ARMAGH 2-13 WEXFORD 1-8
Richard Bullick at Silverbridge
Armagh marked their County Board Chairperson Sinead Reel’s 40th birthday by beating Wexford in Silverbridge on Sunday to confirm top place in the final NFL Division Two table.
The Orchard crew will still have to win two play-off games to claim the title and precious promotion place on offer but finishing first in the standings completes a satisfying first phase of the season.
Skipper Kelly Mallon led the way with 1-6 on an afternoon when the Armagh management only unleashed Caroline O’Hanlon and the Mackin sisters from the bench in the final few minutes.
Fellow regulars Megan Sheridan and Shauna Grey were also left out of the starting team as Lorraine McCaffrey and Fionnuala McAtamney took the opportunity to give game-time to others.
Mullaghbawn captain Niamh Murphy was a welcome inclusion at full forward for her first appearance of the season following the passing of her mum in February and a niggling hamstring strain.
Murphy used her towering physical presence to tap down a long ball in for Aoife McCoy to net Armagh’s first goal just 10 seconds into the second half and Mallon raised another green flag five minutes later.
The Wexford goalkeeper couldn’t cope with Mallon’s long-range shot on a day when the powerful Orchard captain’s booming boot also landed six frees from six attempts.
With no Aimee Mackin or O’Hanlon in the initial line-up to take the left-footed frees, Mallon took responsibility for the set-pieces from both sides of the field and converted every one.
McCoy contributed 1-3 with one point each courtesy of Crossmaglen’s Mairead Watters, Clann Eireann’s Niamh Coleman, sub Eve Lavery and the most memorable effort of the afternoon from Sarah Marley.
The Lissummon stalwart hadn’t registered a point for Armagh in seven seasons since settling at corner back but took her score confidently after running the full length of the field in the 52nd minute.
The Orchard outfit failed to score thereafter as management made no fewer than nine substitutions in the closing stages and Clodagh McCambridge became the third home player to be sinbinned.
Earlier the hosts had been reduced to 13 players as their refereeing nemesis Maggie Farrelly took her yellow card count in five recent Armagh matches she has officiated into double figures.
The returning Rebecca O’Reilly was first to go just after Armagh’s two-goal burst early in the second half and she was still on the line when Niamh Marley followed, but Wexford couldn’t capitalise.
The home county’s comfortable margin of victory would have been in double digits but for Wexford having the last word with a consolation goal in injury-time.
However divisional newcomers Wexford will be content to have consolidated their place in the second tier after gaining promotion last May, drawing with Waterford and beating Tyrone along the way.
The match programme contained an even more experimental line-up for Armagh but, as it transpired, skipper Mallon, Dromintee dynamo McCoy and Niamh Marley all started.
So there were five changes to the initial line-up for the first defeat of the season against Kerry at the Athletic Grounds last time out, with O’Hanlon, the two Mackins, Sheridan and Grey dropping out.
Their places were taken by the host club’s teenage forward Niamh Reel, a fit-again Colleen McKenna, Murphy, O’Reilly and Watters, who was making her first start in the green jersey.
Experienced Carrickcruppen defender O’Reilly showed her worth at the back early on alongside Sarah Marley and Maebh Moriarty, but Wexford were on level terms after 12 minutes having cancelled out each of Mallon’s first two frees.
The useful Tara Doyle quickly raised a white flag in response to a McCoy point and third Mallon free in quick succession and the same player pulled one back from a free after Watters had pointed just before the Armagh skipper’s fourth free.
Watters had been unlucky early on when a great strike initially had the umpires in two minds and the only other Armagh wides of the opening period were from Niamh Marley and a Mallon shot off her weaker left foot.
Armagh pulled clear before the break with three points in injury-time, two from Mallon frees, the first from the right following a run by Tiarna Grimes and the second to make it 0-9 to 0-4 at half-time, sandwiching a Coleman point.
Murphy pulled off a good clean catch inside just before the interval following good approach play by Grimes and Crossmaglen captain Aveen Donaldson, who was relishing being back in midfield for Armagh.
The Mullaghbawn woman was the target again as the Orchard crew went route one from the second half throw-in and Mallon’s goal then put Armagh 10 ahead after a good burst by centre half back McCambridge came to nothing.
Wexford kicked the free awarded when O’Reilly was sinbinned but Ballyhegan’s Lavery replied from play a few minutes after coming on for Reel.
The visitors posted the next two points, both from play either side of Murphy being blown up for a square ball after another majestic claim, and Niamh Marley being binned in the middle of the half.
Again Armagh pushed on with three points in as many minutes, two from McCoy, the first a great team move and Mallon laying on the second, followed by Sarah Marley’s superb solo score.
That triggered two Orchard changes with a further flood of seven subs five minutes later, including a first Armagh appearance of the season for Shane O’Neills forward Aoibheann Jones, taking the number of players who have had game-time to 28.
The inclusion of Murphy, O’Reilly and Watters from the off means 24 of the panel have had at least one start in this successful first phase of the campaign.
The energy and interaction of young Clann Eireann trio McCambridge, Grimes and Coleman was a conspicuous positive from this match along with Mallon’s faultless free-taking.
Surprise results elsewhere at the weekend with Tyrone shocking Kerry and Clare overcoming Waterford means Armagh will have to wait until after this Sunday’s rearranged game between Kerry and Cavan to know who they will meet in Easter Sunday’s semi-finals.
Had the last round of games gone as expected, Armagh would have faced Cavan but now Kerry and Clare have joined the Breffni brigade as possible opponents for the Orchard outfit.
ARMAGH: C O’Hare; S Marley (0-1), M Moriarty, R O’Reilly; T Grimes, C McCambridge, C McKenna; N Coleman (0-1), A Donaldson; A McCoy (1-3), K Mallon (capt; 1-6, 6f), N Marley; N Reel, N Murphy, M Watters (0-1). Subs used: E Lavery (0-1) for Reel (39mins), S Quigley for Murphy (52), C Magill for McKenna (52), C O’Hanlon for Donaldson (57), A Mackin for Mallon (57), S Grey for Coleman (57), A Jones for Watters (57), C Marley for N Marley (57), B Mackin for O’Reilly (57), G Ferguson for McCoy (57).