May 18th, 2023



Richard Bullick in Augher

Armagh Under 16s claimed silverware in emphatic fashion with an impressive 15-point victory over Donegal in Saturday’s Ulster gold final at Augher, where the lively Eilidh-Meabh Duffy topped the charts with 1-4 from play.

That made Armagh manager Fergal Duffy a very proud dad but the Pearse Og clubman was delighted for all of his players, who didn’t let any understandable big game nerves get in the way of playing good football in the showpiece.

The girls in orange got off to a very strong start with four points in the first six minutes, were seven up at the interval and although Donegal got a quickfire 1-2 early in the second half, Armagh powered away to win well.

Goalkeeper Caoimhe Gollogly, an outfield player for her club Derrynoose, came up to kick three fine left-footed frees and also managed her net-minding duties in spite of sustaining an arm injury in the warm-up.

Dromintee’s tall midfielder Alannah O’Neill opened the scoring in the first minute and finished with 1-2, with the other Armagh goals coming from Clann Eireann’s Aiobhinn Donohue and sub Rionagh Lenaghan of Crossmaglen.

There was a point apiece from Rionagh’s sister Clarragh Lenaghan and commanding centre half back Fiadhna Loughran, whose Granemore clubmate Ellie-Mae Carr raised three white flags for the Orchard outfit.

So there was a good spread of eight scorers but beyond that this was a true team effort, with the committed Orchard defence also playing an important part in keeping Donegal at bay for most of the afternoon.

Plaudits should also go to play-making centre half forward Aoife McDonald, captain of the Armagh Under 14 team who were crowned provincial champions last season, who worked hard on both sides of the ball and pulled the strings with a maturity beyond her years.

A busy, proactive presence for Armagh, the smart and determined McDonald won a few turnovers, carried forcefully, switched the direction of attack very effectively at times and played some great balls to her inside forwards.

This was the second trophy triumph in the space of a week for McDonald and clubmate Evie McCafferty, who came on in the final few minutes, as the pair had helped Clann Eireann’s netballers to a thrilling last-gasp victory in the NI Under 19 Cup final the previous Sunday.

Sweeper Eimear McGeary from Armagh Harps had won the All Ireland scor title last week  with Madden and now this young Orchard crew will have their sights set on claiming a national title later in the summer.

They will have a second tier All Ireland semi-final at the end of June against the Connacht champions and Duffy is confident that this hungry group of girls can keep progressing after a brief break from training.

“We’ll take a week off, then get back to it and also try to arrange a few challenge games leading into the All Ireland series.  We’ve tried to keep it fresh for the girls, just training once a week so they’re excited to be coming rather than feeling burdened by too much,” he said.

The hope is that first choice wing back Elsie Druse, the sister of Armagh seniors rising star Emily, who pulled her hamstring in the final round robin game against Cavan, will win her race to be fit for the next game.

Ironically, Druse had also missed out – on that occasion due to clashing athletics commitments – when Armagh defeated Derry in last season’s silver final on the same Augher pitch but was back to help the Orchard county claim the All Ireland C title.

Finishing sixth in the province in 2021 meant Armagh being excluded from the Ulster U16 Championship proper last season but by winning the secondary competition they secured a return to the top tier this term.

Armagh were actually unlucky not to make the main (platinum) final this time given that they were just pipped by a last-minute Monaghan goal in their opening game, a result which would prove very costly.

Following victories over Tyrone and Donegal, Armagh’s spirited comeback against Cavan at McKeever Park fell just short, meaning they finished level on points with the Farney girls but lost out on the basis of that heart-breaking head-to-head result.

Cavan were crowned provincial champions with a commanding 3-15 to 1-7 victory over Monaghan in Crossmaglen on Saturday and an Antrim side featuring McCafferty’s NI Under 17 netball team-mate Anna Rice in midfield edged Down in the silver final in Augher.

With Druse injured, there were just two starters remaining from last summer’s All Ireland C final victory over Longford in Lisnaskea, one of them being Donohue, who scored a hat-trick of goals for St Ronan’s Lurgan in their All Ireland Under 16 B final at the end of March.

The other was solid full back Siofra Doherty from Killeavy, who had been deployed in nets by Armagh Under 16s last season, while this year’s vice-captain Loughran and Clarragh Lenaghan both came on as subs against Longford.

Along with Carr, current captain Alicia Roberts was an unused sub last season but the Eire Og girl has gone from peripheral figure to official leader and lifting the trophy at the weekend was a very proud moment for her.

“It feels unreal to win it, and there’s no way we could have done this without our management,” she told the Ulster Gazette afterwards and also credited ‘the great coaching we get’ when complimented on the Orchard’s style of football.

The skipper was pleased with the character shown by her team in raising their game again after Donegal had got themselves back into it and said she was also very proud to be representing her club along with another squad member, Ellie Doran.

In her victorious captain’s speech, Roberts had made poignant reference to her big brother who passed away suddenly in February, a tragedy which has been unimaginably tough to cope with but gaelic football has provided a positive focus.

McDonald has also had to deal with trauma since skippering Armagh Under 14s to last season’s success, having suffered a fractured skull in an accident last September, so it was great to see both Lurgan girls smiling next to each other in the post-match team photo.

Described by management as a leader who tracks hard up and down the field, Roberts reflected with pride on her journey from fringe figure to captain of the team, admitting: “There’s a lot of hard work goes in but I love football and get great enjoyment from it.”

McDonald’s Under 14 vice-captain last season was Ballyhegan’s Moya McGrane, daughter of former Armagh great Paul, and the defender looks another promising prospect with a good mix of physicality and footballing brain.

The other corner back Caoimhe Hart of Pearse Og deserves a mention for playing out of position but holding her opposition forward scoreless, while wing back Olivia Cromie of Killeavy wore the No 5 jersey in Druse’s absence.

With natural forward O’Neill deployed in midfield, McCafferty is being kept out of the starting team by another tall Clann Eireann player Olivia Campbell but was one of five subs used by Armagh on the day.

Killeavy’s Ella Owens was the first change, replacing Cromie just before half-time, while the impactful Rionagh Lenaghan, Niamh Farell of Poyntzpass and Carrickcruppen’s Sinead McSorley also came on later in the game.

The squad of 28 features players from 13 different clubs, 10 of which were represented in the starting side, while Duffy is joined in the management team by Denise McDonald, Bronagh Donnelly and Fiona Owens.

They moved up from taking the Under 14s last season and the Orchard boss speaks of a cohort of girls with big game experience having already played in several age group Ulster finals at this early stage of their careers.

“Some of these girls have already played in three Ulster finals, starting at Under 14s so they’re used to what they entail and they’ve tasted both defeat and victory on days like this so there has been plenty of learning,” Fergal reflected.

“Although we were ahead at half-time, I wasn’t that happy as I felt we were letting them back into it, and Donegal then got that very quick 1-2 at the start of the second half but thankfully the girls pushed on and we’ve a bench who can make an impact too as you saw.

“We hadn’t got a goal in our last two games, including the first time we played Donegal, so it was good to score a few today and a tally of 4-15 is encouraging going into the All Ireland series, which we’ll look forward to.”


Image preview

Armagh got off to a flying start with a Gollogly free, having missed with her first attempt, punctuating scores from play by O’Neill, Carr, after a beautifully-weighted ball by McDonald, and Duffy in the early stages.

Donegal got their first score through a free between a couple of wides and their next set-piece cancelled out another Carr point but then Armagh struck with their first goal in the 14th minute, O’Neill dummying before unleashing a ferocious shot to the net.

A sublime ball by McDonald switched play in the lead-up to Carr’s third point of the afternoon, though Donegal got a free and a score from play either side of Clarragh Lenaghan pointing for Armagh.

Another Donegal point reduced the arrears to five but McGrane won a great turnover in defence and shortly afterwards Gollogly increased the Orchard lead by converting a straightforward free.

Duffy registered Armagh’s next two points and also struck a post high up but Donegal got the last score of the half and then hit a quickfire 1-2 early in the second after goalkeeper Gollogly completed her hat-trick of frees in the opening minute.

Donegal’s goal, free and point from play in quick succession closed the gap to just a single goal but that was as close as they got and the next score was a free from O’Neill just before a great Armagh goal.

Duffy finished well after a nice ball by McDonald and a lay-off from Carr, and Loughran quickly pointed to put the Orchard eight clear before the end of the third quarter, after which Donegal’s job was to become more difficult.

They lost one player to the sinbin and another to a straight red two minutes later, making an already tough task almost mission impossible, though it took time for Armagh to capitalise on the scoreboard.

The Donoghue goal made it 3-13 to 1-8 and sub Rionagh Lenaghan netted within two minutes of her introduction following a lovely run by the 14-year-old McDonald as Armagh surged further ahead.

Amid a flurry of substitutions, Rionagh Lenaghan cancelled out a Donegal point and Armagh had the last word in injury-time when the manager’s daughter raised her fourth white flag to put the seal on a good day.

ARMAGH: Caoimhe Gollogly (Derrynoose; 0-3, 3f); Caoimhe Harte (Pearse Og), Siofra Doherty (Killeavy), Moya McGrane (Ballyhegan); Olivia Cromie (Killeavy), Fiadhna Loughran (Granemore; 0-1), Alicia Roberts (Eire Og, capt); Olivia Campbell (Clann Eireann), Alannah O’Neill (Dromintee; 1-2, 1f); Eilidh-Meabh Duffy (Pearse Og; 1-4), Aoife McDonald (Clann Eireann), Aiobhinn Donohue (Clann Eireann; 1-0); Clarragh Lenaghan (Crossmaglen; 0-1), Ellie-Mae Carr (Granemore; 0-3), Eimear McGeary (Armagh Harps).  Subs used: Ella Owens (Killeavy) for Cromie (30mins), Rionagh Lenaghan (Crossmaglen; 1-1) for Carr (53), Niamh Farrell (Poyntzpass) for Harte (26), Evie McCafferty (Clann Eireann) for O’Neill (59), Sinead McSorley (Carrickcruppen) for Campbell (62).  Unused subs: Annie O’Hanlon (Tir na nOg), Meabh Vallely (Pearse Og), Cara Kelly (Armagh Harps), Erin Melanophy (Clann Eireann), Aoife Farrell (Poyntzpass), Ellie Doran (Eire Og), Elsie Druse (Armagh Harps), Muireann O’Kane (Pearse Og).

Image preview