MINORS SECURE WIN WITH LATE FLOURISH
Armagh secured a return to the Ulster Minor Championship proper next season after a fantastic comeback salvaged victory from the jaws of what had threatened to be a devastating defeat at Celtic Park last Saturday.
The young Orchard crop had hit the opposition net inside the opening half minute of what was styled as the Ulster silver final but needed a great equalising goal late on from Eimear McConaghy followed by a decisive surge in injury-time to get over the line against Derry.
A McConaghy point levelled matters again after the hosts had edged back in front and then her fellow sub from Clann Eireann, Ella Reid, blasted a superb strike into the top corner followed by Rachel McCabe of Shane O’Neills quickly adding a conclusive score.
McCabe was also one of four subs used on a day that the bench proved very effective for an Armagh team managed by 2002 All Ireland winner Ger Reid and Derrynoose man Anthony Farrell, who has been such a generous sponsor of Orchard age group teams.
The name of his Bureau de Change business was emblazoned on the Armagh jerseys but both Anthony and Ger were also proud dads on the day, with Aideen Farrell part of the Orchard defence and Ella Reid scoring that crucial late goal.
Lara Marsden, daughter of another of those Orchard heroes from two decades ago, Diarmaid, shares the captaincy of this side with Ballyhegan’s Caitlin McCormack, whose clubmate Catherine McGrane is the niece of former Armagh great, Paul.
Incidentally, Caitlin’s mum, Brenda McCormack, who still plays alongside her at club level, was part of the Armagh ladies squad briefly back in the middle of last decade while unused sub Caitlin Smith’s dad David is also part of this Minor management team.
The impressive McCormack, who was heavily involved in that early Armagh goal and drove her team from midfield all afternoon in a real captain’s performance, was a worthy recipient of the Player of the Match accolade from commentator Jerome Quinn.
She and Marsden received the trophy together and both took turns on the microphone before continuing the celebrations with an Armagh matchday squad which contained representatives from no fewer than 14 Orchard clubs.
Their 4-12 to 2-14 victory in what was a very enjoyable game of football not only meant this Orchard class of 2022 went home with a trophy last weekend but earned next year’s Armagh Minors team a place in the top tier of the provincial competition for this age group.
A disappointing sixth place finish last year allied to a change of format meant Armagh were excluded from the main Ulster Minor Championship this season and placed in a subsidiary section with the three counties who were below them in 2021.
In a typically considered but straight-talking interview with the Ulster Gazette ahead of this campaign, joint Orchard captain McCormack admitted that not having the opportunity to play for the top provincial prize wasn’t ideal.
However, she insisted that everyone was working hard to make the most of the hand they had been dealt, embracing the very realistic chance of claiming some silverware and shouldering the responsibility of regaining Armagh’s top tier status.
Although Armagh may have been seen as advance favourites to win this secondary competition, all that effort which had gone in over recent months proved vital, for the Orchard had to put their best foot forward to seal the deal.
The girls in orange got their campaign underway with a 7-13 to 3-3 demolition of Down on an historic occasion at McKeever Park in Killean as they became the first Orchard county team to play a competitive match at Armagh LGFA’s dedicated new base.
But they were then beaten 2-11 to 1-8 in the second round robin game by Derry before earning a second chance against them in the decider courtesy of a 7-11 to 1-6 rout of Fermanagh, who ended up bottom of the pile.
Down defeated the emerging Ernewomen again in last Saturday’s curtain-raiser at Celtic Park, dubbed the ‘bronze final’ but in effect a play-off to avoid the wooden spoon, before table toppers Derry and Armagh met for the second time this season.
Derry won the throw-in but their player was immediately dispossessed by McCormack, who came away with the ball and linked well with Caitriona O’Hagan, the only member of this Minors squad who had been in Croke Park with the seniors the previous Sunday.
Carrickcruppen’s O’Hagan sent another of the stars of this Minors side, Derrynoose’s Maeve Lennon, up the left flank before McCormack carried on an attack which finished with imposing full forward Sinead Quinn netting with just 22 seconds on the clock.
It was a dream start for Armagh but undaunted Derry delivered the perfect response, reeling off an unanswered 1-4 in reply by the 13th minute, albeit Lennon had kicked two wides meantime, one of them from a free and the other after nice interplay.
The scoreboard damage might have been worse considering that Armagh goalkeeper Niamh Henderson had done brilliantly to tip a stinging shot over the bar for what was Derry’s fourth point, though they did raise their first green flag just a minute later.
Wing back Sadie McCusker, who has a tough task trying to get game-time at star-studded county champions Armagh Harps but benefits from working with so many great role models there, stopped the rot by raising the Orchard outfit’s first white flag.
A ball from O’Hagan was just too heavy for Quinn and a good run by Clan na Gael’s Caitlin Brady after an intercepted pass came to nothing but Armagh got another point on the board before the water-break.
Crossmaglen’s Eimear McMahon, an astute and capable presence at the back, cut out a Derry attack and Killeavy’s Laura Kavanagh, who had captained Armagh Under 16s in the first ever game at the redeveloped McKeever Park last season, went forward with purpose.
Lennon and O’Hagan combined well before the latter launched a towering point, but Derry got the first two scores of the second quarter, prompting the proactive Armagh management to make a double substitution on 22 minutes.
Reid replaced McGrane while Crossmaglen’s Grace Fitzpatrick took over from Harps player Aobh McGleenan, but Derry edged five ahead with a free after the referee had ticked Kavanagh for a foul.
McCormack rallied her team by winning Henderson’s kickout, making a surging run and driving over an important point and a display of bravery by Kavanagh at the other end moments later was equally uplifting for the visitors.
Henderson dealt with a ball over the top and McMahon and Kavanagh again combined from deep, but the attack ended with Quinn, a Derrynoose clubmate of Farrell and Lennon, being blown for over-carrying when almost through on goal.
Derry raised their eighth white flag, but that score was cancelled out by a long-range free from Lennon, won by Brady, and Kiana Donnelly of Sarsfields added another point after Quinn had claimed the opposition kickout.
Farrell won a good turnover in defence and Fitzpatrick caught a long-range free from Derry in her own goalmouth before Armagh got the last score of the half from Lennon after another strong run by McCormack.
Dangerous Derry ended the opening period on the front foot but Henderson, who plays outfield for her club, batted a shot away and Clan na Gael clubmate Marsden picked up possession just before the whistle went for the interval.
There was a sense of déjà vu after the resumption as Armagh again got a score less than 30 seconds into a half followed by a formidable Derry response, on this occasion another point from Lennon provoking a riposte of 1-3 without reply.
The powerful Quinn pulled back a point and she hit the net for the second time in the afternoon following good work by Marsden but this time the Armagh goal was disallowed due to a square ball.
A shot from Granemore midfielder Millie Lavery fell short after a good burst by Farrell and Armagh lived dangerously for a period after another point put Derry seven up again in the 42nd minute.
More Henderson heroics were needed along with watchfulness from McMahon but the Orchard crew weathered the storm without further concession and then struck with a cracking goal just before the water-break.
Kavanagh winning her own kickout was followed by good runs from Lavery and Quinn and, although, Armagh got turned over, Lennon won the ball back and played in McCabe who delivered a confident finish for a player who had only been on the field for three minutes.
McConaghy, who was to play such an important part, came on for Armagh but the next score came from Derry when a ball bounced over the bar and then a long ball from Farrell led to a brilliant run and point from clubmate Lennon.
Derry defended well against a good Armagh attack but eventually Lavery reduced the arrears to a single goal with a point and then came McConaghy’s great goal after Derry lost a player to the sinbin.
McCormack won the opposition kickout and McConaghy came off Lennon’s shoulder before firing a low left-footed shot to the net to bring Armagh back on even terms after being behind for so long.
The immense McCormack claimed the next Derry restart and was also showing her general leadership skills, whether having a word with Lennon before a free or checking on an injured team-mate.
Brady and McCusker both needed treatment during a frenetic finale before McConaghy nudged Armagh in front with a left-footed point and even better was to follow less than a minute later.
Farrell won the ball in defence and Reid carried with purpose before releasing Lennon who made a superb run before laying the ball off again to the Clan na Gael girl who let fly with a fantastic finish high to the Derry net.
McCabe quickly followed up with an insurance score, chipping over the bar after Quinn won possession in defence and a lovely ball from Lavery found Reid who this time turned provider for her fellow sub.
The Derry captain was slightly lucky to get away with a yellow card for an ugly high tackle on Marsden but still argued with the referee about the sanction, perhaps reflecting frustration in the face of impending defeat in a match which her team had been in control of.
McMahon, a strong contender to lead this side in the top tier next season, sportingly commiserated with the dejected Derry girls before joining the Orchard celebrations and the post-match hug between Ger and Ellen Reid was another nice post-match moment.
Minor county champions Clan na Gael led the way with six players in this squad, twice what anyone else had, though Derrynoose matched their three starters and both Ballyhegan and Harps had two representatives in the run-on team.
Nine clubs were represented in the starting side while scoring subs McConaghy and McCabe certainly made a splash off the bench on behalf of Clann Eireann and Shane O’Neills respectively.
Armagh had no fewer than 10 scorers in this final, Lennon leading the way with four points including a free and there was 1-1 apiece from McConaghy and McCabe on an afternoon when the Orchard bench contributed 3-2.
The top two finals took place in Crossmaglen the same afternoon, with Cavan crowned Ulster Minor champions thanks to a thrilling one-point victory over Antrim after Monaghan had defeated Tyrone 5-11 to 2-11 in the third place play-off.