CLARE 1-8 ARMAGH 5-8
Armagh got Ronan Murphy’s reign off to the best possible start as five goals set the Orchard outfit on course for an emphatic away win over Clare in Doonbeg on Sunday.
The hosts hit the last three scores of the match but by then Murphy’s main focus was on giving girls game-time off the bench as he used eight subs in the final quarter.
Blaithin Mackin’s second goal on 50 minutes was Murphy’s cue to ring the changes with his side a fantastic 15 points clear of potentially dangerous opponents who had high hopes of taking a significant scalp.
This opening National League game of the season had looked like a tricky trip for the orangewomen, who just scraped a victory over Clare in Dromintee last March.
With the NFL’s new straight final format, teams must finish in the table’s top two this spring to be in the hunt for promotion to the top flight so ambitious Armagh had to hit the ground running.
Murphy hasn’t the luxury of a honeymoon period even though Armagh have gone into this campaign without recently retired captain Caoimhe Morgan and their most prolific forward Aimee Mackin.
Over-reliance on double All Star Mackin, sidelined for the entire first phase of this season as she rehabs following major knee surgery, has been a past problem for Armagh.
However their four goals in a 10-minute purple patch in last summer’s famous upset of Cork came with the elder Mackin having already left the field with a torn cruciate and, here too, others stepped up.
Four different forwards raised green flags with Aoife McCoy and Aimee’s younger sibling Blaithin Mackin each hitting the net in the first 10 minutes after good build-up play.
Clare had twice taken the lead early on with points sandwiching McCoy’s fourth minute effort for Armagh but those two quick-fire goals settled any understandable nerves in the visiting ranks.
Full forward Niamh O’Dea, dangerous in the corresponding game last spring, struck back with a 14th minute major but Mallon raised two white flags in quick succession midway through the half.
However Armagh didn’t score again in the opening period as a couple more points from the home team cut the Orchard side’s interval lead to just two points.
“We dominated possession playing against the breeze but struggled to get scores, only converting from five of our 17 first half attacks, for we were guilty of playing into their hands with slow build-up play,” reflected captain Mallon.
It was a different story after the break though as Armagh hit a decisive 3-5 to just a paltry point from the Banner women in an impressive 20-minute period.
“Our second half performance was much more encouraging as we settled and started moving the ball faster. We took advantage when they lost a player to the sinbin and got great rewards from pressing their kick-outs.”
Niamh Marley got the first score early on with Mallon adding a goal and a point before Clare got off the mark for the second half, but their hopes of a comeback didn’t last long.
The visitors scored 2-3 in a devastating spell starting with a Mackin point and then a goal from Catherine Marley, her first for Armagh.
The youngest of four siblings to follow their dad Noel as county footballers, Catherine had made a major impression against Cork and Mayo last summer after being given an overdue opportunity in the team.
She has the chance to nail down a starting spot this season and getting among the Armagh goals here can only boost the 23-year-old’s confidence further.
Mallon brought her tally to 1-4 before her Armagh Harps club captain Fionnuala McKenna marked her return to inter-county football by becoming the Orchard’s sixth scorer of the afternoon.
When Mackin netted again a minute later it put Armagh 15 ahead and, although like the opening period, there were no Orchard scores late in the second half, it didn’t matter.
“The goals gave us a cushion and Ronan was able to give a lot of girls a run from the bench including Edel Hagney and Alex Clarke joining Corinna Doyle in making their first Armagh appearances.”
Having handed a surprise Orchard debut to one 17-year-old schoolgirl forward from Granemore, Doyle, Murphy replaced her with another, Hagney, as his first substitution while Clarke, teenage sister of Armagh men’s forward Jamie, came on in injury-time.
In a section containing Kerry and three Ulster Senior Championship rivals, there will be tougher tests ahead so the Orchard crew won’t get carried away but this was a very encouraging first outing.
For various reasons, Armagh have lost six of what were their 18 core players from last season with Morgan joined in absence by former captain Maebh Moriarty, goalkeeper Caroline O’Hare, Niamh Coleman, Colleen McKenna and Rebecca O’Reilly.
In addition to Aimee Mackin’s injury, Silverbridge forward Niamh Reel understandably didn’t feature having just recently returned from Australia while Aveen Donaldson, now Bellew, was on honeymoon at the start of the month.
“We’re delighted to start with an away win against a team we were lucky to scrape a victory against at home last season and no doubt Clare were wanting to put their best foot forward at home in the opening game.
“This was our first competitive match under new management and we’ve a fair few changes to the playing panel but thankfully Aoife and Blaithin put away a couple of early goals which helped us get a foothold.
“It was vital to get the result but there’s plenty of room for improvement before facing Tyrone on Sunday. They showed their potential last summer and will want to bounce back from their (2-14 to 2-6) loss at Meath.
“After the long journey to Doonbeg and with trips to Kerry and Wexford ahead, we’re looking forward to being back in Silverbridge and hopefully people will turn out to support us against Armagh’s traditional rivals,” appealed Mallon.
Armagh have had a significant influx of fresh faces over the winter and some of those newcomers will hopefully put their hands up for opportunities as the campaign progresses.
However, with the stakes so high in this campaign, Murphy’s first starting line-up proved predictable with plenty of experienced players leading the charge.
Clodagh McCambridge dropped into Morgan’s full back berth in front of Carrickcruppen goalkeeper Anna Carr, flanked by new vice-captain Sarah Marley and 2014 All Star Mairead Tennyson, returning from a year out ahead of her 36th birthday this Saturday.
As expected, Niamh Marley was deployed at centre half back with Forkhill’s Sheridan and Dromintee’s Grey either side of her and Tiarna Grimes chosen as an uncharacteristically scoreless Caroline O’Hanlon’s midfield partner.
New skipper Mallon was joined by McKenna, back after taking a year off from Orchard duty to recharge her batteries, and McCoy in a very strong half forward line with Catherine Marley, Blaithin Mackin and young Doyle up front.
This Sunday, Edendork native Murphy will be up against his native Tyrone (2pm) who have appointed recent Carrickcruppen manager Mark Doran as assistant to manager Gerry Moane.
Former Armagh manager James Daly’s Cavan agonisingly lost 3-10 to 4-8 at home to Kerry in spite of a dramatic comeback while recently relegated Monaghan showed their intent by hammering Wexford 6-23 to 2-6 in their own backyard.
ARMAGH: A Carr; S Marley, C McCambridge, M Tennyson; S Grey, N Marley (0-1), M Sheridan; T Grimes, C O’Hanlon; F McKenna (0-1), K Mallon (capt; 1-4, 3f), A McCoy (1-1); C Marley (1-0), B Mackin (2-1), C Doyle. Subs used: E Hagney for Doyle (51mins), G Ferguson for C Marley (52), A Bellew for Grimes (53), M McCann for McKenna (56), E Lavery for Sheridan (58), C Magill for Grey (63), M Watters for McCoy, A Clarke for Mallon (both 66).