April 27th, 2023



Richard Bullick at the Athletic Grounds

Armagh have all but booked their place in the NFL Division Two final by the end of February after a low-scoring victory over a much-improved Laois side on their first appearance of the season at the Athletic Grounds.

Even if Armagh go on to lose both remaining matches and their rivals win twice, it would take an implausibly big swing in scoring difference to deny Shane McCormack’s women a place in the Croke Park showpiece in mid-April.

If only one of Laois or Cavan were to finish level with them on points, Armagh would profit from the head-to-head criteria, but they can make mathematically certain by beating Westmeath on March 19 before a trip to second-placed Tipperary the following weekend.

This wasn’t a vintage Orchard display but Armagh got the job done on an afternoon when the iconic Caroline O’Hanlon made the first appearance of what is her record-extending 22nd season in the orange jersey and played the full hour.

O’Hanlon had come in for AFLW star Blaithin Mackin, Niamh Reel replaced Maeve Lennon up front and Anna Carr returned in nets in the three changes from the team which started in the previous Sunday’s convincing 15-point victory over Tyrone at Healy Park.

Armagh had obliterated Laois on a 7-18 to 1-9 scoreline when these teams met in last season’s semi-final but it was a very different story this time as the women in blue made their hosts work hard for a fifth win in five matches under new manager McCormack.

Crossmaglen’s Lauren McConville was Player of the Match, winning multiple important turnovers and typically putting her body on the line in fearless fashion just a few days after her exciting clubmate Alex Clarke had suffered a sickening injury at training.

Although underdogs, robustly physical Laois had come to the ancient cathedral city in good spirits after only one defeat in four fixtures this season, albeit they had let in seven goals against Westmeath that day at the end of January.

They had a few anxious moments on Sunday, but Aimee Mackin hooked a shot just wide on the turn, Eve Lavery shot straight at the goalkeeper and Catherine Marley bundled a ball just wide, though Armagh weren’t left to rue chances not taken.

It always felt like fancied Armagh would have enough to get over the line in the end, and so it proved, but the orangewomen’s wasteful finishing made this a more uncomfortable afternoon for them than many may have expected.

Their main markswoman Aimee Mackin kicked five of her team’s nine first half wides and was also sinbinned on what was an afternoon to forget for the four-time All Star, though she still finished up as Armagh’s top scorer thanks to a couple of late points.

The elder Mackin sister had kicked a superb point from wide on the right to put Armagh three ahead with just five minutes gone following early scores from Ballyhegan skipper Lavery and Catherine Marley.

Considering the bad beating they took at the hands of Armagh last season, that felt like an ominous start for Laois, but they had closed to just a single point in arrears by a minute into the second half.

Armagh had gone four up with a lovely Lavery point late in the first quarter but Mo Nerney pulled two back for Laois before full forward Sarah-Ann Fitzgerald raised a white flag soon after the resumption.

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Derrynoose schoolgirl Lennon, who had been brought on in place of Reel at the interval, doubled Armagh’s lead with a typically composed point and, in spite of fluffing easier attempts, Aimee Mackin sent over a majestic score from long range in the 40th minute.

However, she was sinbinned by the erratic referee after tangling with an opponent at the resulting kickout and Armagh were grateful for Ballyhegan’s Grace Ferguson dancing inside to kick a lovely point midway through the second half.

Skipper Kelly Mallon uncharacteristically struck two second half frees so wildly that they didn’t even cross the endline to register as wides, though the second almost produced a goal when O’Hanlon palmed the ball down and young Lennon struck an upright.

The tireless Lavery gave Armagh more breathing space with her third point, a nice left-footed effort from the left of the posts in the 55th minute and, although it was quickly cancelled out by Erone Fitzpatrick, the tide didn’t turn.

Aimee Mackin kicked a free for Armagh just before Fitzpatrick smashed through McConville on her way to splitting the posts and the score was astonishingly allowed to stand in spite of what looked like a blatant charging offence.

By contrast, Louise Kenny was whistled for charging coming out of defence a minute later and, when she didn’t immediately release the ball for Laois to take a quick free, Fitzpatrick seemed to strike out at her and was probably lucky to see yellow rather than red.

That was the second Laois sinbin of the afternoon as they had lost a player just after half-time for clothes-lining Catherine Marley, but this season is being blighted by bewildering inconsistency in refereeing and debate about whether some of the rules are fit for purpose.

Aimee Mackin took the Orchard outfit’s points tally into double figures in injury-time with a left-footed point from the left of the posts after a good ball by the excellent Kenny and the final whistle went soon afterwards.

While Laois can take encouragement from this spirited display, the visitors will wonder whether they might have got even closer on an afternoon when Carr made one great save to redeem herself for a kickout which went straight to an opposition player.

There were also a couple of perfectly-timed interventions by full back Clodagh McCambridge, whose brother Barry had done a good job shackling the country’s best gaelic footballer, David Clifford, the evening before as Armagh’s men lost narrowly away to Kerry.

It is fair to say that Armagh weren’t at their best, exemplified by star turn Aimee Mackin having a real off-day by her standards and skipper Mallon finishing scoreless, but Laois were well organised and had shown their worth by beating Tipperary away the previous Sunday.

Armagh may actually benefit from being giving such a good workout, though the close contest possibly constrained McCormack’s scope to spread around the game-time and he made fewer substitutions than in his first four matches.

A total of five players came off the bench against Laois, including Dearbhla Coleman who was introduced as a temporary blood sub when Catherine Marley had to come off just before the interval after taking a bang to the face.

However, McCormack isn’t working off a full panel at present and, in any case, players like Blathnaid Hendron, Caitriona O’Hagan and back-up keeper Brianna Mathers have been given good opportunities already this season.

Clarke’s injury is hugely unfortunate, for the player herself first and foremost, while several others are still sidelined, O’Hanlon has professional netball commitments and Niamh Marley has sat out the last two matches while trialling for the Ireland rugby sevens squad.

Meanwhile, Armagh Harps forward Aoife Lennon, who has received widespread praise for sharing her personal struggles in a very poignant appearance on the BBC’s GAA Social podcast this past week, has decided to take time out of county football again.

Tipperary remain second after a 1-11 to 0-7 away win against Monaghan, Westmeath’s hopes of an immediate return to the top flight ended with a 2-13 to 1-12 defeat at home to Tyrone but Cavan remain in contention after scraping past pointless Roscommon 2-9 to 2-8.

Donegal look doomed to the drop from Division One after their fifth defeat in five fixtures, a 5-11 to 0-1 hammering by Cork, who had the luxury of making 14 substitutions, while Meath’s reign as NFL champions is over.

The Royals were well beaten, 1-18 to 0-9, by last season’s Division Two title winners Kerry, who have run up five consecutive victories in the top flight.  Galway won 0-10 to 0-5 at Waterford to remain on course for a place in the final and Dublin defeated Mayo 2-11 to 2-7.

Down’s 0-6 to 0-4 loss against Clare in a low-scoring game in Ennis has dented the hopes of Peter Lynch and Caoibhe Sloan’s side making the third division decider as they are now tied with their hosts for fourth, three points behind leaders Kildare, Wexford and Louth.

ARMAGH: A Carr; L Kenny, C McCambridge, C Towe; E Druse, L McConville, G Ferguson (0-1); N Coleman, C O’Hanlon; E Lavery (0-3), A McCoy, C Marley (0-1); A Mackin (0-4, 1f), K Mallon (capt), N Reel.  Subs used: D Coleman for C Marley (temp, 27mins-ht), M Lennon (0-1) for Reel (ht), B Mackin for Druse (47), M McCann for Lavery (57), G Ferguson for Kenny (63).