October 14th, 2020



Evergreen goalkeeper Paula Powell Enright was the hero of the hour as Armagh Harps ended their 22-year county title famine by being crowned Orchard champions for the first time this century on an initially wet night at the Athletic Grounds.

The 40-year-old Harps stalwart, the only survivor from the club’s last title triumph in 1998, picked up the Player of the Match award on the back of several brilliant saves which ensured Carrickcruppen’s comeback ultimately fell short.

Harps had led by seven points at the break, but it soon felt like they might live to regret not taking the chances which could have had them even further ahead at the end of the opening period of this Buttercrane Senior Championship final before facing into a strong breeze.

With incomparable captain Caroline O’Hanlon typically pulling the strings and the wind now at their backs, Carrickcruppen quickly chipped away at the deficit after the interval in their quest to win a fifth title in 11 seasons.

Having been in 11 of the last 13 Armagh Senior Championship showpieces, Cruppen possessed much more experience of finals than Harps who, until last September’s loss to Clann Eireann, had been in only one decider in the new millennium.

However, Harps have their own big game players from fantastic Armagh skipper Kelly Mallon up front to magnificent club captain Fionnuala McKenna in midfield and Galway legend Sinead Burke, the double All Star defender who did a great job on O’Hanlon.

That trio all delivered superb personal performances but got great support all over the field from the less-heralded heroes of a hungry Harps side who not only deserved victory on the night but are very worthy winners of Armagh ladies football’s top prize.

No side in history has had to win three such tough games to be crowned Armagh ladies champions so, along with the long wait for it, knowing this was the greatest ever Orchard title triumph must make this hard-earned success especially sweet.

Harps dethroned the holders in the quarter-finals by becoming the first team except Cruppen to beat Clann Eireann in an Armagh Championship match since 2005 and then came through an epic encounter with Shane O’Neills in the face of adversity.

There was still one huge hurdle to clear however in the form of championship specialists Cruppen, who won their first county title a decade ago and have that 2010 dream ticket of manager Michael Heeney and captain O’Hanlon back in their respective roles.

The Lowe’s Lane ladies were confident of adding to their four titles in the past decade but Harps have been building towards fresh Senior Championship success for the past three seasons under committed manager Paddy McShane.

They were just edged out in injury-time of a pulsating quarter-final against Cruppen in 2018 but claimed their first league title for a quarter of a century last season when the club also secured a first ever Armagh Minor Championship success.

That Minor team’s captain Megan McShane and four of her colleagues all started on Saturday for a Harps side with a great age profile, featuring all demographics from fearless youth to very experienced players right up to the timeless Enright.

The great woman was passed fit to start along with the other semi-final injury casualty Leah McGoldrick, who wore the No 9 jersey but played centre half back to enable Burke to mark O’Hanlon in midfield.

Former club captain Tanya Savage, formerly McCoy, was ruled out of the initial line-up however with a shoulder injury meaning another ex-county defender Cailin Duffy, fit-again after a hamstring pull, slotted in at full back.

Cruppen had three changes from their published line-up, with Shannon O’Grady and Dearbhla and Rhia McCullough coming in for Edel Murphy, Katie McArdle and Shannon Sexton respectively.

McKenna, captain for those decider defeats in 2015 and last season, opted to play with the wind when winning the toss and Harps quickly registered their first score through former Northern Ireland soccer international Aoife Lennon.

They were guilty of registering two wides by the time O’Hanlon hit an equalising free and drew two more blanks, but McKenna edged Harps ahead again just before a stoppage for treatment to McGoldrick who had got smashed bravely throwing herself at a loose ball.

O’Hanlon kicked a wide from well out and Harps surged further ahead with two points in a minute from Mallon, the first taken superbly from an acute angle on the right and the second a long-range free after McKenna caught the Cruppen kick-out and Burke was fouled.

Siobban Feeney almost immediately added a lovely left-footed point after Pip Dougan-Toal had won a loose ball and the Harps purple patch nearly produced a goal a minute later but Mallon somehow hooked her shot wide from close range.

The low ball in had been played by the insatiable McShane, who was getting through a mountain of work down the right flank for Harps, and McGoldrick got a crucial touch to a long ball at the other end to avert danger.

The prominent Feeney won a free which found Mallon but, by the time Aoife Lennon kicked a bad wide, the advantage which her namesake Chris Lennon, who refereed the final well, was playing had expired.

Tiarna McVeigh, playing right wing back, over ran a Dougan-Toal pass but Lennon knocked the loose ball away from an opponent soccer-style and then won a free which Mallon nailed from long range to make the score six points to one at the water-break.

Lennon had a goal chance that only yielded a 45, which led to Armagh goalkeeper Anna Carr making a stunning close-range save to prevent January’s Ulster Schools captain Casey Mullan from raising a green flag.

Another point from Lennon was followed by a great effort from Mallon out wide a minute later after a sustained attack featuring Dougan-Toal, Ciara Rath, McGoldrick, Feeney, Lennon and Emily Druse down the far side.

Orla Garvey got Cruppen’s first point for 19 minutes following a quick free, Mallon needed treatment after a heavy hit in the right corner and McKenna kicked a towering wide before the team in white and blue edged further ahead.

Megan Cinnamond’s free dropped into Enright’s arms, McShane and McKenna combined to feed Lennon, who kicked a lovely point, and the Harps skipper put over a monster effort herself a minute later.

Enright punched away another Cinnamond free deep in injury-time but, from Cruppen’s recycle, Fermanagh forward Sarah McCausland sent the ball over the bar to make it 0-7 to 0-3 at the interval.

Cruppen came out of the traps with renewed purpose, O’Hanlon pointing just 13 seconds into the second half and they kicked two wides before Cinnamond raised a white flag in the 35th minute.

Moments later, McGoldrick mopped up possession after a brilliant block by Duffy, but Cruppen pointed again through Cinnamond and Mullan pulled her shot past the near post at the other end after a great claim and composed play by McShane had launched the attack.

McKenna and Feeney kicked wides but the latter did register the city outfit’s first score of the half in the 43rd minute and Sinead Finnegan drew a blank for Cruppen before Enright pulled off a good save.

Heeney sent Shannon Sexton on for Orla Garvey, McArdle replaced Dearbhail McCullough and Finnegan kicked a wide before the water-break and, although Enright made a brilliant low save soon after it, an O’Hanlon score reduced Cruppen’s arrears to four.

The teams traded wides either side of another Cruppen point from Cinnamond and both missed again before Enright had to make a superb save just under her crossbar after Harps had lost the ball on halfway.

Mallon stemmed the flow with a free which had been won by Lennon and an important moment followed when the ball was deflected into the Harps net but the referee had already signalled a free out.

There was a long stoppage while a dazed Mallon was attended to after being hit in the air as she climbed bravely for a ball after combining down the left with McVeigh and, although she eventually resumed, it was Lennon who took responsibility for the resulting free.

The indomitable Mallon was soon back to win possession in her own left corner and was then fouled after receiving a line ball in deep defence as Harps prepared to send on Port Mor camogie captain Eimear O’Kane in place of Mullan with Savage already on the field for Rath.

A storming run by McKenna after taking a return ball from Jessica Hamill was ended with a foul and, although nothing came of it, the clock was ticking down now on Cruppen’s championship challenge.

They laid siege to the Harps goal, including from a series of 45, but McGoldrick got up highest to cut one ball out, there was another valuable block and O’Hanlon hit a wide as Cruppen failed to score again.

So there were still five points between the teams when Lennon’s long whistle sparked delirious celebrations among the Harps players, for whom this much-coveted success has been such a long time coming.

Lennon and Mallon jointly top-scored with four points apiece for Harps, supplemented by three from McKenna and two by Feeney while O’Hanlon and Cinnamond led the way with three each for Cruppen, Orla Garvey and McCausland contributing one each.

However, Enright was a hugely popular recipient of the Player of the Match award before McKenna fulfilled her long-held dream of lifting the Marie Hoye Cup in a presentation which took place out on the field due to the coronavirus restrictions.

The ever-conscientious captain’s considered speech had special praise for inspiring new assistant manager Joe Feeney along with that man McShane, who was delighted his players had finally got the reward which their hard work deserved.

The celebrations continued until late, but Harps will be back in action as early as this Sunday when they host Antrim champions St Paul’s of Belfast in the Ulster Senior Club quarter-final at Abbey Park (2pm).

ARMAGH HARPS: P Enright, P Dougan-Toal, C Duffy, E Druse; J Hamill, S Burke, C Rath; F McKenna (capt; 0-3), L McGoldrick; S Feeney (0-2), A Lennon (0-4), T McVeigh; C Mullan, K Mallon (0-4, 1f), M McShane.  Subs used: T Savage for Rath (57mins), E O’Kane for Mullan (61mins).

CARRICKCRUPPEN: A Carr; A Doran, R O’Reilly, R McCullough; C Garvey, S Reel, M Watters, C O’Hagan, C O’Hanlon (capt; 0-3, 1f); D McCullough, M Cinnamond (0-3), O Garvey (0-1); S McCausland (0-1), S Finnegan, S O’Grady.  Subs used: K McArdle for D McCullough (40mins), S Sexton for O Garvey (42).

Referee: Chris Lennon (Clan na Gael).