CHAMPIONS ARMAGH MARCH INTO FINAL
ARMAGH 2-20 TYRONE 1-10
Champions Armagh marched into a fourth consecutive Ulster Senior showpiece with another double-digit drubbing of neighbours Tyrone on a fantastic Friday evening at the Athletic Grounds.
Harps skipper Fionnuala McKenna led the way with eight points and there was a superb Player of the Match performance from Crossmaglen’s Lauren McConville, two leading lights who were unavailable for last season’s Ulster title triumph.
Last October, the Orchard outfit trounced Tyrone by 13 points in the Ulster semi-final and being beaten by the same margin again in the corresponding game wasn’t just some unlucky coincidence for the Red Hand women.
Wasteful finishing from Armagh early on saw them kick five – of what would be an eventual tally of 14 – wides inside the first six minutes, meaning Tyrone’s goal straight afterwards was the opening score of the game.
So, the Orchard crew were three down initially and Tyrone also scored the last three points of a game long since beyond them but, in between, Armagh were way too good for a team they have now won eight of their last nine matches against.
When these teams met in their opening National League game in May, Armagh trailed all afternoon at Healy Park until snatching a one-point win with an Aimee Mackin penalty on 59 minutes, but it was a very different story on Friday night.
Armagh actually lost the last quarter just like they had done against Monaghan at the same venue a fortnight earlier, but by then the job was well and truly done and the ticket to the final secured.
Leading by 0-9 to 1-3 at the interval, Armagh blew Tyrone away in the third quarter, scoring 2-10 in the next 15 minutes with skipper Kelly Mallon’s goal putting her rampant team an astonishing 17 points clear coming towards the water-break.
Although she stole the show with a wonder point from an acute angle wide on the right, All Ireland Player of the Year Aimee Mackin made a modest scoreboard contribution by her standards, registering just five points of her team’s imposing tally.
Her younger sibling Blaithin Mackin, a wonderful footballer, and the legendary Caroline O’Hanlon scored only one point apiece on an evening when Armagh weren’t over-reliant on their Camlough galacticos as is sometimes the case.
This time, McKenna topped the Orchard charts with five frees in her eight-point haul followed by Aimee Mackin and Aoife McCoy, who produced an exquisite finish for her goal, which was sandwiched by a couple of other scores.
There were two points from Ballyhegan skipper Eve Lavery, Armagh’s first score of the game and then a beautiful left-footed effort from out on the right which didn’t deserve to be upstaged by Aimee Mackin’s subsequent strike.
Crossmaglen teenager Alex Clarke, who had accumulated 2-6 in Armagh’s first four fixtures of the season, got just one point here before being replaced by Mallon but it was a lovely score from the harder side of the field for a right-footed kicker.
Having made her first appearance of the season off the bench last time out after injury, it had been expected Mallon would start but she was surprisingly held back by manager Ronan Murphy as Armagh went with an unchanged team.
As she had lined out for Harps in a club match against Grange the day after the Monaghan match, it was assumed Mallon would want game-time so her absence sparked fears that she may have had a setback in training.
However, the fact the captain came on when her Orchard crew were well on course for victory suggested all was well and that Armagh may simply have been trying to manage Mallon’s load with the prospect of five fixtures in July.
Perhaps spooked by what happened Michael Murphy against Down when Donegal were going to win anyway, Mallon was possibly being saved for bigger games ahead in a bold statement of belief from the Armagh management.
Going with an unchanged team also saved Murphy the difficult decision of who to drop as omission would have tough on Clarke, Lavery or Niamh Coleman, who won the throw-in and got Armagh moving forward from the off.
The energetic Coleman had one of her most productive outings in an orange jersey while fellow midfielder Niamh Marley carried with typical power and purpose on an evening Armagh carried real attacking threat from so many quarters.
McConville’s countless forays from deep deserved at least a point though the brilliant turnover she made in deep defence late in the last quarter was at least as noteworthy, while fellow half back Tiarna Grimes also got forward with relish.
All Star full back Clodagh McCambridge, who had been brilliant against Monaghan, was beaten by the bounce for the Tyrone goal but imposed herself at the heart of the Orchard rearguard as the game went on.
Tyrone had hit 11 goals against woeful Wexford in their NFL Division Two relegation play-off last time out but were never going to dine out at the expense of an Orchard defence built on firm foundations.
McCambridge had won Player of the Match against Tyrone in last season’s semi-final and, either side of her is a hugely experienced campaigner in stand-in skipper Sarah Marley and young Grace Ferguson from Ballyhegan, who had really excelled against Monaghan.
They have an imposing goalkeeper behind them in Anna Carr and, although the orangewomen won easily enough in the end, her stunning save to deny Chloe McCaffrey in the 28th minute when Armagh were a point down, was an important moment.
Instead of going four adrift, Armagh got an equalising score straight afterwards from Aimee Mackin and then rattled off three points in not much more than a minute just before the interval to give them a platform for the second half.
Armagh had begun the evening on the front foot, McKenna making a great run up the left flank from the throw-in but Aimee Mackin, Coleman and O’Hanlon all kicked wides in the first three minutes followed by Grimes drawing two blanks in quick succession.
With the game being incredibly open, Niamh O’Neill had been off target twice for Tyrone too in those frenetic early exchanges before she set up McGirr for a visiting goal largely against the run of play.
A bad fist pass from Niamh Marley after a surging run, Clarke having to settle for a 45 after taking on a return ball from McCoy and another wide from McKenna kept Armagh scoreless until Lavery settled the Orchard nerves by pointing in the 11th minute.
O’Neill restored the one-goal gap, but McKenna kicked a free followed by an O’Hanlon point and Blaithin Mackin levelled matters with a fine solo score after one of her effortlessly languid long runs.
O’Neill nudged Tyrone in front again with a long-range effort after former captain Neamh Woods, making her first start of the season after recovering for a calf injury as one of three changes to their published line-up, had come out from deep.
Another wide from McKenna meant Armagh still trailed at the water-break and afterwards Aimee Mackin was off target too before Lavery and Grimes each had shots charged down following another run by Blaithin Mackin.
McConville’s brilliant breaks kept posing problems for the opposition too but Armagh gave the ball away in the opposition goalmouth after one good attack and, after two wides from McCaffrey, O’Neill doubled the Tyrone lead with a free.
O’Neill’s next shot went wide and, after Niamh Marley was adjudged guilty of charging, Niamh Coleman won the ball back, Clarke went up the left and won a free which McKenna converted.
McConville chalked up Armagh’s ninth wide but then came Carr’s save and the hosts finished the half on the front foot with those four unanswered points, though it could have been even better.
Tyrone goalkeeper Laura Kane did well to tip Aimee Mackin’s shot onto the crossbar and over for a point rather than an Armagh major, and Aoibhinn McHugh got the opening score of the second half albeit quickly cancelled out by Aimee’s third point of the evening.
McKenna kicked two quickfire frees, the second after Tyrone infringed from their kickout, Carr did well to claim a dropping bomb albeit under no immediate pressure from opposing players and Ferguson won a relieving free after a rugby-style jackal.
Coleman made good ground and, with Tyrone watching McConville’s decoy run, the midfielder recycled the ball for McKenna to pump over a long-range point, to which Caitlin Kelly replied as the visitors tried to stay in touch.
Armagh had other ideas though, with a lovely chipped point from McCoy and a wide by Blaithin Mackin punctuating that run of three fine scores from out on the right courtesy of Lavery, Aimee Mackin and Clarke in the space of four minutes.
Now nine down, the last thing Tyrone would have wanted to see was the imposing Mallon making her entry to a great roar from the home support in a reduced-capacity crowd of 600, who were enjoying the entertainment.
Almost immediately, the increasingly prominent McCoy cut right through the Tyrone defence before nonchalantly knocking the ball into the bottom right hand corner of Kane’s net for a great Armagh goal.
Forkhill’s Megan Sheridan came on for Grimes, Aimee Mackin kicked her fifth point of the evening and then came Mallon’s goal just four minutes after her introduction, following good approach play.
Recently treated for injury, Niamh Marley won a great turnover, McConville made a tremendous run and Blaithin Mackin launched a ball in which big sister Aimee broke down for the predatory Mallon to lash home from an acute angle.
O’Neill pulled a point back before the water-break but Armagh still led by 16 and McCambridge denied Tyrone a goal chance before a long wide from Aimee Mackin followed by a weak shot from Blaithin Mackin.
McConville lifted Armagh again by brilliantly dispossessing a Tyrone forward and, although the resulting raid led to O’Hanlon kicking a wide, the irrepressible Crossmaglen woman was soon on the attack herself with an exhilarating break from deep.
Emma Hegarty got sinbinned for crudely chopping her down but Aimee Mackin missed the free and then saw a shot fall short after Silverbridge’s Niamh Reel had come on in place of O’Hanlon.
O’Neill landed a free but then kicked a wide under pressure from McCambridge before Murphy made two more changes, Frances Quinn and Dearbhla Coleman replacing Niamh Marley and Lavery.
McConville and McHugh traded wides but Armagh got the next score when Niamh Coleman pilfered possession yet again and exchanged passes with Blaithin Mackin before McCoy split the sticks to make it 2-20 to 1-7.
Blaithin then played in Reel for a great goal chance, but the rusty sub shot straight at keeper Kane from close-range just as the referee blew for her overcarrying, and instead fellow sub Regan Fay pulled a point back for Tyrone.
In injury-time, O’Neill got her sixth score of the evening before McCoy’s claims for a free-in were waved away and instead she was not only pinged for charging but, quite astonishingly, sinbinned in one of several strange decisions by Down referee Gavin Finnegan.
So, both teams finished with 14 players and O’Neill had the last word with her third successful free which meant the Armagh margin matched that in last season’s semi against Tyrone rather than the recent quarter-final against Monaghan.
ARMAGH: A Carr; S Marley (capt), C McCambridge, G Ferguson; T Grimes, L McConville, B Mackin (0-1); N Marley, N Coleman; E Lavery (0-2), C O’Hanlon (0-1), F McKenna (0-8, 5f); A Mackin (0-5), A McCoy (1-2), A Clarke (0-1). Subs used: K Mallon (1-0) for Clarke (42mins), M Sheridan for Grimes (44), N Reel for O’Hanlon (52), F Quinn for N Marley (55), D Coleman for Lavery (55).
TYRONE: L Kane, E Hegarty, T McLaughlin (capt), E Mulgrew; E Brennan, C Kelly (0-1), N Woods; A McHugh (0-1), SJ Gervin; N Hughes, J Lyons, N McGirr (1-0); N O’Neill (0-7, 3f), G Rafferty, C McCaffrey. Subs used: D Gallagher for McGirr (ht), R Fay (0-1) for Kelly (40), C Hunter (46), G McKenna for Woods (56).