July 7th, 2020

My Nostalgia Game

By Sarah Marley

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This week, we would have hoped to be building up to a third consecutive Ulster final appearance, possibly with the chance to avenge our Donegal defeats in the past two deciders.

To have got there, we would have had to come through a tough group featuring Monaghan and Cavan and then overcome the runner-up from the other section in the semi, either our traditional rivals Tyrone or indeed Donegal.

That gives you a sense of the quality and depth there is in the Ulster Senior Championship, with all five teams capable of beating each other on their day and each having real aspirations to claim the trophy.

Although Armagh had an underwhelming campaign in the truncated National League earlier in the year, and were the lowest placed of those five Ulster sides when the coronavirus shutdown happened, I would include us as contenders.

Our bad beating from Meath at home in early March felt like a real wake-up call, we knew it wasn’t an acceptable performance from us in an Armagh jersey and there was a determination to bounce back but unfortunately everything had to be put on hold.

Who knows whether there will be a provincial championship or not this season, though at least the prospects of football appear considerably better than was the case a few weeks ago so there is renewed optimism.

The past two Ulster finals have been painful for us, the horrendous scoreline at Brewster Park in 2018 and then the way we undermined our chances of making amends in last season’s showpiece by getting off to a disastrous start.

That was frustrating, for we’d shown by almost defeating Donegal in the All Ireland quarter-final at Healy Park seven weeks after the Enniskillen nightmare that there really wasn’t much between the teams and I wouldn’t fear facing them at any stage.

To be fair to Donegal, they’ve led the way in the province in recent years with four Ulster titles in the past five seasons, are our only representatives in NFL Division One at present and have won the last five games against us.

They won well when we met in Convoy at the start of the 2017 season on their return to Division One and edged a wind-affected Ulster semi-final of two halves in Greencastle that June on an evening when we had a big interval lead.

However, while reminiscing during lockdown like everyone else, my mind has been going back to the year 2015 when we not only last defeated Donegal, but did it twice, firstly to claim our most recent silverware and then to reach a second successive All Ireland semi.

That was one of the most productive periods in Armagh’s history for the team achieved back to back promotions in the NFL either side of being crowned Ulster senior champions for the first time in seven seasons.

Unfortunately, I had missed that entire provincial campaign, when Division Three winners Armagh upset a trio of first division sides to take that Ulster title, having broken my ankle in a club match against Grange in May.

That was a bitter-sweet success for me, the heartbreak of being unable to play but being delighted for my team and having two sisters in the starting team meant there was a close connection never mind the fact I missed only one training session while injured.  Doing analysis pieces for the Gazette was a nice distraction but couldn’t quite compensate!

It was a slightly strange league campaign that next spring in that we were narrowly beaten by both Ulster rivals Donegal and Cavan, so didn’t finish in the top two in spite of hammering Meath by 30-odd points and then Down by more than 50 in our last two regular games.

I remember the Donegal game, up in Glenfin, for Caoimhe had taken a stomach bug and was sick on the bus so I was switched to full back on what was a horrible day in terms of weather.

Incidentally, I was marking Amber Barrett, who is now playing professional soccer in Germany.  She was young then but already deceptively good and, although not looking particularly mobile, was able to use her body weight well.

We weren’t great that day and, in addition to missing Caoimhe, were also without Fionnuala McKenna due to injury and maybe one or two others.  Although we had just come up from the division below, we were also there to be shot at as Ulster champions.

The other defeat came on the artificial surface out the back of Breffni Park on an afternoon we were meant to be playing on the main pitch.  Our manager James Daly gave us quite a dressing down at half-time but we only lost by a point or two.

We avenged that defeat as part of a semi-final double header in Clones in spite of one of our 2014 All Star nominees Sinead McCleary getting injured early on and that set us up to do the same against Donegal in the final at Parnell Park.

It was our third NFL finals day in a row there, having blown a lead late on against Down in the 2013 Division Three final before getting the job done against Waterford the following year and now we had a chance to win Division Two at the first attempt.

Although we ended up winning comfortably on the scoreboard, by 4-18 to 4-6 after a pretty complete performance, Donegal have very dangerous forwards, as we’ve experienced plenty of over the years, and they did score four goals.

As always, management had done their homework and thought hard about their match-ups.  This time I was marking the tall, left-footed McMonagle, Caoimhe was on McLaughlin and Mairead Tennyson picked up Barrett.  I’ve heard subsequently that Donegal had focused on Kelly Mallon as our main threat, so they were ambushed by young Aimee Mackin hitting 2-5.

It’s always nice coming to the end of a game with a sufficient cushion that you can really enjoy it, knowing you’re about to win.  The fact we’d really clicked made it a great day for the team and especially satisfying for me after missing out the summer before.

From our All Ireland Intermediate win in 2012, through agonising one-point defeats to Tyrone and Cork back in Senior the following season to that Ulster title triumph and another NFL promotion, secured in such style, everything had been on an upward curve.

Having got over the injury, I’d worked hard during the off-season and came into 2015 with high hopes, which the league campaign did nothing to diminish, that we could retain our Ulster title and I could have my long-awaited day in the sun.

We had a good team and a strong squad, with serious competition for places, and had a very professional set-up under James and Aileen Matthews, so I knew we were good enough to win Ulster again and confidence was high.

However, Monaghan got their revenge in the semi-final at Breffni Park, where we were well beaten on the day.  That was a major gunk for us as we thought everything had been going so well, but now we were faced with regrouping and going the back-door route.

I don’t remember much about our first qualifier against Laois, though it was a sloppy performance and we gave up three goals to a team that Armagh had destroyed in the All Ireland quarter-final the previous season, and then we got a real scare against Westmeath.

The weather was horrendous, and they kept edging in front of us.  We couldn’t seem to get going and I remember thinking ‘is this it, is our season going to end here?’ but in the end we ground out a result and the experience stood to us in the Donegal game which followed.

While we may have been firm favourites against Westmeath, the fact is we ended up in a tight spot but battled through, and that earned us an All Ireland quarter-final against the new Ulster champions Donegal, who we trailed for most of the game.

It was a massive match between provincial rivals with an All Ireland semi-final place at stake.  They came in with confidence from winning their first ever Ulster title but also smarting from losing to us in the league final.

We hadn’t played particularly well since that final and they were a good team, but I knew we had the measure of them even though most pundits tipped Donegal for victory.  At a personal level, I was handed the sweeper role, which was unfamiliar.

Louise Kenny had done it in the league final but then tore her cruciate and it became a problem position.  Management’s rationale was that I could read a game and was a good defender, so I was handed the No 13 jersey and I remember making a dash from corner forward after the throw-in!

The positional switch had come as a bit of a curve-ball but I was used to it with James, for it was him who had put me into corner back for Armagh having previously played midfield, including in the 2010 Ulster final.  Daly and Matthews were very good at analysing other teams, they knew McLaughlin and McMonagle were a deadly duo up front and wanted me to help cut off the supply.

Obviously, I was very familiar with most of our defenders and at times we swapped seamlessly in terms of them sweeping while I picked up a player and our systems worked well enough, but we were always behind, even four down at one stage.

We finally hit the front for the first time through Caroline O’Hanlon but there was real drama for she then got sinbinned for something minor and that felt like a big blow because she was our captain and taliswoman, who we relied heavily upon.

My sister Niamh and Donegal’s Niamh Hegarty had been sinbinned earlier but Caroline’s yellow card came as a shock.  She has such a calm head and you’d always want her on the field for a tight finish, be it to come up with a score or run down the clock.

However, we went two ahead thanks to Aimee Mackin, our teenage forward who was in her first senior season but won Player of the Match in both Donegal games and deservedly picked up an All Star at the end of the year.

From coaching St Catherine’s, Caoimhe had seen Aimee playing for St Paul’s and raved about her as a phenomenal prospect but you’re always sceptical.  She settled very quickly though and made a massive impact from the start in spite of just turning 18 that April.

Our new markswoman was quiet and unassuming and in interviews would have attributed her high tallies to the team which was a good attitude.  Even as the attention increased, the pressure never seemed to affect her.  She always wanted the ball and that Donegal game took her haul for the season to 15-53!

Northern Ireland international Aimee wasn’t our only soccer star that summer for Aoife Lennon had come in after the Ulster Championship, impressed off the bench against Westmeath and was parachuted into the team to face Donegal.

She’d been brought into the panel late and I knew some players might be annoyed at someone starting an All Ireland quarter-final in such circumstances, but she has exceptional ability and top-scored that day, including an impossible point from wide on the right.

We haven’t had Aoife again in the five seasons since.  There’s no doubt she’d be an asset to Armagh if she could commit and fully apply herself, for fantastic talent isn’t enough, but she has had personal challenges so it’s important to do whatever makes her happy.

The other change to Armagh’s starting team that day saw a schoolgirl called Clodagh McCambridge, who had only joined the squad since the NFL final, coming in and she was subbed before half-time after struggling.

She’d done well in training and a poor performance can happen to anybody, but I remember wondering how such a young girl would bounce back from that happening to her in a televised game.

Of course, as we know now, she has absolutely flourished, establishing herself as a top player who works so hard and is so athletic but, that day, the 60 minutes were shared by Clodagh, another teenager Megan Sheridan and experienced campaigner Marian McGuinness, who was having a stop-start season due to injury and suspension.

As a last throw of the dice, deep in injury-time they sent on a tall forward who had time to give me cheek, but McCleary had come back into the full back line too and she caught the high ball they launched in.  The final whistle went soon afterwards, condemning Donegal to only their second defeat that season.

Our Westmeath win had helped prove our resilience and I never felt the Donegal game was beyond our grasp even when we were trailing.  We held on for a very satisfying 2-13 to 2-11 victory, with our tally made up of Lennon’s 1-3, 1-2 for O’Hanlon, three points each for Mackin and Mallon with McKenna and Lauren McConville also chipping in.

McMonagle got 2-3 for them in spite of ending up with a huge ‘egg’ bump on the side of her head after our accidental collision.  I wouldn’t maybe be known as the most fearsome Marley, though I did break my youngest sister Catherine’s cheekbone in training once!

There was so much happening late in that game, including us losing Aoife McCoy to an injured ankle, but that meant Catherine coming on and all four Marleys being on the field for the first time together in a championship match for Armagh.

That win was special for me, especially coming at Clones where I’d had to sit out the previous summer’s Ulster final, and the family angle just added to it, like it did when we got our first ever victory over Cork in a championship match last July on our first start together.

McCoy was on crutches when we went out in Armagh that evening and unfortunately she wasn’t fit to start our semi-final against Dublin, while a pregnant Caoimhe had to sit it out too, though in between she’d marked Aimee as Lissummon won a dramatic Intermediate final against Shane O’Neills!

I understand my sister Niamh, who was Player of the Match, has been booked to talk about that club final in these pages in a future edition so I won’t steal her thunder, but it was another huge high just four days after our victory over Donegal.

At the time we were happier to be facing Dublin rather than the seemingly invincible Cork, but on the day they were exceptional – powerful, well-organised and ruthless on the counter – and have since gone on to win the All Ireland title three times.

So we went out at the semi-final stage for a second year running and haven’t been back since, but we aren’t giving up on our All Ireland dream and I’d really love to win an Ulster title before my career ends having lost all three finals I’ve played in.