STALWARTS WILL STILL BE KEY
Orchard captain Caoimhe Morgan will be hoping it is a case of third time lucky when she leads Armagh against Donegal in this Sunday’s Ulster final.
This is Armagh’s sixth appearance in the provincial showpiece and, if the orangewomen were to be beaten, their three losses will have come with Morgan as skipper with the other three deciders resulting in Orchard victories.
That would be a ridiculously cruel record for a woman who is arguably Armagh’s greatest servant ever, an exceptionally passionate player who is in her 19th season in the orange jersey.
An outstanding defender who won an All Star way back in 2006, Morgan remains enthusiastically committed to the Orchard cause even though she will turn 36 next month.
She has fought hard to be fit for this championship campaign after undergoing surgery on a torn cruciate early last September and made her comeback midway through the second half of this month’s Ulster semi-final victory over Monaghan.
Crossmaglen’s Bronagh O’Donnell led Armagh to back-to-back Ulster title triumphs in the mid-noughties starting with a 1-11 to 1-9 win against Monaghan in their first ever final.
They retained their title in 2007 with a very impressive 3-14 to 2-9 victory over Tyrone in Clones, both successes coming under an all-female management team which included current joint boss Lorraine McCaffrey.
However Armagh’s fortunes fell away thereafter and their appearance in the 2010 final during Morgan’s first stint as county captain came against the odds.
They duly lost 1-13 to 1-8 against Monaghan in Clones in a year which saw Tyrone knock Cork out in the All Ireland quarter-finals and eventually lose the decider to Dublin.
The downward spiral led to Armagh dropping out of the Senior Championship at the end of 2011 but they won the All Ireland Intermediate title the following season and became a force again under James Daly, helped by an influx of fresh talent.
In spite of having spent that spring playing in NFL Division Three, the Orchard overcame top flight teams Tyrone and Donegal on their way to the 2014 Ulster showpiece but were still considered outsiders against champions Monaghan in the big game.
However a superb performance from Armagh saw them thump Monaghan 2-19 to 2-7 on an unforgettable afternoon which culminated in Orchard captain Caroline O’Hanlon lifting the trophy in front of a huge crowd.
Armagh didn’t win another provincial championship match until last season’s semi when victory over Cavan set up a showdown with Donegal at Brewster Park in Enniskillen.
It proved an exceptionally chastening experience as Morgan’s girls lost 9-21 to 4-8 on an afternoon when everything just went wrong for Armagh and all Donegal touched turned to gold.
Thankfully Armagh have earned themselves the chance to make amends by reaching this season’s showpiece and it would be great to see Morgan getting her hands on the magnificent trophy.
There is no doubt that it would be fitting for her to join the Orchard’s other two 2006 All Stars, O’Donnell and O’Hanlon, in captaining the team to an Ulster title triumph as all three are real Armagh giants.
Morgan and O’Hanlon have lined out for all of Armagh’s previous five finals while Kelly Mallon, stand-in skipper for the past 11 months, and former captain Maebh Moriarty are set to join a select group of only half a dozen in Orchard history to have played four or more.
Moriarty missed more than six seasons for Armagh, most of which period was spent in Australia, but has been on the field for every minute of their last 14 matches since returning ahead of last June’s Ulster semi.
The other ever-present on the field for the Orchard county this season is Sarah Marley, another experienced campaigner who operates in the full back line and played every minute of Armagh’s 13 matches in 2018 except part of injury-time in the Ulster final.
Armagh may employ Moriarty as a sweeper but otherwise, if Morgan starts, the Orchard outfit’s full back line will have an average age of 34, in contrast to other units of the team.
Marley, Armagh’s 2018 Player of the Year, and Moriarty have been real rocks at the back this season while another of the few surviving veterans, triple All Star O’Hanlon, is still the woman who makes everything tick from midfield.
She still shone in the midst of an unfolding nightmare in last season’s Ulster final and her work-rate was exceptional as always in this month’s semi against Monaghan, including a couple of vital interventions in defence.
Armagh are less reliant on O’Hanlon for scores than in 2014 but she is still one of the most influential female footballers in Ireland and a great asset for this Orchard team and a new crop of talent which can blossom but needs nurturing.