ORCHARD CAMPAIGN IS SHAPING UP WELL
The first block of fixtures in this season’s National League couldn’t have gone much better for Armagh and new manager Shane McCormack, with the Orchard outfit top of the Division Two table after the opening three rounds and new players getting good exposure.
Last season’s losing finalists got their latest promotion bid up and running with a nine-point away win against Cavan, followed up by shaking off a spirited Roscommon in their own backyard and then comfortably beat neighbours Monaghan in Middletown.
The scrapping of semi-finals in the ladies National League this season leaves sides with less latitude to drop points but Armagh’s strong start to the campaign means that they are already well placed to reach the divisional decider at Croke Park.
Victories over Tyrone and Laois the next two Sundays might prove enough for a place in the final but two positive results followed by a home win against Westmeath on March 19 would make mathematically certain before travelling to tackle Tipperary in the last round of fixtures.
Like Armagh, Tipperary have three wins from three so far, starting by edging recently relegated Westmeath 1-13 to 1-11, then eclipsing Cavan 3-13 to 0-10 before beating Roscommon 0-6 to 0-4 in an exceptionally low-scoring game.
A quirk of fixtures means Tipperary will have home advantage in six of their seven regular league games whereas Armagh are on the road for four, including the visits to provincial rivals Cavan and Tyrone.
Because of having been in Division One as recently as last season, 2021 All Ireland Intermediate title winners Westmeath were probably seen as the other main contenders for a place in the Division Two final this year.
Losing narrowly away to Tipperary and then scoring seven goals against All Ireland Intermediate champions Laois in their first two games seemed to back that up but Westmeath suffered a blow last time out, going down by a point in Cavan.
Armagh have had the edge against the Red Hands in recent years so will be quietly confident for this Sunday’s trip to Tyrone and are relishing the prospect of being back in the Athletic Grounds for the Laois clash seven days later.
Although the switch to a straight final has left less margin for error, the return to a full fixture list this season after the regionalised groups of the past two years has been a welcome change of format from an Armagh perspective.
Having more matches means McCormack can give meaningful game-time to more players within his squad and the former Kildare goalkeeper has shared out opportunities in the first few weeks of the season without jeopardising results.
A total of 20 players have had at least one start while three others have got a run off the bench in all three league games so far and those numbers would likely have been even higher but for temporary absenteeism.
Along with long-term lay-off Sarah Marley, the Clann Eireann pair of Tiarna Grimes and Megan McCann haven’t been available for action yet along with one of this season’s fresh faces, Crossmaglen forward Aoibheann McConville.
The legendary Caroline O’Hanlon has only recently returned to the set-up for her 22nd consecutive inter-county campaign and, with her availability limited by professional netball commitments with Leeds Rhinos, has yet to take the field this season.
Silverbridge’s Niamh Reel had just recovered from a foot problem in time for a brief first run-out as one of eight subs used in the Monaghan match, which Shauna Grey and Aoife Lennon had to sit out through injury.
Sisters Niamh and Catherine Marley’s pre-season was curtailed a little by personal circumstances so McCormack chose to ease these established frontliners in via the bench for the two January games, freeing up places for others.
So Armagh had the insurance of fielding 12 starters from last May’s Ulster final victory from the off in the opening game against Cavan but could also include Shane O’Neills skipper Louise Kenny and young Harps star Emily Druse who are back in the squad this season.
Two more comeback kids, Maeve Ferguson and Dearbhla Coleman, came off the bench as did Carrickcruppen prospect Caitriona O’Hagan and there were first Armagh appearances for county newcomers Maeve Lennon and Blathnaid Hendron.
The introduction of the two Marley sisters and former soccer international Aoife Lennon in that second half meant Armagh, who were already looking comfortable enough, had experienced players coming off the bench too to shore up their position.
At Kiltoom a week later, both Marleys and Alex Clarke came on as subs to deliver valuable scores which eased the Orchard clear of a Roscommon side who have only come up from Division Three this season but are proving competitive.
Ballyhegan’s Hendron got her full debut against Roscommon and kept her place for the Monaghan match in which O’Hagan got her first start as McCormack shuffled the pack again, partly in response to a couple of injuries.
In Middletown, it was four-time All Star Aimee Mackin and Ballyhegan skipper Eve Lavery who were the experienced players coming off the bench to help ensure that Armagh’s eight-point cushion for facing into the wind would be sufficient.
McCormack knows he must find the right balance between developing players in this first phase of the season and notching up vital victories given that promotion back to the NFL’s top flight after a six-year absence is such an important priority for Armagh.
From goalkeeper Anna Carr through full back Clodagh McCambridge, centre half back Lauren McConville, Blaithin Mackin in midfield and skipper Kelly Mallon up front, McCormack has gone with the same strong spine to his team for each match to date.
Another of Armagh’s 2022 All Star nominees, Aoife McCoy, has also had three starts along with Queen’s University skipper Grace Ferguson and the Clann Eireann pair of Niamh Coleman and Cait Towe, who established herself last season.
There have been two starts apiece for Aimee Mackin, Grey, Lavery, Druse, Kenny, Clarke and Hendron with Aoife Lennon, O’Hagan and the two Marleys each in the run-on team on one occasion.
Maeve Ferguson, Maeve Lennon and Dearbhla Coleman haven’t had a start so far but been given a taste of the action in all three matches, with Reel becoming the 24th player to feature for Armagh this season when introduced against Monaghan.
Armagh have probably been efficient rather than spectacular in notching up their three victories thus far but building squad depth and nurturing that positive vibe in a squad where everyone feels valued is more important than running up eye-catching tallies at this stage.
There will be tougher tests to come obviously but the affable McCormack, who appears to be well-liked by his players, is seeking to lay firm foundations which can help the Orchard blossom as the season goes on. So far, so good.