June 5th, 2023


Richard Bullick at Owenbeg

Dethroned champions Armagh left Owenbeg with plenty of regrets but no trophy after bitter rivals Donegal dashed Orchard hopes of a fourth Ulster title on the trot on an afternoon when they lost star player Aimee Mackin to a worrying injury.

It was a devastating defeat for the orangewomen, who will justifiably feel that they left this game behind them, with the result spoiling what should have been the perfect 20th birthday for the tireless Emily Druse.

The past two Ulster showpieces had been decided by single point margins in Armagh’s favour and it would have been the minimum between these teams again but for a Donegal goal in the last few seconds.

The final whistle went as Anna Carr took the resulting goal-kick, sparking delirious celebrations by Donegal, who had gone into the big game as underdogs against Shane McCormack’s side.

This was McCormack’s first defeat as Armagh manager following 10 consecutive victories this season, including lifting the NFL Division Two title, whereas whitewashed Donegal had suffered relegation from the top flight.

However, while Donegal had benefited from facing the country’s top teams over recent months, the Orchard crew came into this final not having been tested sufficiently this season and they weren’t battle-hardened enough.

Armagh failed to take advantage of a strong breeze behind them in the opening period and actually trailed at the interval after a frustrating first half in which the favourites showed what would prove a costly lack of urgency or intent.

It had all looked so promising when four-time All Star Aimee Mackin kicked a magical point to put her team three ahead in the 11th minute but Donegal got the next six scores and the Orchard didn’t register again until she converted a free in injury-time.

An improved performance from Armagh in the second half saw the title holders eventually edge back in front when skipper Kelly Mallon kicked the free awarded for the incident which led to Aimee Mackin leaving the field after a stoppage of almost seven minutes.

The 26-year-old landed heavily on her right hip after dancing delightfully through the Donegal defence, taking a return ball from Aoife McCoy and being blocked as she tried to pull the trigger.

Her loss was a big blow for an Armagh team already without their long-time taliswoman Caroline O’Hanlon, who had been on the field for every minute of the other nine Ulster finals in Orchard history and whose experience and composed presence was much missed here.

O’Hanlon had played the full 60 minutes in Worcester the night before for Leeds Rhinos as they came from behind to beat hosts Severn Stars 59-52 in netball’s British SuperLeague but is currently unavailable for Orchard duty as she tries to manage injury issues.

By contrast, Donegal manager Maxi Curran was able to call upon Niamh Hegarty for the first time this season and the All Star forward was a late addition to his squad along with the heavily-tattooed defender Tanya Kennedy.

Geraldine McLaughlin and Yvonne Bonner, the Orchard outfit’s tormentors in those heavy decider defeats at the hands of Donegal at the end of last decade, didn’t appear but another recently returned heavyweight Karen Guthrie started as expected.

Armagh had an unchanged team from this month’s two round robin games which had resulted in an away win over Donegal followed by a 25-point pasting of Cavan in a packed Clones in a curtain-raiser ahead of the men’s Ulster final.

Playing in her first Ulster final, Druse saw plenty of the ball in the early exchanges, including setting up Eve Lavery to open the scoring with a left-footed point after just 55 seconds, and the young Harps player also won the free which Aimee Mackin kicked in the third minute.

Niamh Hegarty got Donegal on the board by converting the free awarded for a foul on her by Cait Towe but Armagh markswoman Mackin responded soon afterwards with her second set-piece strike when McCoy was barged into.

After Hegarty had fallen short with a free into the wind, the elder of the Mackin sisters extended Armagh’s lead when she cut in nicely from the right, drifted across the front of the posts and hoisted a superb point with her famed left foot.

Guthrie replied with her own more than useful left foot from the right of the posts within a minute and a long-range effort from Aimee Mackin after a turnover won by younger sibling Blaithin dropped into the arms of Donegal goalkeeper Claire Friel.

Niamh Hegarty halved the deficit with an easy free midway through the half and Lavery kicked a wide after Druse burst through on the right and recycled to her, meaning Donegal were able to draw level a minute later.

Druse was pinged for handing off a defender as she attacked again and then gave away a foul chasing back as Donegal countered, with the following phase of play culminating in teenager Katie Dowds cutting in to kick a nice equalising score.

A slightly speculative shot by Niamh Marley fell into the keeper’s arms just before Donegal got their noses in front for the first time courtesy of a Katie Long point after captain Niamh McLaughlin had held off Towe.

Between two wasteful balls by Lavery, Amy Boyle Carr doubled Donegal’s lead after Niamh Hegarty had got away from Lauren McConville but the Crossmaglen star and Towe combined well to snuff out another attack.

Niamh Marley kicked a wide before Boyle Carr posted Donegal’s sixth score in a row after cutting in against Druse and Towe was penalised for leading into the defender with her shoulder as Armagh tried to respond.

The prominent Boyle Carr kicked Donegal’s first wide in the 30th minute, Aimee Mackin was off-target with an extremely ambitious shot, even by her standards, after taking a clean catch in the left corner and Blaithin Mackin also drew a blank in injury-time.

Aimee Mackin made it 0-5 to 0-7 at the break when she got in the way of Emer Gallagher coming out of defence for Donegal and the experienced player was blown for charging, but that first score in 20 minutes couldn’t gloss over what had been a poor first half for Armagh.

Now playing into the wind, Armagh needed to start the second half with purpose and Mallon quickly reduced the arrears with a free after Niamh Marley had been fouled at the throw-in and then taken a hit from namesake McLaughlin.

Shauna Grey kicked a wasteful wide from long range on the right and a free from Guthrie at the other end dropped short before Long scored a nice point and Nicole McLaughlin put in a great tackle to dispossess McCoy as Armagh tried to hit back.

Ferguson did well to win possession after a good diagonal ball to Boyle Carr in the right corner created alarm and Lavery’s last action before being replaced by Caitriona O’Hagan on 40 minutes was to kick another wide.

Danger in the Armagh goalmouth was averted by great work from Druse and Carrickcruppen teenager O’Hagan’s first involvement in the game was to carry strongly up the right flank in front of the sun-splashed, well-populated terrace with the mountain in the background.

Thankfully from an Armagh perspective, a ball in by Boyle Carr went over Guthrie’s head but Donegal were very lucky not to have a player sinbinned when Niamh Marley was caught high as she surged away following a Towe turnover.

McConville’s belated first trademark burst forward of the afternoon finished with a wild shot but Armagh pointed twice in quick succession, firstly through Niamh Coleman and then a towering effort from young O’Hagan out on the right after Coleman won the Donegal kickout.

It was suddenly all-square and it looked like an Armagh goal might follow almost immediately as McConville broke the Donegal kickout and Niamh Marley surged forward before giving the ball to Aimee Mackin for that dazzling but fateful attack.

Instead of resulting in a green flag being waved, the passage of play led to Mackin being unable to continue due to injury, replaced by Silverbridge’s Niamh Reel, with Shane O’Neills skipper Louise Kenny taking over from Niamh Marley during the lengthy stoppage.

The deflating loss of the star forward was offset somewhat by Mallon landing the free after the prolonged delay to put Armagh back in the lead for the first time since early in the second quarter, quickly followed by that heroic save from Carr.

A free out was awarded against Mallon for holding off a defender while trying to win a ball from her clubmate Druse and the Orchard captain was short with an attempted free in the 60th minute after nice neat interplay by the team in orange.

Donegal drew level moments later when the excellent Niamh Hegarty gave Towe the slip and got the ball onto her left foot for a great point from a fairly acute angle on the left as this match took another twist.

The ever-energetic Grace Ferguson won the kickout and Armagh attacked through McCoy, Kenny and McConville but Donegal got a free out after Mallon had knocked down Reel’s dropping shot at the far post.

Guthrie gave Donegal the lead again with 6:23 left on the countdown clock by nailing what had been a fairly harsh free awarded against McConville as she tried to challenge Niamh McLaughlin.

McCormack sent on Ballyhegan’s Blathnaid Hendron in place of Catherine Marley, Kenny’s bravery claiming Carr’s long kickout earned her a free and Armagh went through multiple phases before O’Hagan’s shot was well caught by the Donegal full back at the near post.

The final Orchard change saw Druse give way to a fit-again Tiarna Grimes but it was to be Donegal’s even later sub who had the last laugh after a patient period of Orchard build-up play ultimately yielded no reward.

The clock kept ticking away as Armagh kept possession and probed for an opening in a packed defence but the attack eventually broke down between Ferguson and Blaithin Mackin, who had relatively little impact on the game for a player of such class.

A couple of fouls followed as Armagh anxiously sought turnovers but they had a let-off when Guthrie kicked a wide after Niamh McLaughlin had made a good burst and found her in the right corner.

An outnumbered Mallon couldn’t win a ball in from O’Hagan and a breakaway by Donegal resulted in a great finish to the net from Ciara McGarvey, who had just come onto the field in place of a limping Guthrie, to seal what was a sweet win for Donegal.

That clinching goal was a real relief for Donegal, given their nightmare memories of Mallon landing a long-range equalising free with the last kick in Clones last May, when Armagh went on to snatch victory with a goal at the end of extra-time.

Curran’s side had come to Owenbeg on Sunday as underdogs but desperate to gain revenge for those last two decider defeats at the hands of Armagh, who were tipped to become only the second team in history to claim the Ulster title four years in a row.

ARMAGH: A Carr; S Grey, C McCambridge, C Towe; E Druse, L McConville, G Ferguson; N Marley, B Mackin; E Lavery (0-1), N Coleman (0-1), C Marley; A Mackin (0-4, 3f) K Mallon (capt; 0-2, 2f), A McCoy.  Subs used: C O’Hagan (0-1) for Lavery (40mins), L Kenny for N Marley (51), N Reel for A Mackin (53), B Hendron for C Marley (63), T Grimes for Druse (66).

DONEGAL: C Friel; N Carr, A Temple Asoko, Nicole McLaughlin; A Boyle Carr (0-2), T Kennedy, T Hegarty; K Herron, Niamh McLaughlin (capt); R Rodgers, K Long (0-2), K Dowds (0-1); E Gallagher, K Guthrie (0-2, 1f), N Hegarty (0-3, 2f).  Subs used: S McGroddy for Long (50), S White for Rodgers (61), C McGarvey (1-0) for Guthrie (71).

REFEREE: David Hurson (Monaghan).
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