July 20th, 2021



Richard Bullick

Magnificent Armagh showed the class of champions as they launched their Ulster title defence by demolishing Monaghan with an outstanding display on Friday night in the Athletic Grounds.

In spite of failing to fire in the recent National League campaign, the hosts served up a superb performance in perfect conditions to register a comprehensive victory and set up a semi-final against Tyrone on Friday week.

Armagh got the first six points of the match on their way to an interval lead of the same magnitude and then hit an unanswered 1-7 in the third quarter to put the result beyond doubt and give manager Ronan Murphy the luxury of using his full allocation of five subs.

All Ireland Player of the Year Aimee Mackin typically led the way with eight points, her sibling Blaithin scored an unforgettable goal and Armagh’s third All Star Clodagh McCambridge was absolutely brilliant at the back.

Both teams had eight scorers on the evening but triple All Star Cora Courtney, who hit three points, was the only visiting player to raise more than one flag, with the Farney forwards well marshalled by the Orchard defence.

Crossmaglen’s rising star Alex Clarke, who had produced an exciting cameo as Armagh overcame Monaghan in last December’s Clones showpiece, has since stepped up to start and she scored 1-2 in this quarter-final.

Armagh have been bolstered by the return to Orchard duty this season of previous regulars Lauren McConville, Niamh Marley and Fionnuala McKenna and each showed how much they have to offer.

Lissummon captain Marley appeared out in the cold coming into this campaign and didn’t even make the bench for last month’s opening National League game, but her surging runs up the middle of the field kept Armagh on the front foot.

McKenna kicked one of her trademark monster points in the fifth minute just after opening the scoring with a right-footed free as Armagh gradually built a healthy lead by raising those six white flags without reply in the first quarter.

Having actually lined out at centre half back in the last two games, McConville was wearing a single-digit number for the first time in her Orchard career but showed she hasn’t lost her attacking touch by getting forward for a sweetly-struck point.

There was also a spectacular long-range effort from McConville’s fellow half back Tiarna Grimes in the first half before Monaghan got three scores in a row to reduce the arrears to just a single goal.

But Clarke’s goal and point gave Armagh breathing space and, although Shauna Coyle got the last score of the half for the visitors, the orangewomen went into the changing rooms on top with the board reading 1-8 to 0-5.

However, with Monaghan set to benefit from what breeze there was in the second half and Armagh well aware of the Farney firepower, nobody believed that this tie was done and dusted at that stage.

Cora Courtney got the first score of the second half but Armagh hit back by posting that 1-7 without reply by the water-break to the delight of those Orchard followers lucky enough to have got a ticket.

The Farney women won the last quarter by four points to three but that was scant consolation for them and anyway Armagh had other priorities at that stage in terms of who they wanted to bring on or take off.

Skipper Kelly Mallon made it onto the field for the first time since lifting the trophy in Clones more than six months ago and there were maiden Armagh appearances for Emily Druse and Dearbhla Coleman in the closing stages.

It has been a wonderful few weeks for St Catherine’s Head Girl Druse, who had doubled up as the pre-match anthem singer when Armagh met Monaghan in the league game in the same stadium at the end of last month.

Monaghan pooped the party by winning with a point in injury-time that day after Armagh had got an equalising score late on, but this time the outcome was settled in the Orchard outfit’s favour long before the end.


May be an image of 4 people, people playing American football and grass

Being able to blood a couple of fresh faces simply added to the feel-good factor on the evening and it also meant Armagh’s most experienced player Caroline O’Hanlon could put her feet up in the final quarter.

Now in her 20th inter-county season in the orange jersey, triple All Star O’Hanlon had played her part and chipped in with two points before being given a break ahead of Sunday’s British SuperLeague netball match for Manchester Thunder against Strathclyde Sirens.

Her team’s top performer in last December’s Ulster final, O’Hanlon had been badly missed by Armagh in this season’s costly league loss to Monaghan and Orchard followers would have been alarmed when she was only listed as a sub for Friday night.

For the league game Armagh had named O’Hanlon in the team and maintained the pretence right up until the throw-in that the former Orchard captain was going to start even though she was actually in London for a netball match the same afternoon.

This time it was the other way round with O’Hanlon not listed to start, but she was on the field from the off in place of Crossmaglen captain Aveen Bellew, meaning Armagh began with the same 15 players who had run on against Cavan in Breffni Park 12 days earlier.

There were suspicions Monaghan might have named a bogus team too when a number of Farney frontliners weren’t included in the published line-up for the Athletic Grounds including triple All Star Ciara McAnespie and vice-captain Rosemary Courtney.

In the event, there were two pre-match changes with Shauna Coyle and Casey Treanor replacing Lauren Garland and Kelsey Maguire but McAnespie, who had missed the 2020 Ulster final through injury, didn’t feature at all.

Reaching the Division Two semis unlike Armagh meant Monaghan had a gruelling game against Kerry last Saturday, which went to extra-time and a shoot-out of free-kicks before ending in defeat for the Ulster side.

That match must have taken its toll for seven starters against Kerry weren’t on the field for Friday’s throw-in, though leading lights like skipper Ellen McCarron, predecessor Cora Courtney, Muireann Atkinson, Aoife McAnespie and Laura McEnaney did line out.

The most significant changes compared to the league game were Armagh having O’Hanlon back and her fellow three-time All Star Cora Courtney, just a second half sub a few weeks ago, starting this time for Monaghan.

Armagh had 11 of the same starters from the Ulster final to Monaghan’s nine, with the Orchard exceptions being Mallon, Bellew, Shauna Grey and the Orchard’s joint Player of the Year for 2020, Catherine Marley, who is recovering from surgery on a dislocated thumb.

When Armagh last beat Monaghan in an Ulster final back in 2014, they fell at the first hurdle to the same opposition the following season but there was to be no Farney revenge this time as the Orchard delivered by far their most complete performance of the season.

In contrast to the somewhat headless display against Monaghan in the league game, the hosts played with a wonderful fluidity, cohesion and sense of purpose to give Sarah Marley her first win in the Athletic Grounds as stand-in skipper.

Mallon making her first appearance of the season via the bench meant there were parallels with Monaghan’s last visit for a Championship match, the 2019 Ulster semi, when the then captain Caoimhe Morgan made her reappearance as a second half sub after a long lay-off.

The fact Armagh had won well on that occasion, and also their last outing on a Friday night, against Tyrone last Halloween, were positive omens going into this second of three meetings with Monaghan in the space of 41 days.

These sides will clash again in their opening All Ireland group game on July 10 in what will be their 12th tussle since Armagh regained Senior status in 2013 and Friday’s result means the series now stands at five victories each with one draw.

Armagh won without a scoreboard contribution from Aoife McCoy, though she did hit the woodwork and looked lively throughout, or Ballyhegan skipper Eve Lavery while Niamh Coleman had a great chance of a point but pulled her shot wide.

Young Grace Ferguson had a great game alongside acting captain Marley and the commanding McCambridge in the full back line, showing great tenacity in the tackle and being quite effective against Cora Courtney.

There would have been no shortage of Armagh contenders for Player of the Match while Blaithin Mackin, who was having a relatively quiet evening up until that point, produced a ‘worldie’ which will be hard to beat for Goal of the Year.

Nice interplay by O’Hanlon and McCoy in the fourth minute won a free which McKenna, taking over the duties assumed by Blaithin Mackin during the league, converted before adding a huge point from way out on the left.

O’Hanlon won a good turnover, got the ball back from McCoy after the Dromintee dynamo’s great run up the left and won a free which led to Aimee Mackin fisting the ball over the bar from an acute angle.

Niamh Marley picked a pass off her toes and found O’Hanlon in the lead-up to Aimee Mackin’s second point on nine minutes between two timely interventions at the back by McCambridge, who was already dominating.

A perfect tackle by Aoife McAnespie dispossessed Aimee Mackin in a threatening position and Clarke shot at the keeper before good pressure from Ferguson saw Courtney shank her shot wide.


May be an image of 1 person and playing a sport

McConville linked well with Niamh Marley on a wonderful foray forward before splitting the posts with aplomb and Aimee Mackin kicked a sixth Armagh point with her weaker right foot just ahead of the water-break after Lavery’s long ball to McCoy.

McCarron finally got Monaghan on the board after the resumption but immediately McConville came steaming forward again and Grimes struck a great point which was cancelled out by Casey Treanor.

Clarke got a knock to the head trying to catch a bomb dropped in by McCoy, Aimee Mackin over-carried in attack and the latter then hit the woodwork after great approach play involving O’Hanlon, McKenna, McCoy, Ferguson and a great ball by sibling Blaithin.

That move began after a fantastic double block by sisters Sarah and Niamh Marley at the other end and Armagh had a let off in the 24th minute when Cora Courtney flashed a shot across the face of goal.

A shot from McConville was just off target and a good period of pressure from Monaghan resulted in scores by McQuillan and Courtney but Armagh struck right back with a goal from Clarke on her first Championship start.

O’Hanlon had won the ball and the two Niamhs, Marley and Coleman, combined before Crossmaglen’s Clarke curled in a shot which might have come back out off the base of the left post had it not been met by retreating goalkeeper McGuirk.

Grimes set up Clarke for a follow-up point to put Armagh seven ahead and, although Coyle pulled one back in injury-time, it was the team in orange who were on the attack again when Donegal referee Siobhan Coyle brought the half to an end.

Aimee Mackin kicked a wild wide before Cora Courtney got the first score of the second half for the team in blue after bumping off Sarah Marley but the immense McCambridge’s masterclass at the back broke Monaghan hearts.

Both Mackins played poor balls in after O’Hanlon had cancelled out Courtney’s point but the Orchard continued to dominate and McKenna bounced over a point via the crossbar and Aimee Mackin raised a white flag after Niamh Marley and McCoy combined.

Blaithin Mackin kicked a long-range wide and Clarke nearly got a touch to the net before Aimee Mackin’s superb clean catch and bravery by Lavery was rewarded with the former converting a left-footed free to put Armagh nine ahead.

Great goalkeeping by Anna Carr averted real danger and instead the Orchard crew went further clear with Aimee Mackin’s sixth point and a stunning solo goal by Blaithin, who went on a long, weaving run before finishing clinically low to the net.

A low shot on the turn by Clarke after another rampaging run by Niamh Marley was blocked by the goalkeeper but O’Hanlon put over a point and Clarke raised her second white flag to make it 2-15 to 0-6 at the water-break.

When play resumed, Mallon took her place up front for Armagh and Aoibhinn Henderson, back in county football after an absence of five years, also came on soon afterwards for the fourth time in four games.

Although McCambridge continued to show why she is the best full back in Ireland, the impressive Muireann Atkinson pulled back a point before the uncharacteristically scoreless McCoy hit the woodwork and Coleman kicked an awful wide.

Aimee Mackin rounded off her good run with a point and followed up with a huge effort after Rosemary Courtney, one of several subs used by Monaghan, had raised a white flag at one end and McConville drawn a blank at the other.

McEnaney pointed for Monaghan and Cora Courtney converted a free after a foul by the recently introduced Druse on her sister Rosemary but it was Armagh who had the last word when Henderson kicked a point in injury-time.

The enormous smile on Dearbhla Coleman’s face as she ran on in the late evening sunlight for her first Armagh appearance and Forkhill’s Megan Sheridan also got the final few minutes in place of Ferguson.


May be an image of 1 person, playing a sport and outdoors

Armagh went on to be crowned champions last time they played an Ulster quarter-final in the Athletic Grounds back in 2014, but if the Orchard can get past Tyrone, formidable Donegal lie await in the final after beating Cavan 6-16 to 2-17 in Saturday’s first semi.

ARMAGH: A Carr; S Marley (capt), C McCambridge, G Ferguson; T Grimes (0-1), L McConville (0-1), B Mackin (1-0); N Marley, N Coleman; E Lavery, C O’Hanlon (0-2), F McKenna (0-3, 1f); A Mackin (0-8, 1f), A McCoy, A Clarke (1-2).  Subs used: K Mallon for McKenna, A Henderson (0-1) for Lavery, E Druse for O’Hanlon, D Coleman for Clarke, M Sheridan for Ferguson.

MONAGHAN: N McGuirk; A Newell N Fahy, A McAnespie; A Garland, Jen Duffy, Jane Duffy; N Brennan, M Atkinson (0-1); L McEnaney (0-1), E McCarron (capt; 0-1), S Coyle (0-1); C Treanor (0-1), C Courtney (0-3, 1f), J McQuillan (0-1).  Subs used: R Courtney (0-1), A Burns, H McQuaid, S Wilson.

Referee: Siobhan Coyle (Donegal).