SARAH KEEN TO CLEAR FINAL HURDLE
That gallant All Ireland exit at the hands of Dublin is still painfully fresh for the Armagh players but overcoming Monaghan in this Saturday’s Ulster Senior Championship showpiece in Clones (1.30pm, BBC Online) would mean an awful lot to the team’s veteran vice-captain in particular.
The tearful photograph, taken by Brendan Monaghan, of sisters Sarah and Catherine Marley embracing after the final whistle two weekends ago perfectly captured Armagh’s anguish after their brave bid to reach Croke Park fell just short.
Playing another important match so soon after that Orchard heartbreak presents a psychological challenge, but getting up for an Ulster final won’t be difficult for Sarah Marley as she seeks to end what has been a long wait for her own provincial championship medal.
Having first been brought into the county panel as a teenager way back in 2004, tearing her cruciate and studying in Dublin meant Sarah wasn’t around when Armagh won their first two Ulster titles in 2006 and 2007.
She played midfield alongside Caroline O’Hanlon in the decider defeat against Monaghan a decade ago, was sidelined for that unforgettable triumph in 2014 by a broken ankle, and found herself on the losing side against Donegal in each of the past two seasons.
So, in spite of many years of dedicated service to the Orchard cause, circumstances mean that the 34-year-old solicitor has yet to taste victory in an Ulster final, even though Armagh have won three during the course of her inter-county career.
A reserved and private person, Sarah doesn’t tend to wear her heart on her sleeve like the flame-haired sisters either side of her in this great footballing family and she isn’t one who seeks to stand out from the crowd.
Yet there have been a couple of occasions where Sarah’s emotions have contrasted to those around her, most recently last summer when she was the only Armagh player to realise immediately that their famous upset of Cork had secured an All Ireland quarter-final place.
The previous time was that 2014 Ulster final as Sarah hobbled one direction on her crutches, a few tears rolling down her face, as the joyous subs ran past her onto the field at the end of Armagh’s glorious victory. Six years on, she’s still seeking her own winning feeling.
“Realistically I probably wouldn’t have made it onto the field for the two wins way back in the noughties given the competition for places with more experienced players at that time and, although we lost in 2010, it was a thrill to play in an Ulster final for the first time,” says Sarah.
“There were mixed emotions around the 2014 final and Armagh’s impressive victory against Monaghan, genuine joy for my two sisters and the girls in general, but bitter disappointment at not being able to play through injury.
“At the time I hoped we would be back the next summer, but it took another four years until Armagh reached the final again and we were well beaten by Donegal. We got there again last season, but it turned out to be another very disappointing day.”
The coronavirus pandemic means this year has been like no other, with the Ulster final coming in mid-December two weeks after Armagh’s All Ireland exit, but it is far from an afterthought for experienced corner back Marley.
“Winning an Ulster title would be very special personally after missing out before but getting some silverware would be a nice end to the year for this Armagh group of players and a reward for the hard work we’ve put in and progress made since September.
“In some ways the Dublin defeat was actually tougher to take because of how well we did, but our performance against such a strong team was very encouraging and showed what we are capable of.
“We will need to match that intensity in the Ulster final against a strong Monaghan team who played well in their group games, beating Tipperary and only losing by a point to Galway, so only our best will be enough for victory.”
Armagh have been in great form themselves this autumn with three impressive victories ahead of that Dublin defeat, trouncing Tyrone twice and defeating Mayo in a competitive match for the first time ever.
“That Mayo win was big for us in so many ways, including getting us through to the semis for the first time in five years, avenging last season’s quarter-final loss and because we’d never beaten them before.
“Although we had two convincing victories over Tyrone, those were put in perspective by Mayo’s 25-point winning margin against them so we knew what was, in effect, a quarter-final at Parnell Park would be another step up.
“Mayo are regarded as one of the top teams so it was a real test for what is a much-changed Armagh side and it was great to see our younger players embracing that challenge rather than being over-awed including the two teenagers who featured.
“Grace Ferguson has improved so much since last year and has really grown into it. Tiarna McVeigh got five minutes at the end and wasn’t over-awed. They’re examples of young players working hard, being given their chance and relishing responsibility.
“Tiarna’s always willing to listen, to take instruction and ask questions. Seeing that youthful fearlessness is refreshing for the rest of us and actually communication is something we’ve improved upon and there’s good understanding and trust between players.”
Armagh had fallen at the quarter-final hurdle in each of the past three seasons so it was a magical moment when Sarah’s youngest sister Catherine tucked away the fourth goal to give the women in orange an unassailable lead with time almost up.
“When Catherine got the goal there was a huge sense of relief and real pride. I was so happy after the game, like when we won our last quarter-final against Donegal in 2015. I’m not a big talker, but in the circle I was emphatic about being proud of what we’d done.
“I was quite nervous going into last season’s quarter-final against Mayo and hadn’t expected them to be so physical, but we weren’t far off them then and this time we knew what to expect.
“We were quite confident following the Tyrone games and were well set up with Catherine and Eve (Lavery) dropping back to help the defence. Mayo are dangerous up front, but all forwards need good ball, so restricting supply is an important part of nullifying the threat.
“All credit too to Tiarna Grimes, who would never play corner back but marshalled Sarah Rowe (who had got 2-9 against Tyrone) very effectively. Mayo got seven points in a row at one stage but trying not to panic is something we’ve really talked about.
“Every team you play at this level will have a purple patch so you must weather the storm and then make your own dominance count. We were down a good bit to Tyrone early on in our opening group game but had hit back with five goals by half-time.
“Our forwards have shown what they can do, with 17 goals in four games. Teams can’t just focus on Aimee (Mackin) even though she’s so dangerous. She’s lethal herself but is also becoming a more mature player with greater awareness who can create as well as score.”
Armagh have firm foundations at the back in goalkeeper Anna Carr, full back Clodagh McCambridge and Sarah, with the adaptable players around them having real license to roam forward while they hold the fort.
“I think the three of us in particular can read each other very well and have a good understanding. I’ve such trust in Clodagh and Anna has become more commanding, including calling me in to relay messages outfield.
“The Mayo match was a great advert for our sport in terms of the quality of football, excitingly close contest and the physical commitment of the teams. It was a real spectacle for neutrals and any Armagh followers watching appreciated our performance.
“Coming through that game gave us confidence for taking on Dublin. They’ve a great record but there was no fear factor facing them, especially after winning those couple of league games against them in recent years.
“We had a bad start, but we weren’t overwhelmed and, when the hurt heals, we’ll be better for the experience. From Armagh’s poor National League campaign and then thinking we wouldn’t get back playing, the past few months have been very enjoyable.
“It was great winning the Intermediate title with Lissummon at club level, Armagh have made major strides, getting back into the All Ireland last four and impressing people along the way. Now we’ve this Ulster final to come and the chance to end the year with some silverware,” says Sarah. Nobody deserves an Ulster Championship medal more than this stalwart.