July 17th, 2023


Richard Bullick

The Rebelettes will be making their first ever visit to the ecclesiastical capital of Ireland this weekend but Armagh and Cork have a fair bit of shared history in ladies football to get nostalgic about ahead of Saturday’s TG4 Senior Championship quarter-final (3.30pm, TG4).

Cork’s incredible dominance for more than a decade, which delivered an astonishing 11 All Ireland titles in 12 seasons from the mid-noughties when your correspondent began covering the sport, gave them an All Blacks-type aura in this rugby fan’s mind.

There were agonising near misses in the Orchard’s only All Ireland final appearance to date back in 2006 and an All Ireland qualifier in Birr seven years later, but just like the men in green eventually vanquishing New Zealand, Armagh have scalped Cork more recently.

Armagh have actually won two of the last three encounters between the teams, a first ever victory in an NFL fixture at Clonmore in 2017 and then that historic triumph in an exciting Championship clash in Tullamore four years ago.

Ace markswoman Aimee Mackin tore her cruciate before half-time that day but a remarkable burst of four Armagh goals in 10 second half minutes followed by heroic Orchard defending saw the northern province prevail by the minimum margin at O’Connor Park.

Scrambled minds after such a herculean effort meant only solicitor Sarah Marley, currently part of Shane McCormack’s backroom team as she recovers from major knee surgery, knew the narrow win was enough for Armagh to qualify for the quarter-finals from their group.

There will be no such confusion on Saturday afternoon as the Orchard outfit’s first ever home quarter-final is straight knockout, but another close contest could be on the cards between two counties whose previous clashes have served up plenty of drama.

Back in 2006, the orangewomen were surprise packages when Armagh reached the All Ireland showpiece in their first Senior season and actually led champions Cork at the interval thanks to a stunning goal by Mairead Tennyson.

The then Caoimhe Marley’s sinbinning was a big blow and Armagh got edged out by a single point, helped by Cork being given a disputed free out right at the end, but the conferral of the first three All Stars in Orchard history was acknowledgment of a fantastic campaign.

Armagh were beaten by Cork in 2008 in what remains their only NFL Division One semi-final to date, a match for which captain fantastic Bronagh O’Donnell, who handled the media brilliantly after that All Ireland final heartbreak, had flown home overnight from America.

Having dropped down to the Intermediate ranks for the previous season, Armagh raised their game magnificently when they faced Cork in a 2013 All Ireland qualifier in Birr, where a 16-year-old Louise Kenny made her Orchard debut

Having infamously fainted in the poky changing rooms at half-time, Tennyson switched to corner back for the second half, a conversion so successful it brought her an All Star there the following year!

There was also an eye-catching cameo from Siobhan Mackle in her flashy white boots but a slow scoreboard confused Caroline O’Hanlon into thinking Armagh were still two down with time almost up so she dropped a free in rather than try to hit an equalising point.

Goals from O’Hanlon and Kelly Mallon had given Armagh hope but the loss completed a hat-trick of one-point defeats in big games that season, having also lost the NFL Division Three final to Down and Ulster Senior Championship semi to Tyrone by the minimum margin.

Just squeezed out 0-16 to 2-9, the Orchard crew were to reap the whirlwind for giving Cork another almighty scare as they were well beaten by the reigning champions in the following September’s All Ireland semi-final in Longford.

It finished 5-16 to 2-11, with legendary Cork manager Eamonn Ryan admitting to me in the Pearse Park carpark afterwards that he had never seen his team so focused for a game, such was their wariness of Armagh.

Orchard captain O’Hanlon hit 1-4, with Cork’s Ciara O’Sullivan picking up Player of the Match on an afternoon when the long-serving Valerie Mulcahy led the way with 1-7 and sub Nollaig Cleary chipped in with 1-3.

The only Armagh starters that day in contention to be in the run-on line-up again this weekend are present captain Mallon, Aoife McCoy and Lauren McConville who were in their first Orchard campaigns back then, Kenny and Niamh Marley.

Teenager Kenny was filling in for broken ankle victim Sarah Marley while current regulars Anna Carr, Catherine Marley, Eve Lavery and Shauna Grey were all young unused subs nine years ago for Armagh, who had just won their first Ulster title since 2007.

Armagh and Cork clashed twice when the Orchard spent two seasons in the NFL’s top flight in the second half of last decade, the first at Abbotstown after Ronan Clarke’s side had made the long trip south a week earlier only for a late postponement due to inclement weather.

On an afternoon when Orchard camogie great Bernie Murray made her only start as a county footballer, Armagh were 10 down with 13 minutes to go but hit an unanswered 2-2 before a crucial Cork point made the result 2-16 to 4-7.

With no fewer than five teams finishing joint second behind table toppers Mayo, that last score cost Armagh their place in the 2016 first division semis on points difference, an agonising near miss compounded by the LGFA initially announcing Armagh had qualified.

It was a great comeback by an Armagh team that had shipped 1-4 without reply in the first six minutes and hit the post with a penalty by Aimee Mackin, who netted twice thereafter, but falling just short in the end was tough to take.

Although the regulations were clear enough, Armagh LGFA angrily lashed out with a hysterical statement that threatened legal action, but that elusive victory over Cork came in the corresponding game the following season.

Well beaten by Donegal the previous Sunday in Sean O’Kane’s first match in charge and unluckily relegated eventually in spite of an historic away win over Dublin back at Abbotstown, Armagh were worthy 0-12 to 0-9 victors at Clonmore.

Cork were missing some household names but, in addition to having won the last six All Ireland Senior Championships, they had just trounced neighbours Kerry 5-17 to 1-11 in their opening game of the season.

The hosts led throughout and Aimee Mackin top-scored with five points on a day when Clodagh McCambridge, Blaithin Mackin, McConville, McCoy, Niamh Coleman, Niamh and Catherine Marley, Lavery and Grey also featured.

Armagh took a horrible 28-point pasting from Donegal in the 2018 Ulster final and a draw with Monaghan in their first All Ireland group game meant they could afford a 15-point defeat to Cork in Ballinasloe and still go through to the last eight.

Captain Morgan’s cruciate rupture in a club game in between meant that Cork clash was the first time Mallon had skippered any gaelic football team in her entire career, and the underdogs did enough in the end after being perilously placed earlier.

An unanswered 1-6 put Cork 13 ahead midway through the second half, with the wind behind them, and the orangewomen were in danger of being swept away by the white tide, but the introduction of Aimee Mackin helped the Orchard cause.

She scored three points, including two frees, with her younger sibling Blaithin getting the only Armagh goal and both O’Hanlon and Fionnuala McKenna each raising two white flags in the 1-19 to 1-7 Orchard defeat.

And so to Tullamore, where these sides last met in 2019 with that campaign at the point of no return after Armagh had snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in their first group game against Cavan, relinquishing an 11-point lead and being beaten by an injury-time free.

All four Marley sisters started together in a Championship match for the first time as Lorraine McCaffrey and Fionnuala McAtamney made some changes, but Armagh were four down at the interval having already lost main threat Aimee Mackin to injury.

O’Hanlon began the Armagh goal-rush with a great finish to the roof of the net after Catherine Marley had won a turnover and sent big sister Niamh rampaging forward, and then came a great solo strike from Blaithin Mackin.

There was a confident finish from Mallon after a sublime ball from O’Hanlon and, when Aimee Mackin’s replacement Mairead Watters punished Cork hesitancy by bundling home the Orchard outfit’s fourth goal, they were a barely believable 10 points to the good.

Cork responded superbly in reducing the arrears to one, but Armagh hung on for a famous 4-9 to 3-11 victory thanks to ferocious commitment, epitomised by Sarah Marley’s match-saving tackle near the end.

Blaithin Mackin won Player of the Match and there was a superlative performance from O’Hanlon, who top-scored with 1-3 having missed the Cavan clash while captaining Northern Ireland’s netballers at that month’s World Cup in Liverpool.

This weekend will be the first time that Armagh have faced Cork without the triple All Star but there is a strong nucleus of Orchard heroes from Tullamore still there including Carr, McCambridge, McCoy, Mallon, both Mackins and the youngest two Marleys.

Niamh Reel and an injured Lavery were unused subs that day while Crossmaglen’s Lauren McConville, who was in Australia then, is such a taliswoman for Armagh now and won Player of the Match against Mayo in the Athletic Grounds last time out.

By way of (hopefully!) positive omens, the referee at O’Connor Park four years ago was Maggie Farrelly, who will take charge again this Saturday, and again this Armagh-Cork clash comes on the back of an Orchard defeat at Bawnboy.

On that occasion, it was the senior side’s implosion against Cavan in the preceding group game and this time round Armagh Under 16s were beaten on the same Templeport pitch in last Wednesday’s All Ireland B semi-final!


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