ARMAGH GET CHANCE OF REDEMPTION
Armagh will be playing for more than the coveted title and magnificent trophy in Sunday’s Ulster Senior Championship showpiece in Clones.
Victory over holders Donegal in the final at St Tiernach’s Park (3.45pm) would see Armagh crowned provincial champions for only the fourth time in Orchard history.
However winning would also finally put to bed the nightmare memories of a humiliating hammering at the hands of the same opposition in the corresponding game last season.
The Orchard outfit took an unexpected 28-point pasting that afternoon at Brewster Park as Donegal romped home on an astonishing 9-21 to 4-8 scoreline.
Thankfully Armagh got a relatively quick chance to make amends when the teams met again seven weeks later and the orangewomen exorcised some ghosts in the All Ireland quarter-final at Omagh’s Healy Park.
From six down at the interval, Lorraine McCaffrey and Fionnuala McAtamney’s team battled back to level terms on the home straight before being edged out by a three-point margin.
That more recent result will ensure Armagh go into this Sunday’s showdown with no fear factor or inferiority complex and the hurt from last June’s final will just be used for more motivation.
Orchard captain Caoimhe Morgan was talking about the the opportunity to ‘right a wrong’ straight after her team secured their ticket to Clones by overcoming Monaghan at the Athletic Grounds earlier this month.
Donegal were expected to come through the other side of the draw and duly did so but not without being given a scare by Tyrone and having a titanic tussle with Cavan in the semis.
Former Armagh manager James Daly’s Breffni brigade actually led by five points towards the end but Donegal grabbed an equalising score deep in injury-time at Killyclogher and ran out 0-24 to 2-13 winners after extra-time.
Having these two tough games under their belt should stand to Donegal whereas Armagh haven’t had to dig deep in this Championship campaign thanks to the sort of flying start against Monaghan teams can normally just dream about.
Aoife McCoy hit the net after a mere 18 seconds and the Orchard crew were 2-8 to 0-1 up at the end of the first quarter, paving the way for a convincing 5-14 to 1-12 victory.
So these sides have had contrasting paths to the final, with NFL Division Two team Armagh overcoming opponents recently relegated from the top flight while first division Donegal just squeezed past two second division sides.
Donegal, All Ireland semi-finalists last season and NFL Division One semi-finalists this spring, will still start favourites but appear a lot less invincible in Ulster than they seemed 12 months ago after that landslide victory.
What happened at Brewster will inevitably be referenced in every build-up piece to this Sunday’s showpiece but should have very little relevance to the intriguing tussle in prospect.
The subsequent tie in Omagh helped Armagh move on and both teams have evolved in personnel terms in the intervening period too though remain under the same management.
Veteran Orchard defenders Mairead Tennyson and Sharon Reel have retired from inter-county football along with another experienced campaigner Marian McGuinness who was also a regular last season but just came off he bench in the final.
Crossmaglen’s Lauren McConville is in Australia now while Armagh Harps skipper Fionnuala McKenna, another virtual ever-present for the past five years, has taken this season out from Orchard duty.
Donegal are also much-changed from 12 months ago with eight of the initial line-up from the 2018 final not starting this season’s semi against Cavan, including late withdrawal Niamh Hegarty.
The centre half forward should be back to face Armagh but her fellow All Star sister Ciara Hegarty and Brewster Park top-scorer Yvonne Bonner are among the big names missing.
Maxi Curran’s absentee list also includes Aoife McDonnell, Eilish Ward, Sarah-Jane McDonald and the McCafferty sisters but Kate Keeney and Shannon McGroddy are back.
It was Keeney who got that crucial late equaliser to secure Donegal extra-time against Cavan on an evening when the dangerous Geraldine McLaughlin and skipper Karen Guthrie hit all but two of their 24 points.
McLaughlin had three frees among her 14 points while all but one of Guthrie’s eight scores came from set-pieces so any Armagh indiscipline is likely to be punished severely.
It will be interesting to see how Armagh go about trying to nullify Donegal’s attacking threat, albeit Bonner, who hit 3-6 to McLaughlin’s 3-4 in last season’s final, represents considerable loss of forward fire-power.
However what could easily be overlooked from last season’s free-flowing final is that Armagh scored 4-8 themselves, hit both posts and missed a penalty.
That was in spite of a disappointing performance from double All Star forward Aimee Mackin, who was badly curtailed by injury in the second half and eventually limped off.
Her comparatively paltry 1-2 was comprised of a penalty and two frees on a day Caroline O’Hanlon led the way with 1-3, supplemented by 1-1 apiece from Kelly Mallon and Blaithin Mackin, with McCoy getting the other point.
The orangewomen were in touch at just four behind in the 30th minute but a Donegal purple patch yielded a quickfire 2-2 to take an interval lead of 12 points and Armagh never recovered.
It should be a much closer contest this time even though Donegal remain formidable with the likes of McLaughlin, Guthrie, All Star corner back Treasa Doherty, former skipper Katy Herron and Deirdre Foley in their ranks.
Triple All Star O’Hanlon as always will be a key figure for Armagh, whose fans will hope Aimee Mackin has recovered from injury to take her place up front.
She was restricted to a cameo appearance from the bench against Monaghan but the silver lining was that others scored all but a point of Armagh’s healthy 5-14 last time out.
Her younger sibling Blaithin Mackin, the dynamic McCoy and powerful Mallon are all fine forwards in their own right, teenager Niamh Reel is making her mark too and O’Hanlon can chip in from midfield.
McAtamney has expressed pleasure with how well the Orchard defence, further bolstered by having captain Morgan available again after long-term injury, are functioning as a unit and they will need to be tight here.
Like Armagh’s first ever Ulster Senior Championship success when they beat Monaghan in 2006, their opponents this weekend are going for three titles on the trot.
Last time Armagh were crowned provincial champions five years ago, Monaghan were going for five in a row so they have history of ending winning streaks.
There are compelling parallels with 2014 when Armagh also began their campaign with a convincing victory in the Athletic Grounds and then too star turn O’Hanlon was off to a major international netball tournament the following week.
Captaining Northern Ireland at the forthcoming Netball World Cup will mean O’Hanlon missing Armagh’s opening All Ireland group game on July 13 or 20, with Sunday’s outcome determining who and when the orangewomen will be playing.
Winning the Ulster title would see Armagh meet old enemy Tyrone on captain Morgan’s birthday in a group also including Mayo or Galway who drew with each other in Sunday’s Connacht final.
Losing this weekend would see Armagh grouped with recrowned Munster champions Cork and Cavan, with the first fixture being against their Ulster rivals on July 20.
Depending on selection, Armagh may have as many as 11 clubs represented in their starting team for Clones, with a total of 14 supplying players for the panel of 30.
Clann Eireann lead the way with six, to four from Lissummon, the quartet of Marley sisters, and three each from both Camlough clubs, Carrickcruppen and Shane O’Neills.
Mullaghbawn, Crossmaglen, Ballyhegan and Clonmore provide two players apiece with single representatives from Armagh Harps, Dromintee, Silverbridge, Grange, Forkhill and St Peter’s.
In terms of the breakdown, 22 of the panel come from all nine of Armagh’s Senior Championship clubs, supplemented by five from Intermediate tier teams and three play at Junior level.
ARMAGH SQUAD: Caroline O’Hare (Mullaghbawn), Anna Carr (Carrickcruppen), Sarah Marley (Lissummon), Caoimhe Morgan (Lissummon; capt), Rebecca O’Reilly (Carrickcruppen), Maebh Moriarty (Clann Eireann), Colleen McKenna (Grange), Megan Sheridan (Forkhill), Clodagh McCambridge (Clann Eireann), Niamh Marley (Lissummon), Aveen Donaldson (Crossmaglen), Tiarna Grimes (Clann Eireann), Caroline O’Hanlon (Carrickcruppen), Niamh Coleman (Clann Eireann), Kelly Mallon (Armagh Harps), Aoife McCoy (Dromintee), Blaithin Mackin (Shane O’Neills), Aimee Mackin (Shane O’Neills), Eve Lavery (Ballyhegan), Catherine Marley (Lissummon), Niamh Reel (Silverbridge), Niamh Murphy (Mullaghbawn), Mairead Watters (Crossmaglen), Chloe Magill (St Peter’s), Cait Towe (Clann Eireann), Megan McCann (Clann Eireann), Aoibheann Jones (Shane O’Neills), Grace Ferguson (Ballyhegan), Sarah Quigley (Clonmore), Emma Conlon (Clonmore).