ORCHARD BLOSSOMS UNDER McCORMACK
With seven victories from his first seven matches at the Orchard helm since replacing Ronan Murphy, former Kildare goalkeeper Shane McCormack’s reign as Armagh manager has got off to the best possible start.
If Armagh can complete the job by beating Laois in Saturday week’s NFL Division Two final at Croke Park to clinch the title, trophy and accompanying promotion on offer, it will have been a very successful first phase to the Orchard campaign of 2023.
Securing a return to the National League’s top flight after a six-season absence has been the top priority but Armagh have managed to combine winning with blooding promising newcomers and developing squad depth along the way.
Armagh have used a total of 29 players across their seven regular league games, with 24 of those getting at least one start including newcomers Blathnaid Hendron of Ballyhegan and Derrynoose schoolgirl Maeve Lennon.
The return to a full NFL fixture list after the regional groups format of the pandemic-disrupted past two years has afforded Armagh more opportunities and McCormack has shared out meaningful game-time across his panel of players.
The fact he has been able to do so without jeopardising results is partly testament to how strong Armagh are at this level but the fresh faces have responded to the trust placed in them and blended in well with the more established stars.
Following his appointment last autumn, McCormack was exceptionally proactive in attending local club matches to scout talent and also met every member of last season’s panel individually to see where they were at and sell his vision.
As a result, he was able to retain all but four of the 28 players who finished that campaign with the only exceptions being experienced campaigner Fionnuala McKenna and a Crossmaglen trio who hadn’t actually taken the field for Armagh during the season.
The seven additions included welcome returns to Orchard duty for Shane O’Neills skipper Louise Kenny, young Armagh Harps prospect Emily Druse, six-foot netball international Dearbhla Coleman of Clann Eireann and Ballyhegan’s Maeve Ferguson.
There were first Orchard call-ups for Crossmaglen’s Aoibheann McConville and the prolific forwards who picked up the Player of the Match awards as their respective clubs won the Buttercrane Intermediate and Junior Championship finals, Hendron and Maeve Lennon.
Hendron has been in Armagh’s run-on line-up twice and Maeve Lennon once while Druse and Carrickcruppen’s Caitriona O’Hagan, both of whom had appeared previously, have also got their first starts in the orange jersey over recent months.
Although Dearbhla Coleman and Maeve Ferguson haven’t started a match, both have come off the bench in every single game, with Maeve Lennon being brought on in the six fixtures for which she wasn’t on the field from the off.
All Star fullback Clodagh McCambridge has been on the field for every minute of Armagh’s season so far, while skipper Kelly Mallon, Lauren McConville, Aoife McCoy, Grace Ferguson and Cait Towe have also started all seven matches.
Sisters Aimee and Blaithin Mackin, Ballyhegan skipper Eve Lavery, Clann Eireann’s Niamh Coleman and Druse have had six starts each and came off the bench the other time while Catherine Marley began with two cameo appearances followed by five starts.
All Star nominee Anna Carr has only been between the posts five times because McCormack has handed capable back-up keeper Brianna Mathers two starts and she also came on towards the end of the penultimate match against Westmeath.
Along with Carr and Catherine Marley, the other player to make five starts so far this term has been Kenny, with Shauna Grey’s three partly reflecting the fact she got injured against Roscommon at the end of January.
Sadly, a serious knee injury means Alex Clarke’s campaign is over after just two starts supplemented by a couple of runs as a sub, while Caroline O’Hanlon and Niamh Marley have only started twice each so far due to other sporting commitments.
Their limited availability because of netball and rugby respectively has had a silver lining in leaving more opportunities for others and the pragmatic McCormack knows well what both of these heavyweights bring to the party.
He has also shown flexibility in accommodating a study break for young Harps player Megan McShane, whose clubmate Aoife Lennon and namesake Megan McCann of Clann Eireann are taking time out of county football at present.
Aoibheann McConville missed the early league games due to a holiday in Australia arranged before she was brought into the panel but was up to speed in time to feature off the bench in the two March matches against Westmeath and Tipperary.
O’Hagan has had two starts along with Clarke, O’Hanlon, Hendron, Mathers and Niamh Marley with one each for the unrelated Lennons, Maeve and Aoife, and also Niamh Reel, initially held back by injury and later sidelined by sickness for the Westmeath match.
In terms of this season’s scoring chart, prolific forward Aimee Mackin typically leads the way with 6-28 including two netted penalties and nine frees while Mallon, thankfully fit this time after missing all the regular league games last year, has nine frees in her 1-14.
McCoy, who brought up her century of Armagh appearances against Monaghan in Middletown, has scored 4-3, with 11 points by Blaithin Mackin, O’Hanlon hitting 2-1 against Tipperary last time out and Clarke contributing 1-3 before misfortune struck.
Overall, there has been an encouraging spread of 16 scorers including the dozen leading candidates to occupy the jerseys from McConville’s No 6 shirt forwards in Croke Park plus O’Hagan, both Lennons and Clarke.
Lavery has accumulated four points, matched by Lauren McConville’s 1-1, while Maeve Lennon, Catherine Marley and Niamh Coleman have chipped in with three apiece. The Niamhs, Marley and Reel, have raised two white flags as has O’Hagan with the 16th scoreboard contributor being Grace Ferguson.
Seven players have raised at least one green flag for Armagh, whose 16-81 means the Orchard outfit finished as the leading scorers in Division Two with 129 points to 112 by Westmeath, who were relegated from the top flight last spring.
The Orchard defence was the meanest, conceding just 57 to next best Tipperary’s 81 and their scoring difference was vastly superior to everyone else, plus 72 compared to Tipp’s plus 22 with fellow finalists Laois just four points in the black.
Armagh had only three home matches out of seven compared to an incongruous six for Tipperary, who lost out on a place in the final because of being beaten by a single point in the head-to-head with reigning All Ireland Intermediate champions Laois.
Interestingly, the game against Laois at the end of February brought Armagh’s lowest score and smallest margin of victory as they triumphed 0-10 to 0-5 at the Athletic Grounds so that should help ensure no Orchard complacency going into the divisional decider.
Reflecting the fairly settled team he inherited from Murphy, McCormack’s Armagh have featured much more continuity than change and there has been nothing particularly radical in terms of where he has deployed players so far.
With Armagh using squad numbers, Ballyhegan’s Lavery has ended up wearing the No 9 jersey throughout but never actually lined out there with the midfield duties by shared by more familiar figures in Blaithin Mackin, Niamh Coleman, Niamh Marley and O’Hanlon.
McCambridge and McConville have been the constant spine of the Orchard defence with Towe occupying one corner back berth and the other largely shared between Kenny and Grey with Carr continuing as first choice goalkeeper.
The diminutive trio of Druse, McConville and Grace Ferguson have formed a swashbuckling half back line as the campaign has progressed, while the left-footed Lavery and Catherine Marley remain Armagh’s regular wing forwards.
Clarke’s cruel luck with injury makes selection easier up front, with Aimee Mackin on the right, Mallon on the left and McCoy coming through the middle from deeper appearing a reasonable bet.
However, the significant competition for starting spots is probably best illustrated by how Niamh Coleman could be sweating for her place in the Croke Park parade in spite of arguably being Armagh’s most improved player over the past year or so and a regular.
The elder Coleman being on the bench initially against Tipperary in Armagh’s last regular league game may have been as much about rotation as anything, but Niamh Marley and Blaithin Mackin in midfield with O’Hanlon at centre half forward is a compelling combination.
Assuming Ulster rugby player Niamh Marley and British SuperLeague netballer O’Hanlon are right in the mix like everyone else, a desire to include Coleman may put pressure on Druse’s spot even though the exciting teenager has earned the gaffer’s faith so far.
Niamh Marley often featured on the right of the half back line last season and there would also be the option of deploying either Kenny or the fit-again Grey there to avoid leaving one out but Druse dovetails well with Lauren McConville and Grace Ferguson.
Even without being able to call upon Clarke, Aoife Lennon, Grimes, Sarah Marley and the slightly more peripheral Megan McCann, McCormack is selecting from a position of strength with the enviable dilemma of who to leave out rather than who to pick.
Whoever misses out will be useful for bolstering the Orchard challenge from the bench, with the likes of the pretty experienced Reel and quietly impressive Maeve Lennon offering additional forward firepower if required.
Like Ireland rugby head coach Andy Farrell being both ‘boss and big brother’, affable Armagh manager McCormack appears so comfortable around his players and it feels like a very happy Orchard camp ahead of a final the orangewomen will go into as firm favourites.