SUNDAY IN CLONES WILL BE FAMILY AFFAIR
It really will be a family affair in Clones this Sunday when the Orchard ladies face Cavan in a curtain-raiser (1.45pm) ahead of the Armagh men’s first Ulster final appearance for a decade and a half.
Several sets of sporting parents won’t have to choose between which of their offspring to support thanks to tenacious Armagh LGFA Chairperson Sinead Reel’s successful lobbying for a double-header.
Armagh had the right to host this round robin match in their own county but Reel happily gave that up on the team’s behalf for the deserved opportunity to play in front of a packed Clones and avoid dilemmas for families.
Star sisters Aimee and Blaithin Mackin will wear the orange jersey for the first fixture followed by brothers Ciaran and Connaire in the second game (4pm) when Kieran McGeeney’s men attempt to dethrone title holders Derry.
The two rocks at the heart of Shane McCormack’s Orchard defence, Clodagh McCambridge and Lauren McConville, each have a brother – Barry and Cian respectively – in the men’s panel, which also includes skipper Kelly Mallon’s cousin Niall Grimley.
In contrast to the Armagh men having had a long wait since their last Ulster final, the women will book their place in a sixth consecutive showpiece providing they don’t lose to the Breffni brigade by more than 10 points.
Three-in-a-row provincial champions Armagh got their latest Ulster title defence underway with a 1-14 to 2-4 away win against rivals Donegal in a wind-affected fixture in Lifford at the weekend.
Fresh from winning the NFL Division Two title and unbeaten this season but playing into the breeze in the opening period, the Orchard outfit found themselves five points down thanks to two Donegal goals.
But three frees from All Ireland Player of the Month for April Aimee Mackin helped reduce the arrears to two points by the break and, in spite of two subs being sinbinned, Armagh were home and dry by the time Mallon bagged their only goal of the game late on.
However, Mallon’s major has given her team more insurance going into the clash against Cavan, for whom nothing less than a win will do after losing their opening game at home to Donegal by a five-point margin.
They will have the unenviable task of trying to inflict Armagh’s first defeat this year in front of an increasing number of Orchard followers flocking into Clones early ahead of the men’s showdown with Derry.
By contrast, McCormack’s side will relish having the extra support, with the more experienced players like Mallon and McConville readily recalling the unforgettable double bill in the same stadium back in 2014.
On that occasion, the ladies Ulster final was played ahead of a men’s replay and captain Caroline O’Hanlon lifted the trophy in front of a crowd estimated at 20,000 after underdogs Armagh had ended hot favourites Monaghan’s drive for five.
Although Armagh can afford to lose this Sunday and still reach the final, they will want to put their best foot forward on what should be a memorable occasion and maintain momentum by chalking up another victory ahead of the showpiece at the end of the month.
An Armagh win at the weekend would pave the way for a third decider in a row against Donegal, who were beaten by a goal from Mallon in the final half minute of extra-time in an epic encounter last May.
Captain Mallon is appealing for as many Armagh fans as possible to get there early to support her team, while McConville has also spoken of her excitement about the prospect of featuring in another double-header.
“It’s a brilliant opportunity to showcase the quality of ladies football in the province and is something that should be happening more often across the National League, Ulster Championship and All Ireland series,” reflected Lauren.
“It’s great for ourselves and for Cavan, but I’m particularly delighted that our families won’t be divided on the day with fixture clashes and that common-sense has prevailed. It’s the same with supporters of both codes and as players we want to support the men also.
“It’s a really exciting time for Armagh football. We’re delighted for the men’s team reaching the Ulster final and are hoping that we can do the same. There has been growing support in the county recently and it’s fantastic to see,” enthused the 28-year-old.
Meanwhile, McConville, both Mackin sisters and McCambridge were among eight Armagh players honoured at last Friday’s night’s National League Awards at Croke Park along with Anna Carr, Grace Ferguson, Niamh Coleman and the newly-wed Aoife McCoy.
Unsurprisingly, the Orchard dominated the Team of Division Two after winning all seven regular league games before eclipsing Laois in last month’s Croke Park final to secure a return to the NFL’s top-flight for the first time since 2017.