BABY MARLEY STEALS SHOW IN FINAL
LISSUMMON 2-13 BALLYHEGAN 1-9
History repeated itself at the weekend as, for the second time in six seasons, a Player of the Match performance from a 23-year-old Marley helped Lissummon claim the Armagh Intermediate title.
In 2015, on a dark Wednesday night under the floodlights in Silverbridge, a rampaging Niamh Marley memorably led the charge as Lissummon launched a miracle comeback from 10 points down to eclipse a younger Shane O’Neills side.
In 2020, on a sunny Sunday lunchtime under blue sky in Keady, they won it the other way round with a first half scoring spree from Catherine Marley putting Lissummon into a near impregnable position against a younger Ballyhegan team.
Lissummon led by 2-10 to 0-4 at the break after capitalising on having a strong breeze behind them in the opening period but Brenda McCormack scored a Ballyhegan goal just 23 seconds after the restart, paving the way for a very different third quarter.
Gene O’Callaghan’s side didn’t score again until the last kick before the customary water-break, but they tightened the screw thereafter with two further points and Ballyhegan lost their discipline with three high tackles on the excellent Catherine Marley.
The referee failed to sanction the first culprit properly but had no option but to sinbin Armagh’s Grace Ferguson for the second offence in injury-time and then issue Caitlin McCormack with a straight red a few minutes later.
The highly-talented, personable 16-year-old is a great girl with a wonderful future in the sport she is so passionate about but it was a dangerous, reckless challenge which had to be punished harshly and she will learn a painful lesson.
It was good to see former Armagh captain Caoimhe Morgan, Catherine Marley’s big sister but also Caitlin’s teacher at St Catherine’s College and a woman with close links to Ballyhegan, quickly calming the situation and no ill-feeling lingered.
By then the game was effectively finished, the youngest of four Marley sisters who are the backbone of the Lissummon side wasn’t badly injured, and the celebrations for this Buttercrane Intermediate Championship showpiece win were about to begin.
Catherine was an easy choice as Player of the Match for her county captain Kelly Mallon, who commendably made the effort to turn up after a late night toasting Saturday’s county final triumph with Armagh Harps.
Already a useful enough forward the last time Lissummon won this title, Catherine has really blossomed since then in her sporting and professional life, going from finishing school to being a hospital physiotherapist and establishing herself as an Armagh regular.
She always looked a decent bet to play a big role in this final and duly led the way with a tally of 1-6 for Lissummon, all scored in the first half with five of the points coming from frees on an afternoon when her two eldest sisters also registered on the board.
Perhaps surprisingly deployed at full forward, Sarah hit 1-2, with centre half back Caoimhe raising a single white flag, so the exception among the quartet was the scoreless Niamh, and neither did the imposing midfielder receive the individual award as she did five years ago.
However, the honour of lifting the trophy as club captain clearly meant a lot to the now 28-year-old schoolteacher and, in a passionate speech, she hailed the huge influence Gene O’Callaghan has had as manager this season.
The Crossmaglen man experienced disappointment later in the afternoon as he witnessed his son’s hopes of an Armagh Senior Championshp medal dashed by Maghery but he returned to join in the evening celebrations back at Lissummon.
Having been regraded down from Senior over the winter, Lissummon ladies were tipped to win this Intermediate title and they progressed reasonably smoothly to the final with wins against fellow second division sides Mullaghbawn and Killeavy.
By contrast, Ballyhegan have recently won Division Three and both of their quarter and semi-final opponents also came from that section, namely struggling Sarsfields and the club they beat to reach the decider, Cullyhanna.
Lissummon always look to their county quartet of Marley sisters for inspiration and they made a major impact immediately with Catherine winning a free after just 18 seconds which she converted herself and then three of them combining for an early goal.
Niamh showed trademark determination in winning a ball out wide, forcing her way down the left flank before finding Catherine with a great pass and she set up Sarah to hit the net with still just 1:15 on the watch.
Aside from 40-something veterans Nicola Sloan and Orla Connolly, the only other Lissummon player with inter-county experience is Sarah Gamble, the diminutive forward who was in the Armagh panel briefly between shining in the 2014 and 2015 Intermediate finals.
She scored three of the team’s four non-Marley points on Sunday, the first in the third minute with a composed effort from a ball by Catherine to put Lissummon five up and it was clear the favourites meant business.
When Grace Ferguson got in to disrupt possession, Niamh Marley launched herself horizontally like a human missile to win the ball back on the ground but Sarah then over-carried and Ballyhegan got some respite.
Blanthaid Hendron opened their account with a sixth minute free and Lissummon had a lucky let-off when converted keeper Hannah Quinn’s kick-out went straight to Catherine McGrane but her ball back in went over Brenda McCormack’s head.
Hendron missed a straight free into the wind after Niamh Marley overcarried in defence and Lissummon extended their lead when the skipper hoisted a towering ball into the danger zone and sibling Sarah fisted it over the bar.
Sarah, Catherine and Caoimhe all chalked up wides in quick succession but the youngest of the Marley sisters successfully converted three frees in as many minutes before a good break by captain Eve Lavery got Ballyhegan going again.
Hendron was wide with a free but put over her next attempt just before the water-break which came with Lissummon seven ahead and they continued to press home their advantage.
Catherine kicked her fifth free of the half and added a point before Ballyhegan hit back with two of their own in the space of a minute, a nice effort into the wind by Lavery who had got a return ball from Caitlin McCormack, and then Hendron.
A Catherine Marley goal was quickly followed by a Gamble point off the inside of the left post and the half ended with defender Morgan coming forward to register her second score of this championship campaign.
Brenda McCormack’s very early goal was just what Ballyhegan needed at the start of the second half, though her daughter Caitlin then pulled a shot wide and Hendron drew a blank too in the first three minutes.
An Aveen Rafferty foul left Lavery on the ground in obvious pain just before O’Callaghan made his first change, replacing Noreen McCaffery with Rebecca McVeigh, but the Ballyhegan captain bounced back with a good point.
Supplied with the pass by Grace Ferguson, Lavery’s second score of the game followed another Hendron free but Caitlin McCormack was wide with a right-footed free in the 39th minute.
Caitlin’s aunt Catherine, captain of Ballyhegan’s 2017 Junior Championship-winning side, lifted the team by beating namesake Catherine Marley to a ball and driving forward but Hendron was off-target with the free which followed.
Brenda McCormack showed her strength to win a ball dropped in by Lavery and Grace Ferguson kicked a good point on the turn, with Hendron adding a point and then landing a free after Lissummon were again guilty of over-carrying in defence.
Niamh Marley burst through her captaincy counterpart Lavery and all four siblings combined in an attack which culminated in Catherine hitting the post with a free, but Sarah pointed from a ball by Niamh to trigger the water-break.
That first Lissummon score of the half ended an unbroken Ballyhegan run of 1-5 since the interval and Gamble got the first point of the final quarter with a left-footed free to punish a foul on Niamh Marley.
Corner back Meave Ferguson was incredibly lucky not to suffer the later fate of older sister Grace for a bad challenge on Catherine Marley but Caitlin McCormack did her best to get Ballyhegan back in the game.
The schoolgirl got above her teacher Morgan, who had played alongside Caitlin’s mum Brenda for Ballyhegan in the 2001 Junior final, kept possession in spite of hitting the ground twice, won the ball back when it was given away and then earned a free.
But Connolly made a great block to thwart Grace Ferguson and Hendron was wide with a towering free as Ballyhegan hopes started to fade, compounded by Lissummon registering a well-worked, well-taken point by Rafferty on 58 minutes.
That was the last score of the afternoon, though Ballyhegan had further pressure and the Marleys showed their experience, playing the ball around between themselves to run down the clock.
Ballyhegan’s frustration showed in the high tackles from Grace Ferguson and Caitlin McCormack, the second of which would have attracted a sending-off in professional rugby, but Lissummon maintained discipline rather than the incident sparking ugly scenes.
The all-important win was in the bag by now for Lissummon, who had brought on Catherine McAteer for Claire O’Hare and introduced Tara McParland in place of Aislinn O’Hagan in the closing stages.
Coronavirus restrictions meant the sizeable Lissummon support couldn’t join the players on the field like last time but various children were passed through the wire including Daire Morgan, who had actually been on the pitch for the entire 2015 final.
It wasn’t known about at the time outside of family but his mum Caoimhe had marked Aimee Mackin in that Silverbridge decider while 12 weeks pregnant and this time round she came out of the retirement announced in January to feature in Lissummon’s success.
Whether the 37-year-old legend’s slightly longer-term future features a switch to rugby remains to be seen but, more immediately, the focus will be on Lissummon’s Ulster Intermediate quarter-final away to Antrim’s Moneyglass on Sunday week.
BALLYHEGAN: E Williamson; M Ferguson, Z Martin, E McGrane; L O’Gorman, Catherine McCormack, C McKeever; E Lavery (capt; 0-2), G Ferguson (0-1); C O’Gorman, Caitlin McCormack, A McGrane; B Hendron (0-6, 4f), B McCormack (1-0), C McGrane.
LISSUMMON: H Quinn; K Noonan, N Sloan, C O’Hare; A O’Hagan, C Morgan (0-1), O Donaghy; N Marley (capt), A Rafferty (0-1); S Gamble (0-3, 1f), C Marley (1-6, 5f), N O’Hagan; N McCaffery, S Marley (1-2), O Connolly.
Referee: Pat McDaid.