Armagh Under 16s secured silverware and a place for the Orchard county in next year’s Ulster Championship proper by staging a fantastic comeback to defeat Derry in an astonishing goal-fest final at Augher.
The Orchard’s young guns showed great enterprise and character in coming back from a seven-point deficit just before the second water-break to lead by seven early in injury-time on their way to a 7-11 to 7-6 victory.
Two clubmates whose surnames are synonymous with Granemore ladies football, Ciara Carr and Lucy Doyle, scored 3-6 between them while supersub Rebecca Cunningham bagged a brace of goals plus a point and Derrynoose’s Caoimhe McNally hit 1-1.
The other green flag was raised by Clann Eireann’s Aoibhin Donohue, one of two changes to the starting team from the abandoned match between these sides the weekend before, while Cunningham’s Killeavy clubmate Annie Stanfield weighed in with three points.
On an afternoon for Orchard heroes, Stanfield stood out for her physicality and surging runs from the half back line, both of which along with her hair colour made her seem like a young Niamh Marley.
It’s tough to lose a final after scoring seven goals but that’s what happened the Derry girls, who, as Armagh manager Fergal Greene acknowledged afterwards, had contributed so much to a thrilling game.
This was a replay of a match abandoned early in extra-time the previous Saturday due to concerns surrounding what appeared a potentially serious injury to Mullabrack’s Mallaidh Loughran.
Thankfully those fears proved unfounded to the extent Loughran actually took the field in the rematch as a second half sub, but better to have taken no chances, and the silver lining was that these spirited sides got to serve up another feast of football.
The original game was deadlocked at the end of the regulation hour last time, with Armagh’s 3-13 matched by Derry’s 5-7, and, although that day’s drama was cut short, the replay was an appetising prospect.
A combination of Armagh finishing just sixth in last season’s provincial championship and Ulster LGFA’s change of format meant the Orchard hopefuls being grouped in a subsidiary competition this year with Derry, Down and Fermanagh.
In a similar scenario to the Minors, that denied Armagh an opportunity to fight for the top prize in their province but offered a decent chance of a trophy triumph for the girls in orange and they duly delivered.
The parallels with the Minors are uncanny, with favourites Armagh beaten by Derry in the round robin phase in both age groups but bouncing back by coming from behind to secure a revenge victory in an absorbing final, with the Orchard bench contributing plenty.
The earlier Derry defeat for Armagh had been on a 5-8 to 4-9 scoreline, between beating Down 3-11 to 0-7 in the opening game and an 8-21 to 0-5 rout of Fermanagh, who had taken a 51-point pasting by the Mourne girls last time out.
So Armagh, managed by Greene and former Orchard hero Aidan O’Rourke, supported by recent ladies county footballer Caroline O’Hare and James Feehan, and Derry met in what was branded the ‘silver final’ by Ulster LGFA.
Loughran’s injury cut short the entertainment first time round but these teams simply picked up where they had left off on the same pitch, with Armagh goalkeeper Emma Murtagh having to make her first save after just 15 seconds.
Play was brought back for a free however, which was converted, Derry quickly added a point from play and Dromintee’s Murtagh had to be alert to hack away another threatening ball soon afterwards.
However, Armagh were in front before the clock ticked around to the five-minute mark, McNally raising the first of what would be 14 green flags on the afternoon after an opposition wide at the other end.
McNally’s next effort went wide of the posts and Stanfield shot at the Derry net-minder after a good run before Carr doubled Armagh’s lead by putting the ball over the bar with what actually appeared a good goal chance.
The remainder of the first quarter was chaotic, with Leanne McCullagh netting twice in two minutes for Derry, the second in spite of a good stop by Murtagh just before, but also kicking four wides, the first of them from a free.
Armagh’s McNally had a shot blocked and then Aine McAlister, who had scored all five Derry goals the week before, scored a lovely point to give the young Oak Leaf outfit an advantage of five at the end of that first quarter.
The girls in orange got off to a good start when play resumed following the water-break with tall centre half forward Carr converting a free and clubmate Doyle pointing, though Murtagh then had to make a good save and Derry chalked up their seventh wide.
Jemma Shivers hit Murtagh’s net but Doyle replied in kind a minute later and added a point, with Crossmaglen’s Clara Lenaghan pulling a high shot just past the post in between, but it wasn’t long until Armagh got ahead again.
A good point from Stanfield was followed by a Carr free, fired in fairly low, finding its way into the net and, in spite of another free from Carla Collins in injury time, Armagh had their noses just in front at the interval.
Armagh threatened right away at the start of the second half, with a shot by McNally blocked by the goalkeeper and an effort from Lenaghan deflected for a 45 before Stanfield raised her second white flag of the game with just a minute gone.
Derry took their tally of wides to nine either side of a third free from Collins followed by McNally being just off target with a high shot and Carr then restored the Orchard outfit’s two-point advantage with a free following a great save by the opposition keeper.
Within a minute a Shivers shot which went under the bar gave Derry the lead again and Armagh were grateful for a great block by Grainne O’Rourke, daughter of Aidan, after the Derry full forward had pulled off a nice clean catch inside.
Armagh’s two personnel changes to their starting team from the previous Saturday had seen Granemore’s Fiadhna Loughran and Donohue replace Cunningham and Mallaidh Loughran, along with a few positional shuffles in the forward division.
Cunningham came on for Lenaghan on 41 minutes and was to have a significant impact but not before McAlister netted and McCullagh completed her hat-trick to extend Derry’s advantage to seven points.
It was a high-scoring game but there had been some good defending from both teams between those Derry majors, including a great intervention by Armagh centre half back Erin Murphy from Mullabrack.
Mallaidh Loughran and Caoimhe Feehan from Shane O’Neills had been brought on just before the McCullagh goal and their fellow sub Cunningham struck to reduce the arrears on the cusp of the water-break.
She finished well to the Derry net after a surging run and nice lay-off by Stanfield and Donohue scored a fantastic solo goal after play resumed, breaking up the left flank and cutting inside to unleash a shot which went in off the keeper.
The boisterous Stanfield was frustrated to hit the bar after running right in towards goal but she kept her head to send over an equalising point after Armagh retained possession and even better was to follow for them.
McNally and the forceful Stanfield combined before Cunningham finished superbly to the net from an acute angle on the right to take Armagh from being seven down to three up in the space of just six minutes.
Carr was off-target with a free from the right and clubmate Doyle rolled a great goal chance wide from close range a minute later, enabling Derry to cut the deficit to just two with another free, but Feehan lifted Armagh with a great catch of Murtagh’s kickout.
A 58th minute goal from Carr following a poor opposition kickout was a big boost and a Cunningham point put the Orchard team two goals clear as the game entered injury-time, though it initially looked like she would complete her hat-trick.
A McNally point put Armagh in seventh heaven and, although McAlister pulled a goal back for Derry just before Amy McMahon of Silverbridge replaced Donohue, the Orchard crew weren’t to be denied.
There was some pressure from Derry, but Murphy made a brilliant block and then Stanfield, Carr and Cunningham collaborated to feed Doyle down in the right corner and she cut inside to fist over another point.
It was Lucy’s last action ahead of being replaced by Alicia Roberts of Eire Og, but the final whistle went just 15 seconds later, sparking jubilant Orchard celebrations before and after skipper Sinead O’Neill was presented with the trophy.
Not for the first time this season, Mullaghbawn man Gerry Doherty had the pleasure of presenting a trophy to an Armagh age group captain in his capacity as Ulster LGFA President, this time to Camlough girl O’Neill.
The Orchard outfit’s flame-haired full back was understandably delighted when she spoke afterwards along with manager Greene to match commentator Alan Gunn, who had done a good job as part of Just Content’s impressively professional streaming service.
“It was an honour to be part of those two games (against Derry), it really was. They were very intense games that put us through our paces and we really challenged ourselves but it was great to come out in the end with a victory. Our hard work paid off.
“We’ve great competition for places in this squad, the girls who are unfortunate not to start really challenge us in training. They know their role when they come on and are a great asset.
“We had to show a lot of character today and the girls are just a credit to themselves, the best group I’ve ever played with. I think it’s the resilience and hard work that Fergal and the management have drilled into us that stood to us,” she enthused.
Proud gaffer Greene paid tribute to his players, including sparing a thought for the injured Eva Cassidy of Crossmaglen and Elsie Druse, younger sister of Harps star Emily, who was originally listed to start in place of Mallaidh Loughran at wing back but couldn’t take part.
“This team don’t know when they’re beaten. We were really on the ropes in the early part of that second half, but to come through and win just shows their strength of character. They’re a credit to themselves, their clubs and the county,” he reflected.
“They’ve plenty of confidence, they’re all good footballers and we had plenty of faith in them even when we were really against the wall in both games. They were two fantastic contests and, fortunately for us, we came out the right side of it in the end.
“Take the analogy of a boxing fight – the teams were slugging it out and even though Derry were up at one stage we were confident we could peg them back and similarly when we were up, we knew they were going to come back at us. They’re a good, well-coached team.
“Eva Cassidy broke her finger two weeks ago. She hoped to make it back but didn’t get good news during the week. Then there’s Elsie Druse, who we really missed driving forward. She’s a cracking player who should have a great future for club and county.
“With Mallaidh, we didn’t know whether she was going to participate at all. We were a bit nervous even though she’d got the all-clear from the physio so we initially held her back but thankfully she was able to come on and play her part in the victory,” he concluded.
Greene’s club Killeavy had the biggest contingent in Saturday’s starting team, with their quartet being supplemented by a Granemore trio, two each from Dromintee and Derrynoose and single Shanes, Mullabrack, Cross and Clann Eireann representatives.
The five subs used included players from Silverbridge and Eire Og while Armagh Harps and Ballyhegan were among the healthy spread of a dozen clubs represented in the overall matchday panel of 24.
It was also an especially proud day for Armagh LGFA Chairperson Sinead Reel, who along with coaching McMahon at Silverbridge, had helped the five players from her former club Killeavy when they were just starting out in the sport.
ARMAGH U16: Emma Murtagh (Dromintee); Caoimhe Hourican (Derrynoose), Sinead O’Neill (Shane O’Neills, capt), Siofra Doherty (Killeavy); Annie Stanfield (Killeavy; 0-3), Erin Murphy (Mullabrack), Fiadhna Loughran (Granemore); Meabh Greene (Killeavy), Eadaoin Trainor (Killeavy); Clara Lenaghan (Crossmaglen), Ciara Carr (Granemore; 2-3, 2f), Aoibhin Donohue (Clann Eireann; 1-0); Caoimhe McNally (Derrynoose; 1-1), Lucy Doyle (Granemore; 1-3), Grainne O’Rourke (Dromintee). Subs used: Rebecca Cunningham (Killeavy; 2-1), Mallaidh Loughran (Mullabrack), Caoimhe Feehan (Shane O’Neills), Amy McMahon (Silverbridge), Alicia Roberts (Eire Og). Unused subs: Ellie-Mae Carr (Granemore), Eva Cassidy (Crossmaglen), Elsie Druse (Armagh Harps), Rachel McGrane (Ballyhegan) Aoibheann Sheridan (Cullyhanna)