ARMAGH 3-11 CLARE 2-10
Aimee Mackin came back from the sinbin with a crucial late goal as Armagh salvaged victory against Clare in a Lidl National League game which was slipping away from the hosts at Dromintee.
Armagh had led by 10 points at the interval, looking comfortably on course for a fifth consecutive victory this season, but with the formidable breeze being a significant factor, this proved a game of two halves.
On the same evening the Scottish rugby team came from 31 down with an astonishing 38 unanswered points against England at Twickenham, the Orchard outfit found themselves on the receiving end of a sustained underdog onslaught.
But unlike England, who just grabbed a last gasp share of the spoils, Armagh got the win which maintains their 100 percent record in 2019 and makes mathematically certain of a place in the Division Two semi-final line-up.
The table toppers now meet advance title favourites Kerry at the Athletic Grounds this Sunday (12noon) in a double-header with the Armagh men’s match against Cork on a day Aimee Mackin will make her 50th start in the orange jersey.
On Saturday, unfancied Clare clawed back the double-digit deficit in the second half and had just drawn level when corner back Megan Sheridan followed Aimee Mackin to the sinbin, leaving Armagh down to 13 players.
With their tails up and the wind at their backs, Clare capitalised by going three ahead before Blaithin Mackin finally notched the Orchard outfit’s first score of the half with five minutes remaining.
That meant the recently returned Aimee Mackin’s fisted goal a minute later, supplementing seven first half points from the double All Star, nudged Armagh’s noses back in front and the Dromintee crowd went home happy after local hero Aoife McCoy raised another green flag in injury-time to seal the win.
The diminutive McCoy ran onto a lovely through ball by Aimee Mackin as the previously packed Clare rearguard pushed up a bit and she showed her pace and finishing ability to put the icing on the Orchard cake.
It was perfectly fitting that home favourite McCoy should have the last word on an afternoon when Dromintee proved very enthusiastic hosts and made the effort to create a real sense of occasion including a guard of honour by the club’s Under 8 and Under 10 girls as Kelly Mallon led her team from the field.
Clare almost spoiled the script but having to dig deep for what had been expected to be a straightforward win may be beneficial for Armagh going forward, even though watching was stressful for fans and management alike.
Being three points down facing into the wind with only 13 players in the closing stages of a match where you haven’t registered a single score in the second half against a team which has posted an unanswered 2-7 is a stern test in anybody’s book.
The Orchard crew came through it with a fantastic combination of character and composure which pleased Armagh joint manager Fionnuala McAtamney, especially as the team was without their taliswoman Caroline O’Hanlon.
Former All Ireland Player of the Year O’Hanlon was otherwise occupied, shining in Manchester Thunder’s 57-49 away win against the team they began the day joint second with in netball’s British SuperLeague, Saracens Mavericks.
Her absence compounded the loss of several very experienced campaigners since last season and, against Clare, Armagh were without no fewer than eight players who started the majority of matches in 2018, including injured squad captain Caoimhe Morgan.
“Caroline’s obviously very experienced and extremely effective at keeping possession or making things happen so she’d be our go-to player whether we’re holding on or chasing a game,” reflected McAtamney.
“So to get through this without her is especially encouraging and it’s great to see younger girls showing maturity and stepping up to manage the game in tricky circumstances.
“And naturally the fact Aimee was one of the players in the sinbin was a big blow because she’s so prolific for us including scoring seven points in the first half.
“We dominated with the wind in the first half and, although we went in 10 ahead, we should have capitalised even more. Clare scored straight from the throw-in and really got their tails up.
“They generated real momentum and then just when we seemed to be regaining composure after losing Aimee to the sinbin, Megan got a yellow card which meant we were two players down and having to chase the game.
“Aimee’s sinbin was fair enough but there was no obvious offence for the second. However we didn’t fall apart when it would have been easy to do so and came through for the win.
“Against Tyrone last time out it was tight the whole way through, with the teams just exchanging metaphorical punches and we managed to get over the line.
“This was different for we hadn’t scored in the first 25 minutes of the second half and it’s very hard to turn the tide back again in a game like that. I think we’d definitely have lost this one last year, maybe both.”
When Clare’s last score put them three ahead it certainly looked like Armagh were returning to last season’s nightmare habit of imploding in spectacular fashion after establishing healthy leads.
Not for the first time this season, Armagh had got off to a strong start with the trademark Aimee Mackin point inside the opening minute as the hosts scored seven times without reply in the first quarter.
The elder Mackin kicked five of them, including a free, with McCoy contributing the other two points against a Clare side yet to win this season albeit having drawn with Kerry in their opening game.
Niamh O’Dea finally opened Clare’s account and Grainne Nolan landed a free but Armagh captain Mallon netted the game’s opening goal on 23 minutes and Eve Lavery marked her first start of the season with a point.
Ballyhegan’s Lavery was given a run up front in place of Silverbridge teenager Niamh Reel who had started against Tyrone and top-scored for Queen’s in their O’Connor Cup semi-final defeat in between.
Clann Eireann’s Niamh Coleman came back into the starting team in place of O’Hanlon, partnering clubmate Tiarna Grimes in midfield with Niamh Marley augmenting them in the No 10 jersey.
There was one other change from the Garvaghey game with Chloe Magill of St Peter’s and Queen’s drafted into the Orchard defence for her first ever start after Grange’s Colleen McKenna, injured in Dundalk IT’s Moynihan Cup final win, failed a late fitness test.
Two more Aimee Mackin points either side of one by O’Dea gave Armagh a 1-10 to 0-3 interval lead but the latter stole the show in the second half, finishing her afternoon’s work with a tally of 1-5.
The Armagh management’s only substitution came in the closing stages when host club Dromintee’s other representative Shauna Grey had to come off injured, replaced by Crossmaglen’s Aveen Donaldson.
O’Hanlon will be back for this Sunday’s Kerry clash, though she will have a big netball match in England the previous evening between the SuperLeague’s top two, while it is hoped that defensive duo McKenna and Grey will both be fit.
The inclusion of Lavery and Magill from the off against Clare means 21 players have had at least one start for Armagh this season with a further four getting game-time off the bench.
McCoy had a good game in front of her home crowd, garnished with that concluding goal, while vice-captain Maebh Moriarty, Armagh’s oldest player in O’Hanlon’s absence, showed her experience in steadying the ship at the back.
ARMAGH: C O’Hare; S Marley, M Moriarty, M Sheridan; S Grey, C McCambridge, C Magill; N Coleman, T Grimes; N Marley, K Mallon (capt; 1-0), E Lavery (0-1); A Mackin (1-7, 1f), A McCoy (1-2), B Mackin (0-1). Sub used: A Donaldson for Grey (54 mins).