ARMAGH BEGIN FRESH PROMOTION DRIVE
There have been a few tweaks to this year’s ladies National League but Armagh’s objective going into the campaign will be the same as for the past five seasons – securing the Division Two title, trophy and promotion back to the top flight for the first time since 2017.
After two truncated campaigns featuring regionalised groups within each division, it is back to a full fixture list this term so Armagh will have seven regular league games but the traditional semi-finals have been scrapped.
Instead, the top two teams in the table will qualify for a straight final, leaving less wriggle-room to drop points in the first phase of the competition, but the orangewomen will be expected to reach a second consecutive Division Two decider at Croke Park.
Last April, Armagh made their first appearance at headquarters for almost a decade since the 2012 All Ireland Intermediate decider but unexpectedly lost out to Kerry, who then beat them again in the Senior Championship quarter-final.
Kerry have swapped places with Westmeath, while newly-promoted Roscommon replace Clare in a division which again features Tipperary and Laois along with the Ulster quartet of Armagh, Cavan, Monaghan and Tyrone.
After two seasons of being grouped with their provincial rivals in the first phase of this competition, Armagh will be back on the road for longer journeys this time including a trip to Tipperary in the final round of fixtures on March 26.
The campaign gets underway with two away games, against Cavan this Sunday and Roscommon seven days later, before Shane McCormack’s first home match as manager, against Monaghan on February 5.
Armagh are away to Tyrone a fortnight later and then host Laois the last Sunday of February before a three-week break ahead of welcoming Westmeath to the Orchard county and going all the way to Tipperary.
Those last two opponents look like Armagh’s main challengers on paper for a place in the final and anything less than six wins from their first six matches could mean the women in orange needing to avoid defeat on that trip to Tipp at the end.
In theory, the way the fixtures fall offers Armagh the opportunity to build momentum, though that is not to underestimate what looks like a challenging enough opening game this Sunday as Cavan were the best of the other Ulster sides in this division last season.
The Cavan County Board raised eyebrows by initially looking to ditch Gerry Moane as manager – or at least advertising the job – but he appears to be back now, while Armagh have a balance between continuity and a fresh feel.
Former Kildare goalkeeper McCormack has stepped up to take the helm from Tyrone native Ronan Murphy, who was in charge of the Orchard outfit for three seasons before stepping down last autumn.
Although Armagh achieved an historic hat-trick of three Ulster title triumphs in that period, being crowned provincial champions three years running, their attempts to return to NFL Division One have ended in disappointment.
They were beaten in the semi-finals both times under Lorraine McCaffrey and Fionnuala McAtamney, squandering a healthy lead against Tipperary in 2018 and then losing to Kerry with an understrength team at the same stage the following season after topping the table.
The 2020 National League was suspended and then abandoned due to the first coronavirus shutdown but, by that stage, Murphy’s women were already out of contention having lost three of their first five fixtures.
In contrast to the forthcoming campaign, which gets underway slightly earlier than usual due to the adoption of a split-season schedule, the start of the 2021 NFL was delayed until late May by further pandemic disruption.
The tight timetable and the desire to keep travel to a minimum in light of coronavirus restrictions led to each division of the National League being split into two groups of four organised on a geographic basis.
A late Aimee Mackin penalty meant Armagh edged Tyrone by a point in their opening game but they subsequently lost by the minimum margin against Monaghan in the Athletic Grounds and away to Cavan so missed out on a place in the semi-finals.
For whatever reason, the LGFA decided to keep the same model last season but this time Armagh romped into the play-offs by beating all three of their Ulster rivals and then crushed Laois in the semi-final in Drogheda.
However, with the iconic Caroline O’Hanlon controversially left out of the starting team after playing British SuperLeague netball for Manchester Thunder the previous evening, Armagh’s long overdue return to Croke Park ended in disappointment.
Consequently, they are facing into a sixth year in Division Two since a narrow defeat by Monaghan in a relegation play-off at the Athletic Grounds in April 2017 ended their last, two-season, stay at the top table.
There have been no announced departures to the squad of 28 which finished last season and the meticulous McCormack met with each of those players individually in October as he began putting in place plans for the forthcoming campaign.
The newly-appointed Armagh manager was also very visible on the ground during the Orchard club championship last autumn and revealed that eight fresh faces had been called up to his squad for 2023.
Long-serving Shane O’Neills skipper Louise Kenny, who has missed a lot of county football thanks to two cruciate ruptures, makes a welcome return to the ranks along with teenage Armagh Harps star Emily Druse.
Druse left the panel early last year to concentrate on her demanding medical studies at Queen’s while Clann Eireann six-footer Dearbhla Coleman opted to focus fully on trying, unsuccessfully, to make the Northern Ireland netball squad for the Commonwealth Games.
Armagh regular Grace Ferguson’s younger sister Maeve, briefly there at the start of last season while still a schoolgirl is back, and compact Crossmaglen forward Aoibheann McConville joins sister Lauren and brother Cian as a county panellist for the first time.
Ballyhegan’s Blathnaid Hendron has been rewarded for hitting an astonishing 4-10 in her club’s Buttercrane Intermediate decider victory and likewise Maeve Lennon’s prolific feats for Armagh Junior champions Derrynoose have earned her a call-up.
There was also an invite to Lennon’s fellow Ulster Schools All Star and Hendron’s Ballyhegan clubmate Caitlin McCormack, who was last season’s silverware-lifting Armagh Minors captain and Player of the Year.
The return to a full-length league programme will provide managers more scope to give game-time to fringe players and introduce newcomers, though that is offset somewhat by the need to finish in the top two this time and the importance of promotion to Armagh.
Furthermore, McCormack has a very strong and settled squad already at his disposal, with all 15 starters from last May’s Clones showpiece featuring on the Irish News Ulster All Stars shortlist and seven of them making the final line-up.
It is testament to the formidable depth that players like recent vice-captain Sarah Marley, Armagh Harps skipper and Orchard appearances centurion Fionnuala McKenna and previous regular Tiarna Grimes weren’t in that run-on team.
Nor were three forwards who would walk into many county teams, in Crossmaglen firecracker Alex Clarke, the easily under-rated Niamh Reel of Silverbridge and former soccer international Aoife Lennon, who made her county comeback last season after a big gap.
Namesakes Megan McCann of Clann Eireann and Megan McShane from Harps have had to bide their time for opportunity and experienced Crossmaglen captain Aveen Donaldson Bellew is showing her hunger by sticking around.
So there will be fierce competition for places and selection headaches of the positive sort for McCormack who has made several valuable additions to his management team alongside newly-promoted deputy Denise Jordan and retained trainer Ruairi Grimes.
Former county footballer Joe Feeney, who has done a great job with Armagh Harps ladies in recent years and will bring real intensity and attention to detail, has been brought in as a coach along with McCormack’s fellow Kildare men Tony Reilly and Stephen Sheeran.
Veteran corner back Sarah Marley, who turned 37 last Tuesday, is sidelined long-term as she rehabs following major knee surgery while her younger sibling Niamh Marley and O’Hanlon have parallel commitments in rugby and netball respectively.
Armagh have enough quality to be realistic contenders for the All Ireland title itself this year so anything less than winning Division Two will be regarded as failure but, because securing promotion is so important, nobody in the Orchard camp will be counting chickens.