ARMAGH 2-15 KERRY 3-16
Richard Bullick at the Athletic Grounds
Joint manager Lorraine McCaffrey lamented the Armagh mistakes which cost the Orchard outfit their 100 percent record as Kerry left the Athletic Grounds on Sunday still unbeaten in 2019.
Two well-taken goals by returning All Star Louise Ni Mhuircheartaigh in the closing stages saw Kerry snatch victory on a disappointing day of double defeat for Armagh teams at county headquarters.
A combination of wasteful finishing and cheap concessions predictably proved costly against strong opponents who Armagh may well meet again in the NFL Division Two final.
Sunday’s cracking contest endorsed the theory that these are the best two teams outside the top flight but, unlike in the men’s National League, there is only one promotion place on offer, so the next clash would be much more meaningful.
If both sides reach May’s Parnell Park showdown, Kerry will have confidence from this victory but the hurt from an avoidable defeat will give the orangewomen a bitter edge.
“As expected, Kerry are the best team we’ve met this season but based on today we wouldn’t fear facing them again,” declared McCaffrey.
“This wasn’t the result we wanted but if we end up playing Kerry again in a few weeks I’m confident we’ll see a considerably different performance from Armagh.
“Today we were largely responsible for our own defeat and certain aspects of our performance were much more annoying than the result as such.
“We were wasteful in possession, our conversion rate wasn’t what it has been and decision-making could have been better, but those are all things we can work at and improve upon.
“In spite of being our own worst enemies, we got ourselves ahead towards the end and were well placed to beat the team that have been red hot favourites for the title ever since being relegated last April.
“Unfortunately we made more mistakes which a team with Kerry’s potent forwards were always likely to punish but losing just means we’ll have a point to prove if we play them again.
“We’ve laid firm foundations and a win in our last league game against Wexford will still guarantee top place in the table so it has been an encouraging campaign so far.
“I think we’d have lost our recent games against Tyrone and Clare last season and although it’s disappointing we couldn’t get over the line here too the result effectively changes nothing,” she insisted.
Trailing by seven at one stage in the opening period playing into a breeze, Armagh rallied before the break with Aimee Mackin kicking three points in two minutes to take her first half tally to six.
Kerry kept their noses in front for another 20 minutes but Blaithin Mackin pushed the ball over the line to raise the Orchard outfit’s first green flag and bring the teams level before scoring a cracking goal soon afterwards.
But the wheels came off in spectacular fashion for the hosts as Armagh gifted the Kingdom girls two goals in three minutes from poor restarts, the second a shocking kickout by Caroline O’Hare.
Both Orchard howlers were ruthlessly punished by Ni Mhuircheartaigh, who wasn’t listed to start but showed how much she still has to offer for Kerry after returning recently.
Ni Mhuircheartaigh finished with 2-4 while Hannah O’Donoghue hit 1-2, Sarah Houlihan and Miriam O’Keefe four points each with wing back Anna Galvin contributing two.
Houlihan showed why she has three All Stars to her name, the most recent conferred last season, while O’Donoghue, Player of the Match for UL in this month’s O’Connor Cup final, needs no introduction to Armagh after the teenager’s dream debut last time these teams met in the 2017 All Ireland quarter-final.
For Armagh, Aimee Mackin typically led the way with another nine points and she may also lay claim to the title deeds of younger sibling Blaithin’s opening goal.
The Orchard hierarchy credited Blaithin with the last touch, though that still left the 20-year-old in deficit for the afternoon as she kicked five wides, hit a post high up and couldn’t convert either of two legitimate goal chances.
Aimee missed two relatively straightforward frees in the second half, to go with one wide in the opening period, though the wind may have messed with her head as she hooked both efforts.
Skipper Kelly Mallon, proudly leading Armagh in the Athletic Grounds for the first time, scored three points including a free, but was wide with two efforts from well out in the second half.
Armagh’s other scores came from midfielder Caroline O’Hanlon and Aoife McCoy, with one point apiece, along with a wide each in this high-scoring game.
The tallies could have been even high for Kerry were also guilty of failing to convert chances, kicking six wides of their own and hitting a post above crossbar height.
Whatever about being at fault for Kerry’s third goal in particular, O’Hare also saved a certain major with a stunning stop late in the first half and was typically assured under the high ball all afternoon.
Armagh had been expected to make two changes from the team which salvaged victory over Clare last time out with O’Hanlon and Colleen McKenna returning in place of Eve Lavery and Chloe Magill.
However McKenna, who failed a fitness test the previous Saturday, didn’t make it so Crossmaglen captain Aveen Donaldson lined out at wing back and finally tasted defeat for the first time on her fifth Armagh start.
O’Hanlon had been unavailable against Clare due to a direct clash with a British SuperLeague game but returned to face Kerry on the back of a landmark netball weekend.
On Friday night she had captained Larkfield to victory in the NI Premier League decider and then the following evening helped Manchester Thunder go clear at the top of the SuperLeague table by edging champions Wasps Netball 50-49 in an epic encounter.
The 34-year-old triple All Star was still full of running for Armagh though it was Kerry who got off to the considerably better start in this curtain-raiser game of an Orchard double bill.
O’Keefe and Houlihan posted points for Kerry early on either side of Blaithin Mackin’s first miss and her attempt to punch a perfectly floated ball by O’Hanlon to the net when she could have caught it.
McCoy got Armagh on the board but Houlihan and O’Keefe raised further white flags while the hosts squandered actual chances and also repeatedly played poor balls in.
The prominent Niamh Marley carried a lot of ball but made several reckless challenges that another ref on a different day might have taken exception to and the Orchard crew will need to be efficient and disciplined in every regard if they reach the league final.
Aimee Mackin kicked a free but O’Donoghue scored a goal rendered controversial by the excessive number of steps she seemed to take and the Orchard outfit fell seven behind thanks to a Houlihan free and Galvin shot which bounced over O’Hare and the bar.
Two points by the elder Mackin and one from O’Hanlon reduced the arrears, Mallon punctuated two Ni Mhuircheartaigh frees with a score and then Aimee rattled off those three points to keep Armagh well in touch at the break.
Blaithin Mackin and Galvin traded points at the start of the second and Mallon landed a free awarded when the former was fouled after O’Hanlon had released McCoy on a dashing run.
However Kerry notched three of the next four points to go a goal clear before Aimee Mackin, Ni Mhuircheartaigh and Mallon all missed frees.
Armagh’s scrappy equalising goal was followed by another Houlihan point at the other end before Blaithin took a return ball from big sister Aimee and went through for a brilliant finish to the net.
O’Donoghue immediately halved the deficit with a point and, in between the two Ni Mhuircheartaigh goals in three minutes, they kicked a wide through Houlihan and hit the woodwork, with O’Keefe pointing from the rebound.
Suddenly six down with 58 minutes played, the Armagh management, whose only other substitution saw schoolgirl Grace Ferguson replace Shauna Grey in the first half, threw on forward Niamh Reel for defender Megan Sheirdan.
Aimee Mackin kicked a free but O’Donoghue cancelled it out with a point and although Aimee and captain Mallon raised while flags, time ran out with the Orchard outfit four adrift.
Armagh still lead the table by two points from Waterford, who won against pointless Laois in spite of leaking 4-8, while James Daly’s Cavan drew level with Wexford by beating them on the road and appear favourites for fourth place.
Tyrone’s challenge ended with a fourth defeat in six games, away to Clare who have consequently pushed them down into seventh place.
ARMAGH: C O’Hare; M Sheridan, M Moriarty, S Marley; T Grimes, C McCambridge, A Donaldson; N Coleman, C O’Hanlon (0-1); N Marley, K Mallon (capt; 0-3, 1f), S Grey; A Mackin (0-9, 2f), A McCoy (0-1), B Mackin (2-1). Subs used: G Ferguson for Grey (20mins), N Reel for Sheridan (58).