CAPTAIN FANTASTIC WILL LEAD FROM THE FRONT
Inspirational skipper Kelly Mallon wants her largely young Orchard underdogs to be bold, brave and fearless when they tackle champions Dublin in Saturday’s All Ireland semi-final at Breffni Park (4.30pm, TG4).
A fantastic first ever victory over Mayo two weekends ago means surprise package Armagh are a tantalising 60 minutes of football away from a return to the Croke Park showpiece 14 years after the Orchard’s sole appearance in the sport’s biggest game.
However, this weekend they come up against a much-heralded Dublin team who have been in the last six All Ireland finals and are widely tipped to make it four titles in a row with their decorated cast which includes a dozen All Stars.
Those 12 players have collected 38 All Stars between them, two more were on last autumn’s shortlist and the sole exception in the starting team, imposing young midfielder Jennifer Dunne, won Player of the Match against Donegal a few weeks ago.
The other 14 Dublin team members have attracted 71 nominations whereas Armagh have had only 28 in their history, 11 of them accounted for by triple All Star Caroline O’Hanlon, the only current Orchard player to have appeared in an All Ireland final.
By contrast, Dublin boss Mick Bohan is likely to field 13 of the same starters from the 2018 showpiece win over Cork including skipper Sinead Aherne and Sinead Goldrick, who each have seven All Stars to their name.
This is ladies gaelic’s equivalent of Ireland tackling New Zealand in rugby, though Armagh have actually won the last two times these teams met, in National League games at the Athletic Grounds and Abbotstown in 2016 and 2017 respectively.
Before that first ever victory over the Dubs, the Orchard had been beaten 2-16 to 2-5 by them in Parnell Park the previous September in Armagh’s most recent All Ireland semi-final, when they struggled to cope with the opposition’s pace and dynamism.
Having been eliminated in the quarter-finals for the past three years running, Armagh are back in the last four on merit after trouncing Tyrone for a second time in 13 days on Halloween weekend and then overcoming Mayo against the odds in a cracking game.
Based on NFL standings, Armagh are the lowest ranked of the 12 teams competing in this season’s Senior Championship but are determined to keep punching above their weight and can take inspiration from the class of 2006 who shocked everyone to reach that final.
A team captained brilliantly by Bronagh O’Donnell reached the Croke Park showpiece in their first Senior season thanks to a last-kick free by her Crossmaglen clubmate Sharon Duncan against Galway which gave Armagh their only semi-final victory to date.
Current Crossmaglen captain Aveen Donaldson Bellew, who followed that Armagh journey as a schoolgirl supporter and idolised O’Donnell, is now one of this side’s elder stateswomen and sees inspiring parallels.
Formidable Madden woman Mallon has been hailed as Armagh’s ‘Captain Fantastic’ by Bellew as the 31-year-old seeks to become only the second skipper in Orchard history to lead the orangewomen to the promised land of the All Ireland final.
“Kelly really is our Captain Fantastic. She’s totally invested in Armagh and the amount of work she does behind the scenes is phenomenal. Kelly’s always thinking ahead and never switches off from her responsibilities and a tireless drive to make Armagh better.
“I remember back in her earlier years, Kelly was one of those who came to football, did her thing and left. She was completely professional, but stayed in the background. Now she’s stepped up to really lead from the front and is immersed in everything.
“She’s a really good leader and, when she speaks, people listen. I know my young clubmate Alex Clarke eats up everything she says but I also look up to Kelly even though I’m actually a few months older than her,” says Bellew.
Mallon had big boots to fill following the retired Caoimhe Morgan as captain but has transformed the Orchard outfit’s fortunes following a disappointingly poor and mercifully truncated National League campaign before the coronavirus shutdown.
After Armagh Harps won their first county title in 22 years there were so many positive testimonials about Mallon’s influence and all Abbey Park people will be watching the business end of this All Ireland Senior Championship with great interest and pride.
Firstly, Mallon will lead Armagh against Dublin and then, next weekend, the club’s double All Star defender Sinead Burke will line out for last year’s runners-up Galway against Cork in the second semi, though the odds are against either team reaching the final.
TG4 pundit Michelle Ryan has questioned whether any team can match Dublin’s physicality, but the All Ireland champions were pushed hard by both outgoing Ulster title holders Donegal and Waterford in their recent group games.
Among those watchers who have been impressed by Ronan Murphy’s side this autumn have been former Armagh great Ger Houlahan and ex-Orchard captain Morgan, who has suggested the current set of forwards are the county’s best ever.
Fit-again Aimee Mackin won her first All Star as a teenager on the back of Armagh’s run to that last semi, she hit 1-7 and 1-9 respectively in those two wins over Dublin in recent years and the prolific forward will be confident following her haul of 2-7 in the Mayo match.
Dublin’s forwards have 21 All Stars between them but Armagh possess plenty of scoring capacity in their specialist six, supplemented by Blaithin Mackin who O’Hanlon has described as one of the best players in Ireland.
Blaithin Mackin and last month’s Ulster semi-final Player of the Match Clodagh McCambridge have both two wins from two matches against Dublin and there is a striking confidence about this blossoming Orchard crop as captain Mallon acknowledges.
“We know all about Dublin and what they’ve achieved over recent years but there’s a refreshing fearlessness about our younger girls, we’re going into this semi-final with some momentum and a sense of opportunity which we want to embrace positively,” says Kelly.
“That’s not about being gung-ho, but believing in our own ability, backing ourselves to do our own jobs but also absolutely believing in each other, not being overawed by our opponents and just giving everything we have for the jersey.
“To have a chance of winning, we must be prepared to fight hard from start to finish, but be disciplined and smart, keep playing with intensity and concentration for the full hour, communicate constantly, take good options under pressure and make our chances count.
“There will be times when we have to weather the storm against a strong team but the important thing is not to panic when the pressure comes on, or drop our heads if they get on a run. Mayo got seven scores in a row at one stage but we bounced back.
“We respect Dublin but can’t be fearful of their reputation. There will also be times when we must show killer instinct, strike ruthlessly and show what damage we can do and the cutting edge Armagh have.
“We’ve earned ourselves the right to play for a place in the All Ireland final and that’s hugely exciting. Nothing special comes easily and we’re under no illusions about the task ahead against Dublin, but this is where we want to be, we’re getting great support right across the county and want to keep doing people proud.
“By beating Cork last summer and Mayo this month, Armagh have shown we can really raise our game against top teams. We really relish the challenge of facing the best sides and going into this semi-final as underdogs suits us fine,” she insists.
With the Armagh men’s season over after this month’s Ulster semi-final loss to Donegal, the ladies are carrying the hopes of all Armagh gaelic football fans and, although this Breffni battle will be behind closed doors, Kelly’s women will have the entire county behind them for Saturday’s huge game.