ARMAGH 8-14 CAVAN 2-7
Richard Bullick in Clones
Provincial champions Armagh made the most of a golden opportunity to showcase themselves in front of a big Clones crowd with an eight-goal rout of Cavan to book their place in a sixth consecutive Ulster final.
After defeating Donegal in the opening round robin game the previous Sunday, Armagh just needed to avoid defeat by more than 10 points to go through to the showpiece but unsurprisingly they put their best foot forward on what was a memorable occasion.
Ace markswoman Aimee Mackin netted another hat-trick and treated the Orchard fans to some sumptuous points while skipper Kelly Mallon raised two green flags before being brought off in the closing stages.
There were also Armagh goals for three others who had been honoured in the NFL Team of Division Two earlier this month, namely Niamh Coleman, Blaithin Mackin and Aoife McCoy, while Catherine Marley chipped in with two points.
Sub Blathnaid Hendron put the icing on the Orchard cake with the last point before the players left the pitch to an ovation from the biggest audience many of these young women will ever have played in front of.
There was a significant crowd already in place when this curtain-raiser to the men’s Ulster final got underway and those who had made the effort to come early were rewarded with half a dozen Armagh goals in the opening period.
It was actually Cavan who had the first two scoring chances, but both went wide and Orchard claims for a penalty after a flowing attack in the fourth minute were waved away by referee Siobhan Coyle.
Some of the casual support may have been seeing Aimee Mackin in the flesh for the first time and Armagh’s marquee forward took just six minutes to raise a green flag after All Star full back Clodagh McCambridge had won the ball at the back.
Crossmaglen’s Lauren McConville made a trademark turnover and a great run which led to an Aimee Mackin point and then Orchard captain Mallon slapped to the net a minute later after Armagh had pumped a high ball in.
Route one had proved productive for the Armagh men in the semi-final against Down and, although not a tactic that the orangewomen often employ, it yielded a couple of goals for them here.
Cavan were off-target with a free and Blaithin Mackin made ground down the left from Anna Carr’s long kickout before the alert referee spotted her sister Aimee being held inside and the elder Mackin converted the easy setpiece.
Aimee Mackin tucked away Armagh’s third goal beautifully in the 13th minute after a run by wing back Emily Druse, who can now look forward to playing in her first Ulster final on her 20th birthday.
Midway through the half, Blaithin Mackin rattled the crossbar but Cavan quickly came down the other end where Carr made a good save only to have the misfortune of knocking the ball into her own net after the next opposition shot came back off the bar.
Armagh had a post struck straightaway but this time they mopped up possession and a stunning purple patch of three goals in the space of two minutes must have left Cavan fearing a real rout.
A long ball in enabled Blaithin Mackin to tap it over the keeper, Coleman picked her spot well and Aimee Mackin completed her hat-trick with a perfect chip, though it took twice as long as her three-goal burst in last month’s NFL Division Two final!
The shell-shocked Cavan keeper did well to claim a Blaithin Mackin rugby-style garryowen just before Carr made a brilliant save at the other end in a match where points had been much scarcer than goals in the first 20 minutes.
Aimee Mackin kicked a huge point from a central position, quickly followed by a free from Mallon, but Cavan hit back with a cracking goal in the 25th minute from their AFLW star Aishling Sheridan.
Although Armagh, who were unchanged from the Donegal game, replied right away with a classic score from Aimee Mackin as she cut in from the right and slotted over effortlessly with her priceless left foot, the women in blue then hit the next three points.
A Lauren McVeety score from play was sandwiched between a couple of frees and, although the second could have been awarded the other way for a charge on McConville, Armagh also had a let-off when Sheridan rattled their bar.
Mallon rounded off the first half scoring with a nice snap point from wide on the left in injury-time, making it 6-6 to 2-3 at the interval, and any notions of an unlikely Cavan comeback were ruthlessly stamped out within a few minutes of the resumption.
Armagh hit two wides in the first 60 seconds courtesy of Eve Lavery and Aimee Mackin but Catherine Marley pointed and Mallon landed a free before McCoy finished off a scintillating attack by Blaithin Mackin and McConville.
Catherine Marley had a shot off target but Mallon added another free to put Armagh 21 ahead in the 36th minute just before Shane McCormack began ringing the changes, replacing Coleman and Lavery with teenager Caitriona O’Hagan and Niamh Reel.
Blaithin Mackin kicked a wide and Ally Cahill pointed for Cavan but Catherine Marley cancelled it out after bursting through the middle from her familiar left flank albeit she had played more centrally in the opening period.
Cavan converted a free and also missed one in quick succession midway through the half and Aimee Mackin kicked another lovely point before a second Orchard double change saw Louise Kenny and Aoibheann McConville take over from Druse and Catherine Marley.
Aged just 17, Kenny had started at corner back in Armagh’s last big double-header here, when the Orchard outsiders overcame Monaghan in the 2014 Ulster final, and it is good to see her back in the orange jersey after two cruciate ruptures in the intervening years.
After two Armagh wides and a Cavan free, Mallon’s last act before being replaced by Ballyhegan’s Hendron was to punch home her second goal from a kick-pass cross from former soccer international Aimee Mackin.
Aimee Mackin kicked two frees as fans kept pouring in ahead of the men’s match and Armagh might have had a ninth goal but Reel’s shot was well blocked after fellow sub Hendron was nearly in.
Aisling Gilsenan put over a free for Cavan but Armagh had the last word with a confidently struck point from Hendron, who scored 4-10 for Ballyhegan in last autumn’s Intermediate decider and is enjoying her first season in county colours.
Having won all eight regular league games before seeing off Laois in the NFL Division Two final, Armagh remain unbeaten this season and now have their sights set on making it four Ulster titles in a row with victory over Donegal in the decider on Sunday week.
ARMAGH: A Carr; S Grey, C McCambridge, C Towe; G Ferguson, L McConville, E Druse; N Marley, N Coleman (1-0); E Lavery, C Marley (0-2), B Mackin (1-0); A Mackin (3-7; 3f), K Mallon (capt; 2-4, 3f), A McCoy (1-0). Subs used: C O’Hagan for Coleman (37mins), N Reel for Lavery (37), L Kenny for Druse (46), A McConville for C Marley (46), B Hendron (0-1) for Mallon (53).
CAVAN: Roisin O’Reilly; G Faulkner, S Lynch, C Charters; Z Fay, N Byrd (capt), Rebecca O’Reilly; C Finnegan, A Denneher; S Slowey, L McVeety (0-3, 2f), A Gilsenan (1-3, 3f); A Cahill (0-1), A Sheridan (1-0), E Halton. Subs used: G Sheridan for E Halton (43), A Walls for Slowey (43), N Keenaghan for Rebecca O’Reilly (53), M Cusack for Mc Veety (53), C Madden for Finnegan (56).
Referee: Siobhan Coyle (Donegal).