MACKIN STARS AS ARMAGH GET JOB DONE
ARMAGH 4-9 LAOIS 2-10
Richard Bullick at Croke Park
A quickfire hat-trick from Armagh’s ace markswoman Aimee Mackin early on in Croke Park paved the way for the Orchard outfit to claim the NFL Division Two title, trophy and accompanying promotion at the expense of shell-shocked Laois.
The silverware win was an obvious bonus but the most important prize on offer at headquarters at the weekend was securing an overdue return to the top flight at the sixth time of asking since suffering relegation in 2017.
Armagh have achieved an historic hat-trick of Ulster Senior Championship successes in the past three seasons but getting out of the National League’s second division has proved elusive so there was a real sense of relief on Saturday afternoon.
This was far from Armagh’s most impressive performance of the past few years and aspects will undoubtedly need to be better if Shane McCormack’s team are to defend their provincial crown and mount a real All Ireland bid in the coming months.
However, this has been a very successful first phase of the season with eight wins from eight games under new manager McCormack, culminating in this precious promotion, and he has combined winning with sharing game-time around and blooding a number of fresh faces.
Playing top flight football will be beneficial for the Orchard’s development and the dividends of giving meaningful opportunities to less established individuals along the way include enhanced squad depth and a camp of happy players who feel valued and trusted.
His side didn’t play to their full potential on Saturday but, after falling short in recent seasons, including losing to Kerry in the corresponding game at Croke Park last April, this was one occasion when the result really was all that mattered and Armagh got off to a dream start.
Having gone six lean years without first division football and waited what has felt like a long 12 months for the opportunity to make amends for last season’s decider defeat, Armagh hit the ground running with a remarkable burst of four goals in the first nine minutes.
Laois got the opening point but, just back midweek from the All Stars tour to Texas and her match-winning contribution of 2-3 for the 2021 team on Easter Sunday, dynamic centre half back Lauren McConville immediately made her first foray forward.
The attack, carried on by young gun Caitriona O’Hagan and Catherine Marley ended with Armagh hitting the jackpot after recent Las Vegas visitor Niamh Coleman managed to offload to Aoife McCoy on her inside.
The diminutive Dromintee forward, who gets married this week, took the ball well above her head and somehow squeezed a shot over the line in spite of the close attention of four defenders, but that was just the start of the goal rush.
Aimee Mackin claimed the resulting Laois kickout, hit the ball back in speculatively and, with the goalkeeper put off by a combination of flailing Armagh skipper Kelly Mallon and a converging defender, it ended up in the net in an embarrassing moment for the team in blue.
All Star full back Clodagh McCambridge made her first incisive intervention in defence and another storming run by McConville led to a sublime ball by Blaithin Mackin to sister Aimee inside. She turned, rounded a defender and rifled home a fierce shot in the fifth minute.
The impressive Erone Fitzpatrick, who will be playing in the AFLW later this year like both Mackins, raised a second white flag for Laois with a good strike but it wasn’t long until Armagh had their fourth goal of the game.
A cross-field kick-pass by a Laois defender was picked off just over halfway by Blaithin Mackin, who launched the ball towards Aimee and the former Northern Ireland international footballer played a deft little soccer-style tap on the floor to McCoy.
McCoy popped the ball up to the elder Mackin on the overlap and the four-time All Star, who turns 26 this Saturday, completed her hat-trick with a left-footed finish which extended the Orchard advantage to double-digit proportions.
Those quick concessions must have brought back bad memories for Laois of shipping seven goals in last season’s semi-final hammering by Armagh, though they had kept the Orchard crew to just 0-10 in this year’s league game between the teams at the Athletic Grounds.
It was a strange scoreboard, not necessarily reflective of play, and although they gave Armagh a welcome cushion, those early goals skewed the game in a way which may not have helped the favourites find the best of themselves.
Had this final followed a more normal pattern rather than being distorted by that astonishing goal glut, there would have been greater intensity, whereas the scoreboard disparity perhaps meant Armagh weren’t really challenged to raise their game.
Even during that opening purple patch, there had been several instances of sloppy play and, although there weren’t many wides, Armagh got turned over too often by being careless in possession or not taking good options.
Having gone into the match as firm favourites after winning all seven regular league games, Armagh getting those goals led to a sense of inevitability about the result, though conscious Orchard complacency or unwillingness to work wasn’t the problem.
Even with that healthy lead, nerves were as much a factor given the importance Armagh have rightly attached to clinching promotion, but in contrast to Kerry kicking on in the Division One showpiece which followed, Armagh couldn’t capitalise on their perfect platform.
To their credit, the opposition’s heads didn’t drop and Armagh’s lack of fluency or ruthlessness helped let Laois back into a game which could have been beyond them by half-time, though it never felt like McCormack’s women would actually lose.
Laura Nerney’s 42nd minute goal left just three points between the teams and, at that stage, Laois had scored nine times to eight by Armagh, albeit the table toppers remained ahead thanks to those four majors.
But Mallon responded right away with a towering point after a great run by O’Hagan, Aimee Mackin kicked a free early in the final quarter and Armagh pushed on as sub Niamh Reel, McCoy and Blaithin Mackin all raised white flags in a two-minute spell.
Although Armagh didn’t score again, it took the rest of the match for Laois to cancel out the damage done in that burst and Mallon had the luxury of coming off in the final few minutes to polish her carefully-scripted captain’s speech.
Full forward Mallon was the only Armagh starter on the day to have tasted victory in Croke Park before as the other two survivors from the 2012 All Ireland Intermediate final win, multi-sport stars Caroline O’Hanlon and Niamh Marley, began on the bench here.
Used sparingly in this campaign due to her British SuperLeague netball commitments, O’Hanlon had hit a match-changing 2-1 away to Tipperary in the last league game but subsequently sustained a shoulder injury playing for Leeds Rhinos against Team Bath.
With Rhinos having a big game against Saracens Mavericks the following afternoon, O’Hanlon seemed unlikely to feature for Armagh even if fit but she made an almost ceremonial appearance less than four minutes from the end with the game in the bag.
It was a nice touch by boss McCormack to bring on the evergreen Orchard hero, the only player left from Armagh’s first NFL Division Two final win in 2005 when current assistant manager Denise Jordan (then Hagan) was acting captain.
Regular skipper Bronagh O’Donnell was just back from Australia so didn’t start in that victory over Donegal, who were also the opponents a decade later on the only other occasion when Armagh won the Division Two title, which was under O’Hanlon’s captaincy.
That match was played a short distance away in Parnell Park, hence relatively long-serving stalwarts like McCoy and McConville not having won at headquarters until now – indeed last season’s final was Armagh’s first outing there in nearly a decade.
Shane O’Neills skipper Louise Kenny played in that 2015 final as a teenager but, until this season, had barely worn the orange jersey since due to having suffered two cruciate ruptures in the intervening period.
So Saturday was Kenny’s Croke Park debut along with Carrickcruppen prospect O’Hagan, with the Camlough pair being among the three changes McCormack made from the away win against Tipperary 20 days before the league final.
Coleman came in too, with O’Hagan’s fellow teenager Emily Druse, her clubmate O’Hanlon and seasoned campaigner Niamh Marley, who has missed some of this Orchard campaign due to her involvement with the Irish rugby sevens set-up, being the players to make way.
Druse and Niamh Marley were introduced early in the second half, taking over from Kenny and Ballyhegan skipper Eve Lavery respectively, while Silverbridge forward Reel replaced rookie O’Hagan for the final quarter.
O’Hanlon came on for Catherine Marley, who has now emulated her three older sisters by being a winner in Croke Park, and Mallon’s withdrawal at the same time meant a brief run for Ballyhegan’s Blathnaid Hendron.
With only five subs able to be used, Derrynoose schoolgirl Maeve Lennon, who had steadied the ship in the regular league game against Laois when Mallon and Aimee Mackin were misfiring, must wait for another time to grace Croke Park but has a very bright future.
Even with Crossmaglen fire-cracker Alex Clarke, veteran Sarah Marley and the versatile Tiarna Grimes injured, and former international footballer Aoife Lennon taking time out at present, there is still significant competition for starting spots and cameo outings.
Leaking goals so early left Laois on the back foot but Donie Brennan’s team stopped the rot and not conceding any more majors in the remaining 51 minutes meant they had hope until towards the end.
Armagh led 4-3 to 1-5 at the break after an opening period in which they had dealt exclusively in goals during the first quarter and didn’t raise a white flag from play until McCoy pointed in the 19th minute.
By then Aimee Mackin had converted a left-footed free won by Catherine Marley after O’Hagan rattled the crossbar and her sibling Blaithin got in on the scoring in the 23rd minute with a well-struck point after a trademark run.
It took a penalty late in the half, awarded against McCambridge by Sligo referee Gus Chapman and converted by 2022 All Ireland Intermediate Player of the Year Mo Nerney, to give Laois a credible lifeline, and the underdogs got the first two scores after the break.
Catherine Marley pulled a shot wide and, although Aimee Mackin pointed with her left foot from a very acute angle on the left in the 41st minute just after the introduction of Druse and Niamh Marley, Mallon missed a free shortly before the opposition’s second goal.
Player of the Match Aimee Mackin’s 3-3 was supplemented by McCoy’s 1-2, two points by Blaithin Mackin and one apiece from Mallon and Reel against Laois, who had won the All Ireland Intermediate title in Croke Park last July.
ARMAGH: Anna Carr; Cait Towe, Clodagh McCambridge, Shauna Grey; Louise Kenny, Lauren McConville, Grace Ferguson; Niamh Coleman; Blaithin Mackin (0-2); Catherine Marley, Aimee Mackin (3-3; 2f), Eve Lavery; Caitriona O’Hagan, Kelly Mallon (capt; 0-1), Aoife McCoy (1-2). Subs used: Emily Druse for Kenny (37mins), Niamh Marley for Lavery (38), Niamh Reel (0-1) for O’Hagan (46), Blathnaid Hendron for Mallon (56), Caroline O’Hanlon for C Marley (56).
LAOIS: Eimear Barry; Sinead Farrelly, Clodagh Dunne, Aimee Kelly; Shifra Havill, Ellen Healy (capt; 0-1), Laura Nerney (1-0); Anna Healy, Andrea Moran; Eva Galvin, Orla Hennessy, Erone Fitzpatrick (0-4); Mo Nerney (1-1, 1-0pen), Sarah Anne Fitzgerald (0-3, 3f), Laura-Marie Maher. Subs used: G Lalor for Moran (53), Aoife Kirrane for L Nerney (56).
Referee: Gus Chapman (Sligo).