February 24th, 2023



Richard Bullick

Armagh got the Shane McCormack managerial era off to a winning start and their National League promotion bid up and running with a convincing 2-8 to 0-5 victory over Cavan in Sunday’s Division Two opener at Drumlane.

It was a successful first outing for Armagh, who had a sufficient scoreboard cushion to use eight of their subs including giving Derrynoose schoolgirl Maeve Lennon and Ballyhegan’s Blathnaid Hendron brief first tastes of senior county football.

Both players had earned their county call-ups through prolific feats as their respective clubs won the Armagh Junior and Intermediate titles last autumn when new manager McCormack was so proactive in attending Buttercrane Championship matches.

There was also a run off the bench for experienced campaigner Niamh Marley, who had played the full 80 minutes in Ulster’s 43-0 interpro rugby defeat by Leinster the evening before but came out on the winning side this time against a team in blue.

A heavy pitch wasn’t particularly conducive to free-flowing football but this was a comfortable triumph for last season’s beaten Division Two finalists Armagh, who were sporting black shorts for the first time along with their newly-designed jerseys.

Last season, Armagh grabbed two goals in the first minute of their opening game against Tyrone but, although quadruple All Star Aimee Mackin did raise an early white flag here, it took time for the visitors to hit their stride.

It was level at two points apiece after the opening quarter and the Orchard crew were only 0-6 to 0-3 up at the end of a low-scoring first half, thanks in part to some wasteful finishing with the wides tally having reached seven by the break.

Aimee Mackin had also struck an upright high up and skipper Kelly Mallon shot weakly at the keeper, both after forceful runs and good balls by the latter’s teenage Armagh Harps clubmate Emily Druse on her first start for the county.

It was a proud day for Druse, who gave way to regular wing forward Catherine Marley for the second half, while Shane O’Neills skipper Louise Kenny played a confidence-building 58 minutes on her long-awaited return to the orange jersey.

The only change to Armagh’s published line-up had seen Blaithin Mackin, back on Orchard duty after winning the AFLW title Down Under with Melbourne Demons, replace former international soccer player Aoife Lennon.

However, Lennon was introduced late in the third quarter and took less than three minutes to slot home a fine goal from an acute angle which gave Armagh a double-digit lead and effectively killed off any chance of a Cavan comeback.

Armagh had given themselves some breathing space with a fast start to the second half, with frees from Mallon and Aimee Mackin being followed by Aoife McCoy finishing to the net from close range in the 37th minute after unselfish approach play by the aforementioned pair.

It wasn’t a perfect performance from Armagh, who hit too many wides and didn’t score in the last quarter, but McCormack will have been pleased with how hard his team worked both in terms of support play and getting back to defend in numbers.

Given the importance of promotion to Armagh, whose hopes of a return to the top flight have been dashed the past five seasons, former Kildare goalkeeper McCormack rightly went with a strong starting team for his first competitive match at the Orchard helm.

With Blaithin Mackin starting after all, there were no fewer than a dozen of the run-on line-up from last season’s Ulster Senior Championship final defeat of Donegal on the field from the off at the weekend.

The only exceptions were the youngest two Marley sisters, Niamh and Catherine, along with the incomparable Caroline O’Hanlon, who has committed to an incredible 22nd consecutive season in the orange jersey.

The trio who started instead were Kenny, who has had two big gaps in her Orchard career due to cruciate ruptures in 2015 and 2018, dynamic youngster Druse and Crossmaglen firecracker Alex Clarke up front.

Armagh had plenty of firepower, with a full forward trio of Clarke, 2022 All Star nominee McCoy and Mallon, now officially confirmed as Orchard captain for a fourth season, supplemented by the Mackins coming from deeper.

There was also a reassuringly familiar feel to the heart of the Orchard defence with All Star full back Clodagh McCambridge behind Crossmaglen’s Lauren McConville, Armagh’s Player of the Year for 2022, and Anna Carr a commanding presence in nets.

When O’Hanlon, Niamh Reel, Tiarna Grimes, Megan McCann, Megan McShane, Aoibheann McConville and back-up goalkeeper Brianna Mathers are added to the 23 who got game-time on Sunday, it is clear McCormack will have a few positive selection headaches.

Aimee Mackin opened Armagh’s account by getting away from a defender and chipping over the bar in the second minute for what would prove her only point of the afternoon from play, with Lauren McVeety equalising in the seventh minute.

The Breffni women went ahead courtesy of a point from Aisling Gilsenan with Blaithin Mackin levelling matters again on the quarter hour before Mallon nudged her team in front with a wonderfully nonchalant point from an acute angle.

Mallon doubled the Orchard lead after taking a free short to McCoy and running onto the return ball and, although Gilsenan kicked a 25th minute free, Clarke came close to an Armagh goal when her shot skimmed over via the crossbar.

Aimee Mackin punished a foul on McCoy by converting the resulting free and Mallon nailed a well-struck set-piece early in the second half after the newly-introduced Catherine Marley was chopped down following patient build-up play by the team in orange.

The excellent McCambridge won one of multiple turnovers at the back and the ensuing attack eventually led to Eve Lavery being fouled, with Aimee Mackin converting the free to put Armagh five ahead and the goals which followed left no way back for Cavan.

This Sunday, Armagh travel to Kiltoom to take on newly-promoted Roscommon, who only lost 1-15 to 1-12 against Tyrone at Healy Park in their opening game and certainly won’t be taken lightly by the Orchard outfit.

ARMAGH: A Carr; S Grey, C McCambridge, L Kenny; G Ferguson, L McConville, C Towe; N Coleman, B Mackin (0-1); E Lavery, A Mackin (0-3, 2f), E Druse; A Clarke (0-1), K Mallon (capt; 0-3, 1f), A McCoy (1-0).  Subs used: C Marley for Druse (ht), M Ferguson for Towe (40mins), A Lennon (1-0) for Lavery (43), N Marley for N Coleman (52), M Lennon for Clarke (54), C O’Hagan for Grey (54), D Coleman for Kenny (58), B Hendron for McCoy (58).