OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS FOR YOUNG GUNS
Only a fifth of Lorraine McCaffrey and Fionnuala McAtamney’s squad of 30 for Sunday have played in a winning Armagh team in an Ulster final.
Captain Caoimhe Morgan and triple All Star Caroline O’Hanlon each have three provincial championship medals while a further four players possess one apiece.
Former captain Maebh Moriarty’s came against Tyrone in 2007 while the 2014 triumph featured this season’s stand-in skipper Kelly Mallon, Niamh Marley and the then newcomer Aoife McCoy.
But double All Star Aimee Mackin has yet to taste Ulster Senior Championship success while the likes of her younger sibling Blaithin and Clodagh McCambridge, both well established now, haven’t won any silverware with Armagh to date.
A few of the emerging generation have only nightmare memories from last season’s Brewster Park pasting by Donegal while others such as Niamh Coleman and Colleen McKenna have yet to tog out on Ulster final day.
By contrast, Morgan and O’Hanlon have started all five finals that Armagh have been in while Moriarty and Mallon are set to join an exclusive club of only six players in Orchard history to line out in four Ulster showpieces.
Perhaps surprisingly there are only nine survivors from the squad which won Armagh’s most recent Ulster title five years ago who will be back on duty this weekend in Clones.
That contingent includes Sarah Marley, who was actually on crutches that day having broken her ankle, and three unused subs from the 2014 final in her younger sister Catherine Marley, Eve Lavery and reserve goalkeeper Anna Carr.
The then captain O’Hanlon, Morgan, Mallon, Niamh Marley and McCoy all started on a memorable afternoon when Armagh shocked hot favourites and reigning champions Monaghan with an emphatic 2-19 to 2-7 victory.
Player of the Match O’Hanlon’s contribution of 1-2 included converting a penalty, Mallon netted the only Armagh goal from play, while McCoy chipped in with two points.
Three other present players who weren’t involved in the 2014 final, Moriarty, Rebecca O’Reilly and Caroline O’Hare, had togged out for at least one previous showpiece.
Two thirds of this Sunday’s crew were in Brewster Park last June, including 11 of those who started on that occasion and three of the five subs used.
Sisters Aimee and Blaithin Mackin, Clann Eireann pair McCambridge and Tiarna Grimes, and converted keeper O’Hare each played from the off in their first final and were joined off the bench by fellow decider debutants Megan Sheridan, Niamh Reel and Niamh Murphy.
Crossmaglen captain Aveen Donaldson and teenagers Cait Towe, Megan McCann and Aoibheann Jones were all in that squad but didn’t feature in the game.
Four Brewster Park starters, Mairead Tennyson, Sharon Reel, Fionnuala McKenna and Lauren McConville have since left the panel along with two of the subs used, Marian McGuinness and Shauna Grey.
The 10 fresh faces compared to last summer’s Ulster final include Lissummon siblings Niamh and Catherine Marley, both of whom were sidelined by torn cruciates at that time.
Clann Eireann’s Coleman, Grange’s McKenna, Crossmaglen’s Mairead Watters and Chloe Magill of St Peter’s have returned to the squad this season while schoolgirl trio Grace Ferguson from Ballyhegan and Clonmore pair Sarah Quigley and Emma Conlon are entirely new.
Youngsters Ferguson, Quigley, Conlon, Towe, McCann and Jones seem unlikely to get on the field for a first taste of Ulster final action and the same may apply to Watters, Magill and, for the third time, unlucky back-up keeper Carr.
Two of those who haven’t been in an Ulster final matchday squad before, McKenna and Coleman, are in the frame to start as is Donaldson, an unused sub 12 months ago.
Ballyhegan’s Lavery and Catherine Marley both benched in 2014 without being called upon and the former, who started the recent Ulster semi-final in place of the injured Aimee Mackin, would appear to have the better chance of getting game-time five years on.
The youngest of four sisters in the panel, Catherine played the first half of Armagh’s opening National League game at the beginning of February but was limited to a late cameo against Wexford in round seven and then tore her hamstring in a club game ahead of the Division Two semi-final.
In spite of well-established regulars Tennyson, Reel, McKenna, McConville and McGuinness, who all started the 2014 final, leaving last winter, Armagh have healthy competition for starting spots at present so McAtamney and McCaffrey face positive selection headaches before finalising their line-up.
There may be an old adage about not changing a winning team but there are four frontliners who didn’t start against Monaghan who will presumably be pushing hard for starting spots.
Attacking ace Aimee Mackin, Armagh’s leading scorer in each of the six games she has started this season, just came off the bench at the Athletic Grounds after being deemed not fit to start.
Captain Morgan was eased back into action via the bench on her return from long-term injury while Sheridan, just back from a broken hand, wasn’t risked.
An apparently uninjured Niamh Marley wasn’t called upon at all in the Monaghan match, but hopefully whatever factor caused that absence from the field no longer applies, for defeating Donegal will require all Armagh hands on deck.
If close to full fitness, Aimee Mackin will almost certainly replace Lavery in the forward division, while O’Hare, Sarah Marley, Moriarty, McCambridge, O’Hanlon, Mallon, McCoy and Blaithin Mackin all look nailed-on starters.
Although Armagh may be cautious in selection considering Donegal’s attacking threat and heavy scoring in last season’s final, they will probably go with five forwards especially as young Niamh Reel has made herself hard to leave out.
The Orchard’s defensive formation may be built around whatever plan they devise to nullify McLaughlin and who the main marking job goes to.
Morgan could start at the expense O’Reilly or come in at full back between the Carrickcruppen player and her own sister Sarah with Moriarty wearing a higher number but operating as a dedicated sweeper.
In that scenario O’Reilly could still lose out on a starting spot to accommodate Sheridan returning to the team, with either the Forkhill player or Colleen McKenna wearing the No 4 jersey.
Grimes had played every minute of this season so far until being sinbinned in injury-time in the Ulster semi while the two Niamhs, Coleman and Marley, along with Donaldson are all options in the middle sector around a spine of McCambridge, O’Hanlon and Mallon.
If young Reel starts up front, eight good players will be fighting over five places so whichever three miss out will join useful forward reserves Lavery, Catherine Marley and a tall target option in Mullaghbawn captain Murphy on a robust bench.