LOCAL STARS IN THE FRAME FOR AWARDS
It could already be a winning weekend for Armagh ladies gaelic by the time the Orchard county team take to the Croke Park pitch for the NFL Division Two final against Laois on April 15.
Armagh have been shortlisted for Team of the Year at the inaugural Local Women Sport Awards which will take place at Belfast’s Europa Hotel the night before, with skipper Kelly Mallon and Lauren McConville both in the frame for LGFA Player of the Year.
That is in recognition of last year’s exploits when Armagh completed an historic hat-trick of Ulster Senior Championship successes, sealing that third title triumph in a thrilling Clones showpiece against Donegal.
Mallon landed a long-range free to level the scores with the last kick of injury-time before scoring a cracking goal to win the match with half a minute remaining in extra-time and she picked up her third consecutive Irish News Ulster All Star in the autumn.
Crossmaglen’s McConville was also an Irish News Ulster All Star recipient and the converted centre half back became just the fifth Armagh ladies footballer in history to pick up a second national All Star nomination.
McConville also made the NFL Team of Division Two last season but Armagh missed out on the title, trophy and all-important promotion on offer by losing the final against Kerry on what was the Orchard outfit’s first appearance at Croke Park in almost a decade.
Now managed by Shane McCormack, Armagh are determined to make amends by going one better this time around and have qualified for next month’s divisional decider with seven victories from their seven regular league games.
Armagh made sure of finishing top of the table with an impressive 3-12 to 0-10 away win in Fethard on Sunday against a Tipperary team who needed a draw to secure their tickets to the final at headquarters.
The hosts fought hard in a feisty first half and, even with scoring the last two points before the interval, Armagh just led by 0-8 to 0-5 after having had a strong breeze behind them in the opening period.
They were indebted to the diminutive McConville, who repeatedly put her body on the line for the Orchard cause in the course of another Player of the Match performance, on an afternoon when the iconic Caroline O’Hanlon proved to be Armagh’s second half hero.
Playing just her second game of football since last October’s county replay due to British SuperLeague netball commitments with Leeds Rhinos, O’Hanlon scored a lovely point and then two game-changing goals in the space of three minutes.
Captain Mallon also hit the net as the orangewomen went on to win well with Laois securing the other place in the final. They finished level on points with Tipperary by beating relegated Roscommon but go through thanks to the head-to-head result.
Whoever wins will replace Donegal in the top flight next season after the north west women suffered a seventh straight defeat this term in what was effectively a relegation showdown with Mayo on Sunday.
Roscommon’s loss to Laois meant Monaghan survive in Division Two for another season but Sunday’s scheduled dead rubber between the other two Ulster sides didn’t take place due to a strike by the Cavan players who were due to tackle Tyrone.
The Breffni women are currently at loggerheads with their County Board over various issues, a scenario in stark contrast to Armagh LGFA Chairperson Sinead Reel being included in the post-match huddle with her Orchard crew in Fethard on Sunday.
Now in her sixth season in the role, Reel has done an outstanding job at the Orchard helm, which is reflected in her deserved shortlisting for the ‘Backroom Award’ category at the Local Women Sport Awards.
O’Hanlon appears to have missed out in the Overall Sportswoman of the Year category on the back of winning the British SuperLeague title with Manchester Thunder and captaining Northern Ireland at the Commonwealth Games as well as being part of Armagh’s success.
Thunder were dubbed the greatest SuperLeague side ever after being crowned champions last season with an unprecedented 22 wins from 22 matches culminating in victory over Loughborough Lightning in June’s Grand Final.
O’Hanlon has subsequently switched to Thunder’s northern rivals Leeds Rhinos, who are still searching for their first victory of the current campaign after an agonising sixth defeat to Severn Stars on Friday night.
Rhinos led after each of the first three quarters and, although Stars took control in the last, a great turnover by O’Hanlon’s Northern Ireland team-mate Michelle Magee enabled the hosts to draw level in the closing stages in Hull before being edged out 53-51.
As with O’Hanlon, Sunday’s Armagh win was a silver lining for Niamh Marley who had been on the losing side the day before as manager of the St Ronan’s College Lurgan Under 16 team who were beaten in the All Ireland Junior B schools final at Abbotstown.
It was a disappointing weekend on the managerial front for two Marley sisters as Niamh’s older sibling, retired Orchard captain Caoimhe Morgan, is number two to James Daly at Fermanagh, who lost their NFL Division Four semi-final against Leitrim after extra-time.