ORCHARD HERITAGE IS IN GOOD HANDS
Current Armagh joint manager Fionnuala McAtamney was wearing the No 1 jersey when the orangewomen won their first Ulster title back in 2006 but the Portadown native reckons another triumph this weekend would feel just as special.
“They say nothing beats playing but there will be huge satisfaction for myself and Lorraine (McCaffrey) if Armagh can get over the line in this final,” she insists.
“In management you’re trying to help people achieve their dreams and there’s a responsibility which comes with that but also a great pride in the girls and a burning desire for them to do well and get their rewards.
“There’s a great sense of fulfillment from watching girls grow as players and knowing we’re developing people in the process, but in sport everyone wants silverware and there’s a hunger in Armagh for fresh success.
“It has been evolution rather than major transition in the sense that thankfully there hasn’t had to be backward steps in the short-term to move forward for the future, but we’ve significant changes this season and now a considerably younger team is forging a new identity.
“Some of the quite established younger girls haven’t won a trophy yet with Armagh and they want to write a new chapter in our history to sit with past triumphs they hear about.
“But we’re also longing for fresh success for our great stalwarts who have given such service, the likes of Caoimhe (Morgan) and Caroline (O’Hanlon) who have been there so long, Maebh Moriarty who was away for many years and Sarah Marley, who missed out through injury in 2014.”
In 2014, McAtamney was the goalkeeping coach and part of James Daly’s backroom team when the Orchard outfit famously upset Monaghan in a packed Clones.
One abiding image of that incredible day was an ecstatic Caoimhe Morgan just jumping on top of her former team-mate, bringing both crashing heavily to the ground.
“She was giving me some stick about buckling so easily, insisting she wasn’t that heavy, but, in my defence, all that diving around as a goalkeeper had taken its toll on my back!.”
If Armagh get the job done this Sunday, Fionnuala will be wary of a pumped-up Morgan launching herself again but that’s a risk she’ll happily accept in turn for seeing this true Orchard hero lifting the trophy.
“It’s hard to put into words how much we want this Ulster title for Caoimhe in particular, not just for all she has given over so many years but the dedication, commitment and character she has shown working her way back from major injury ahead of schedule.”
Former Armagh goalkeeper McAtamney’s own playing career was much more blighted by injury than Morgan’s has been but the pair were key elements of the Orchard rearguard in that landmark year of 2006.
By then the Orchard crew were in their third season under an all-female management trio which included Fionnuala’s current colleague at the helm, McCaffrey.
In 2005 they had won NFL Division Two followed by the Ulster and All Ireland second tier championships but didn’t go up to the Senior ranks tentatively or apologetically just trying to consolidate and hold their own.
Armagh were crowned provincial champions by overcoming Monaghan in the decider before going on to reach the main All Ireland final at their first attempt.
They only lost to champions Cork by an agonising single point at Croke Park after which McAtamney was one of seven Armagh players to make the All Stars shortlist and the then Caoimhe Marley among three actual recipients.
“We had momentum coming from 2005 and not much pressure on us as Monaghan were the standard-bearers in Ulster at that time. But we’d ambition, belief, balance, a great bond within the group and character as well as talent.”
Although Monaghan have dominated the northern provincial championship this century, Donegal have won three of the last four Ulster titles and hammered Armagh 9-21 to 4-8 in last season’s showpiece.
“At the time we absolutely believed that was a freak result which didn’t reflect the game or relative standing of the two teams and we proved that in the subsequent All Ireland quarter-final.
“Although gutting to fall just short, only losing by three points exorcised some ghosts and next weekend will be a new game in a new season between two quite changed teams.
“It’s inevitable there will be references in the media and so forth to what happened last season as this is the corresponding game but our focus is more on performance than revenge.”
The Armagh management went to Killyclogher to watch Donegal survive a major scare against Cavan and win 0-24 to 2-13 after extra-time a week after the Orchard crew’s comparatively comfortable 5-14 to 1-12 victory over Monaghan in the first semi.
“I wasn’t surprised Donegal got a very tough game, even quite fancied Cavan to win, and of course they had a healthy lead late on so it was a real possibility though once it went to extra-time I felt their best chance had gone.
“It was an incredible game though, which Cavan contributed a lot to. They’ve got a lot stronger since we beat them heavily in February and, like Tyrone, really tested Donegal.
“Because of our strong start against Monaghan we haven’t been tested in the heat of Championship this summer so far the way Donegal have but we’re feeling fresh, hungry and quietly confident from the hard work which has been done.
“Obviously there has been plenty to work on since the Monaghan match, including knowing we need to be more ruthless at times when on top in a game, but it was a pleasing performance and convincing victory.”
Donegal got 24 scores against Cavan, an astonishing 14 of them from dangerwoman Geraldine McLaughlin and a further eight courtesy of skipper Karen Guthrie, two players who need no introduction.
“They’re two top quality footballers but, like ourselves, Donegal aren’t a two-woman team so we’ll be conscious of those threats but not just focus on individuals.
“Donegal always have forwards who can pose problems but our defence has been working well as a unit with great togetherness and I think that is an area of improvement since last year’s final,” reflects Fionnuala.
Apart from Brewster’s bad memories, she is happy this season’s showpiece is in Armagh’s second home of Clones, the natural location for Ulster finals and a special place which holds happy memories for Fionnuala and Orchard colleagues.
“I haven’t too many bad memories there and Clones suits our style of play so the final being back at St Tiernach’s Park this season is something we’re happy with,” she says.
Meanwhile Fermanagh native McCaffrey may keep an eye out for how the Ernewomen get on against Antrim in Sunday’s Ulster Junior Championship final, which is the curtain-raiser (1.30pm) to the main match, but she’s long since about the closest you’d ever get to an honorary Armagh person.
The Orchard’s proud heritage established in those glory years of the mid-noughties is fully understood by the Armagh joint managers and the scoreline in last season’s final must have been tough for them to take too.
They yearn for fresh success to reward this emerging group of players, young and old alike, but likewise an Armagh triumph this Sunday would be no more than the dedicated duo deserve for their tireless efforts.