’Neill responding with a good score and then converting an equalising free after Armagh infringed on their own kick-out.
Almost immediately, Mallon landed a free to punish a bad foul on Aoife McCoy racing through on goal after an attack featuring the prominent Shauna Grey and Blaithin Mackin.
The Tyrone culprit was lucky not to be sinbinned but McCambridge could also have seen yellow a few minutes earlier so Down referee Brendan Rice, who had a good game, was consistent.
Armagh hearts were in mouths when O’Hanlon needed treatment but she continued, playing a typically prominent part, though, like others, she had passes picked off, with the wind, unfamiliar surface and small pitch congestion not helping.
A somewhat under-utilised Niamh Marley, who spent periods grazing in splendid isolation on the right flank, rescued Armagh on one occasion shortly before McCambridge kept that Tyrone free out.
Armagh made one personnel change from their Dungarvan victory over Waterford the previous Saturday, young Silverbridge forward Niamh Reel replacing Clann Eireann’s Niamah Coleman in a reshuffled side, a swap which was reversed at the interval.
Before then, Tyrone had levelled once more through Gervin only for Aimee Mackin to nudge Armagh back in front a minute later.
O’Neill made it five each after a slightly harsh free against the persevering Grey and Armagh lived dangerously late in the half but went in ahead courtesy of a Blaithin Mackin point in injury-time.
The Orchard crew would have been happy to turn around ahead with the wind advantage to come but, rather than just use it to gain territory, they kept the ball in hand with a lot of nice interplay.
Between the goals at either end, O’Hanlon was wide with a long free and Blaithin Mackin closed the gap to a single point with her second score.
Mallon pointed to reward a superb passage of play from Armagh and, although the skipper was wide with a long-range free, Aimee Mackin kicked one midway through the half to put the visitors four up.
Tyrone replied with a straightforward free, brought forward for backchat, but with the commanding Moriarty and Sarah Marley showing their experience, the Orchard defence stood firm.
Captain Mallon left the field four minutes from the end, replaced by Ballyhegan’s Eve Lavery, before the floodlights finally flickered into action laughably late with the pitch in near darkness, but the orangewomen weren’t to be denied.
That had only scored 1-3 with the wind behind them in the second half and the margin was a lot less than the last two league games against Tyrone, but this was still a worthy win with much to commend it.
It was far from a perfect performance but Armagh showed real resilience in adversity and a willingness to roll up their sleeves and win ugly on the road against a team with massive motivation.
Tyrone were well pumped up for what was supposed to be a showcase occasion at their headquarters and keen to make amends for previous beatings by Armagh and a shock defeat at Wexford last time out.
They have lost the great Gemma Begley to retirement but Armagh are a team in transition, with seven of the starting side from last February’s most recent derby battle in the Athletic Grounds unavailable now.
Six of those players started at least 11 of Armagh’s 13 matches last season with the seventh, Rebecca O’Reilly, starting eight, so that is a very significant turnover yet this team has effectively clinched a play-off place with three league games remaining, all of them at home.
They won most of the important moments on Saturday with a team containing nine starters aged under 25, a real evolution from seven of the initial line-up against Monaghan last July being over 32.
Young defenders Colleen McKenna and Megan Sheridan, neither officially listed to start, played their part in keeping Tyrone at bay on Saturday while last season’s breakthrough player Tiarna Grimes showed her potential alongside O’Hanlon in midfield.
Armagh have beaten three of their four main rivals in this campaign, two of them away from home on successive Saturdays, and host Kerry in the penultimate round between visits from Clare and Wexford.
ARMAGH: C O’Hare; S Marley, M Moriarty, C McKenna; M Sheridan, C McCambridge, S Grey; T Grimes, C O’Hanlon; N Marley, K Mallon (capt; 0-2, 1f), A McCoy; A Mackin (1-5, 2f), N Reel, B Mackin (0-2). Subs used: N Coleman for Reel (ht), E Lavery for Mallon (56mins).