ARMAGH 4-9 CORK 3-11
Richard Bullick at Tullamore
Brilliant Armagh kept their All Ireland dream alive with a superb performance which earned the Orchard outfit’s first ever victory over Cork in a championship match.
Letting slip an 11-point lead to be beaten by an injury-time free from Cavan in their opening group game meant only a win would do if Armagh were to reach the quarter-finals.
Against all the odds, the orangewomen won, with a wonderful display built upon absolute belief, ferocious commitment, exceptional composure under pressure, some wonderful football and several great goals.
Ironically the only time all afternoon that these Orchard heroes lacked certainty and didn’t dare to dream was after the hooter, when weary bodies slumped to the floor because scrambled minds somehow thought Armagh’s margin needed to be two points.
Corner back Sarah Marley initially led the celebrations alone but the meticulous solicitor soon convinced colleagues that her sums made sense, sparking joyous scenes among players, management and the small travelling support.
With all three teams in the group finishing level on one win each, scoring difference decided placings and Cavan came last thanks to their 20-point pasting by Cork, who consequently came top.
Having lost by the minimum margin to Cork in two previous championship clashes, the 2006 All Ireland final and a qualifier seven years later, it seemed fitting that Armagh’s eventual victory should also be by a single point.
Trailing by four at the interval in Tullamore and having already lost double All Star forward Aimee Mackin to a twisted knee, the Orchard crew, who went into this match as rank outsiders, had a seemingly impossible mountain to climb.
However an unforgettable goal rush, of four majors in a 10-minute purple patch, put unfancied Armagh a barely believable 10 points ahead at one stage in a surreal second half against the most successful county in ladies gaelic history.
Current National League champions Cork won an astonishing 11 All Ireland titles in 12 years up until 2018 and their resurgent side are tipped to regain the Brendan Martin Cup from Dublin this season.
They hit back clinically to drastically reduce the Orchard advantage and few would have bet against Ephie Fitzgerald’s Rebelettes going on to the win which they had been overwhelming favourites for in advance.
But battling Armagh had other ideas as they held their nerve and kept coming up with what was needed at key moments, the most notable being Sarah Marley’s perfectly-timed tackle in the 58th minute which denied Cork a certain and probably match-winning goal.
Armagh fought for every blade of grass on O’Connor Park’s perfect pitch and winning those moments laid the foundations for this famous victory on one of those unpredictable but glorious days which make sport so special.
It would have been cruel for Lorraine McCaffrey and Fionnuala McAtamney’s team to have another near miss against Cork or to be beaten after holding a healthy lead for the second time in a fortnight.
But Armagh held on for what was an absolutely sensational but thoroughly deserved victory on the day for they should have had another goal either side of the interval to go with the four which were scored.
The sense of frustration from the Ulster final flop against Donegal and implosion against Cavan was palpable because this Armagh group knew they had a big game in them.
Saturday was the last chance to deliver that special performance and, rather than facing into a relegation play-off after the expected defeat, Armagh made history by shocking Cork with a win for the ages.
Saturday’s results in Tullamore mean Armagh are through to meet Mayo in the All Ireland quarter-final on Saturday week while both of their recent conquerors, Cavan and Donegal, have been knocked out.
This was an exceptionally proud day for the Marley family with all four sisters starting together in a championship match for the first time and it was fitting that the occasion coincided with one of Armagh’s greatest ever victories.
When Armagh played Cork in the corresponding group game the same weekend last year, three of the quartet were sidelined by torn cruciates and now the hard work which got them back has been richly rewarded.
Controversially left out of the starting team a couple of times this summer, the immense Niamh Marley was at the heart of everything here and her superb performance was a significant factor for Armagh.
Youngest sister Catherine has had a frustrating season with very little game-time prior to Saturday, but being part of this landmark win will make all the effort feel worthwhile.
The eldest sibling, captain Caoimhe Morgan, is the Orchard’s longest-serving player ever, whose hunger and drive remains remarkable in her 19th season in the orange jersey which means everything to her.
Last month, Donegal inflicted the former All Star’s third defeat as Armagh captain in an Ulster final and then that sickening Cavan ambush spoiled her 36th birthday, but nobody deserves this triumph more.
Harshly sinbinned as Armagh agonisingly lost that Croke Park showpiece against Cork in 2006, this win was a long time coming for inspirational skipper Morgan and her fellow All Star from that year, Caroline O’Hanlon.
There was an emotional embrace between those two timeless Orchard heroes at the end of what was only the second ever victory by an Ulster team against Cork in the All Ireland Senior Championship, following Tyrone in the 2010 quarter-final.
O’Hanlon has just returned from captaining Northern Ireland at the Netball World Cup where, the previous Saturday, she had turned her ankle badly in the final fixture against Trinidad.
It was still strapped on Saturday and that maybe contributed to Armagh’s midfield maestro spending some of the game in the forward division but the triple All Star’s superlative performance featured plenty of her trademark runs and diligent defending.
Displaying typical creativity, vision and precision skills, O’Hanlon delivered several sublime balls to colleagues, set up Kelly Mallon for the third Armagh goal and topped the Orchard charts with 1-3 herself including a wonderful finish high to the net.
If O’Hanlon, who turns 35 next week, ever begins growing old for demanding midfield duties, Saturday suggests she has a future as an inside forward who can confidently take her own scores and expertly provide for others.
Having her up front for periods was especially useful against Cork given the loss of Armagh’s most prolific forward Aimee Mackin, who had scored three of the team’s four first half points but went down in evident distress in the 27th minute.
After a lengthy stoppage for treatment, she eventually left the field with great reluctance just before the interval, which came with Cork 1-5 to 0-4 ahead, though the Munster champions had just lost former captain Ciara O’Sullivan to the sinbin.
Losing Aimee Mackin was a big blow but others stepped up, not least her younger sibling Blaithin, who was a worthy Player of the Match, though, to a woman, the entire Orchard crew were simply magnificent on an afternoon filled with Armagh heroes.
Blaithin Mackin contributed 1-2, including an outstanding goal two minutes after O’Hanlon’s superb strike, with the other green flags being raised by Mallon and Mairead Watters, who had got the nod over Silverbridge’s Niamh Reel to replace Aimee Mackin.
The alert Watters clawed down a Cork defender’s attemped pass following a short kickout and, although goalkeeper Martina O’Brien blocked the Crossmaglen woman’s first shot, she forced home the rebound to put Armagh an astonishing 10 ahead.
It was a satisfying afternoon for Mallon, an absentee from Armagh’s 2017 league victory over Cork due to injury, with the Tullamore result meaning she has got her customary summer victory over Cork opposition in spite of failing to make this year’s All Ireland road bowls final!
Although uncharacteristically scoreless, Dromintee dynamo Aoife McCoy just went at Cork all afternoon like a diminutive menace and she was incredibly unlucky to somehow hit the far post low down after a thrilling run late in the first half.
Centre half back Clodagh McCambridge had a great game, marked by countless timely interventions including one towards the end when sheer hunger got her to a ball which Cork looked to have under control.
Morgan hailed the contribution of another pair of young defenders drafted in as two of five changes to the team which started against Cavan last time out, Megan Sheridan of Forkhill and Grange’s Colleen McKenna.
Sheridan has had to bide her time since breaking her hand in the National League game against Kerry in March while McKenna has enjoyed good game-time this season but was left out at Templeport.
In addition to those two coming in and Catherine Marley being give a chance, the other Orchard changes saw O’Hanlon return after missing her first Senior Championship match since 2008, and her clubmate Anna Carr displace Caroline O’Hare in nets.
Another Cruppen player, defender Rebecca O’Reilly, dropped out along with Crossmaglen captain Aveen Donaldson, teenager Reel and the absent Niamh Coleman while Cork had several late changes to their published line-up.
O’Hare, who has made numerous superb saves this season, was arguably unlucky to be left out but Armagh have two quality goalkeepers and the Orchard’s recent kick-out woes may have influenced Carr’s selection for a rare outing.
An originally conservative Cork didn’t push up as hard as Donegal did to great effect in last month’s Ulster final but Carr generally hit her targets and also pushed Saoirse Noonan’s penalty onto the post, though fellow sub Libby Coppinger bundled in the rebound.
The newly-married Donaldson replaced Catherine Marley midway through the second half, thus featuring for Armagh the two weekends either side of her wedding to county team physio Dermot Bellew.
Along with Morgan and O’Hanlon, sweeper Maebh Moriarty is the third Armagh survivor from that 2006 All Ireland decider defeat and, unlike the other pair, she missed the Orchard’s only ever victory over Cork in a NFL fixture at Clonmore two seasons ago, though this win, in a far bigger game, meant much more.
Moriarty and Sarah Marley are the only two players to have been on the field for every minute of Armagh’s 12 matches so far this season, though Tiarna Grimes just missed the end of injury-time in the Ulster semi against Monaghan due to being sinbinned.
The Lurgan girl has become a useful figure for Armagh and played the full hour here too, garnishing another solid display with a fine opening point of what would prove a fantastic second half for the team in orange.
Earlier, Cork had kicked no fewer than five wides in the opening 11 minutes but were leading by two points to one thanks to scores from Orla Finn and Ciara O’Sullivan after Aimee Mackin had raised the afternoon’s first white flag.
Armagh had a great goal chance when McCoy slipped Blaithin Mackin in after a great run but O’Brien blocked brilliantly at her feet and a great ball from Cork captain Doireann O’Sullivan to sister Ciara led to Rhona Ni Bhuachalla hitting the net.
O’Hanlon, who had been the architect of her team’s early point, kicked a wide having previously shot straight at the keeper, and although she then set up points for both Mackin sisters, both were cancelled out by Doireann O’Sullivan to keep the gap at four.
Aimee Mackin kicked a wide after a great ball by Mallon but converted a free after Doireann O’Sullivan, making her first start of the season due to a back problem, posted her third point.
Ciara O’Sullivan rattled Carr’s crossbar but Armagh were equally unlucky at the other end when the small McCoy caught the ball above her head and went on that great run only to somehow hit the far post.
Aimee Mackin was already down injured and continued to receive attention as Mallon missed a fairly straightforward free but Cork, who at one stage had everybody but one player behind their own 45, kicked a wide of their own.
The team in white were temporarily reduced to 14 deep in injury-time when Ciara O’Sullivan was sinbinned by Maggie Farrelly for reckless contact on Niamh Marley, the sanction sparking some embarrassing behaviour by Cork’s biggest name.
Watters took over from Aimee Mackin while Cork brought on Eimear Scally and Libby Coppinger, both originally listed to start, in place of Aisling Hutchings and Chloe Collins.
Grimes got the underdogs off to a positive start, pointing within 40 seconds from a ball by Mallon after Armagh had won a turnover downfield and wonderful Orchard defence finally forced Cork to kick a wide at the other end.
A sublime move, which saw Niamh Marley catch the Armagh kickout and go on a surging run before O’Hanlon and Blaithin Mackin combined brilliantly, deserved a goal but in the end the latter rolled it straight at the keeper.
Finn got a point for Cork but O’Hanlon kicked a long free and soon netted an equalising goal when Catherine Marley won a great turnover and sent sibling Niamh rampaging forward.
O’Hanlon had work to do but held off a challenge before finishing superbly to the roof of the net and she put Armagh ahead with a nicely taken point just after Finn had hit the post with a free at the other end.
Ciara O’Sullivan returned from the bin and pointed within 60 seconds but, in between, Armagh had scored their second great goal in two minutes, this time a stunning solo effort by Blaithin Mackin.
McCambridge cut out a final pass which would surely have resulted in a Cork goal and captain Morgan made another crucial intervention at the back before Blaithin put Armagh four up with her second point.
A delightful ball by O’Hanlon left Mallon through on goal and she confidently finished to the net, and although Doireann O’Sullivan pulled back a point just before Cork replaced Ni Bhuachalla with soccer star Noonan, the tide kept flowing for Armagh.
Carr sent Blaithin Mackin racing down the right wing with a perfectly weighted kickout and she found the supporting O’Hanlon who sent over another impeccable point.
When Watters punished Cork’s uncertainty at the back with a fourth Armagh goal, the orangewomen were briefly 10 points to the good but midfielder Maire O’Callaghan quickly responded with a great goal for Fitzgerald’s team.
Armagh were working hard as exemplified by Mallon racing back for a clean catch of Carr’s kickout but the recently introduced Donaldson was dispossessed in attack and Niamh Marley had little option but to give away a penalty at the other end.
Noonan’s effort was saved by Carr but the ball came back off the post for Coppinger to put away, though thankfully Marley didn’t receive a yellow card from Farrelly.
Cavan official Farrelly has sinbinned 11 Armagh players in five matches over recent years and was a strange appointment for this fixture with her native county being the third team in this group.
However the Orchard crew could have few complaints with the officiating on a day they kept a full complement of players on the field throughout.
It was game on now though and Cork closed the gap to just a single goal with a 54th minute Finn free followed by a Scally point but Sarah Marley’s brilliant tackle and another McCambridge intervention kept the threat at bay.
Doireann O’Sullivan reduced the arrears to one in the first minute of injury-time but her next attempt went wide and a last effort from Cork floated through harmlessly as the hooter brought relief for Armagh, albeit by delayed reaction!
Tullamore has been a happy hunting ground for Armagh as O’Connor Park was also the setting for their 23-point thrashing of Laois in the All Ireland quarter-final when, ironically, O’Hanlon had also just returned from a major international netball tournament, the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games.
That win was marred by an injury to one of Armagh’s most important players at the time, Mairead Tennyson, but she recovered quickly and ended the year with an All Star so hopefully that is a good omen for Aimee Mackin now with the semi-final against Mayo on the horizon.
ARMAGH: A Carr; S Marley, C Morgan (capt), M Moriarty, C McKenna, C McCambridge, M Sheridan; N Marley, T Grimes (0-1); K Mallon (1-0), C O’Hanlon (1-3, 1f), C Marley; A Mackin (0-3, 1f), A McCoy, B Mackin (1-1). Subs used: M Watters (1-0) for A Mackin (ht), A Donaldson for C Marley (47mins).
CORK: M O’Brien; E Meaney, E Spillane, S Kelly; M Duggan, A Hutchings, M Cahalane; M O’Callaghan (1-0), A O’Sullivan; D Kiely, C O’Sullivan (0-2), C Collins; O Finn (0-3, 1f), D O’Sullivan (0-5), R Ni Bhuachalla (1-0). Subs used: E Scally (0-1) for Hutchings (ht), L Coppinger (0-1) for Collins (ht), S Noonan for Ni Bhuachalla (46).
Referee: Maggie Farrelly (Cavan).