February 15th, 2024



Armagh made heavy weather of it in the end but winning is everything for a team back in NFL Division One after a six-season absence and the Orchard crew came out on the right side of the result in Sunday’s low-scoring game against Galway at the Athletic Grounds.

The hosts scored six points without reply playing into the wind in the opening period and that might have felt like a fairly comfortable cushion especially considering the visitors had already been reduced to 14 women by a straight red card for Linda Booth.

But Galway got the first three points of the second half to halve the deficit and raised two more white flags after former Armagh skipper Kelly Mallon’s fourth free of a grey afternoon interrupted the scoring sequence.

The day after her younger brother Cian’s first Armagh goal, Crossmaglen’s Lauren McConville put three between the teams again with a fine point from a recycled ball by her long-time accomplice Aoife McCoy, who had earlier opened the Orchard’s account.

Galway had the final word with a point in the eighth minute of injury-time, meaning a last-gasp goal would have snatched victory for the visitors, but the final whistle soon went after an invaluable block by Orchard captain Clodagh McCambridge.

By then Aimee Mackin was off the field due to an absolutely astonishing sinbinning when the former All Ireland Player of the Year appeared to be caught under the chin coming out of defence but was somehow shown the yellow card instead of her opponent.

Yellow cards for McConville and stalwart Sharon Reel had proved costly for Armagh on Galway’s last visit to the Athletic Grounds back in 2016 but this time the biggest call by the referee was Booth being given her marching orders early on.

She was dismissed in just the 11th minute for a thoroughly reckless challenge on Emily Druse which brought back memories of the horrible bang the Harps prospect took to the face last time Armagh played here, the All Ireland quarter-final defeat to Cork last July.

Thankfully the indomitable Druse was able to resume after treatment and continued to play a prominent role in Armagh’s attractive attacking play in that first half which hopefully augurs well for the season ahead.

Gregory McGonigle’s side served up some delightful football, with players linking well at pace, and it is tantalising to think what they could do on firmer pitches in nicer weather later in the year when this team has also had more time to gel.

Young corner back Roisin Mulligan, a county newcomer this season on the back of shining in Clann Eireann’s historic run to last autumn’s Ulster title triumph, showed her footballing ability by bagging her first score for Armagh on one foray forward.

The 20-year-old also had the confidence to readily accept an interview invitation afterwards by match commentator Jerome Quinn and Mulligan already looks like a useful addition to this Armagh set-up.

The freedom for Mulligan to roam forward, and likewise fellow corner back Grace Ferguson as well as centre half back McConville, was afforded by the willingness to work back in deep defence by forwards such as the tireless McCoy and ace markswoman Mackin.

Mackin’s scoreboard contribution was restricted to a sole left-footed free but she got stuck in for the Orchard cause and also spent time with the fans afterwards despite any understandable irritation about being sinbinned.

Mallon kicking four frees for Armagh in a big game is nothing new but the 34-year-old also served her county’s cause by taking on an unfamiliar role as the Orchard crew recorded a third consecutive victory on their much-anticipated return to the National League’s top flight.

This is Mallon’s 16th season in the orange jersey since being given her Orchard debut by current Armagh manager McGonigle way back in 2009 in his first stint at the helm and she has earned her reputation as a powerful forward over a long and productive career.

However, with the Orchard cupboard depleted, Mallon found herself in midfield for the first time ever against Galway at the Athletic Grounds on Sunday alongside fellow blonde Niamh Coleman in the absence of Caroline O’Hanlon.

Having played the full hour in the first two fixtures of her 23rd Orchard campaign, O’Hanlon lined out for Leeds Rhinos on Sunday in a 56-43 defeat away to her old team Manchester Thunder in a final friendly ahead of netball’s new British SuperLeague season.

With no Niamh Marley and Blaithin Mackin sidelined by injury, Armagh’s midfield resources are stretched, with two other previous options, Tiarna Grimes and Fionnuala McKenna, no longer part of the panel.

In a parallel universe, Mallon’s rugby star cousin Leah McGoldrick or Northern Ireland netballer Frances Keenan might have been Armagh midfielders but neither has pulled on the orange jersey due to other sporting commitments compounded by injuries for the former.

So McGonigle turned to Mallon, an impressive physical specimen who thankfully has shaken off her own injury issues of past seasons, and taking on midfield miles didn’t sap power from the Madden sportswoman’s right leg when it came to her free-taking responsibilities.

Experienced campaigner Roisin Leonard converted three frees off the ground for Galway, augmented by the Connacht county’s last point of the match, but her contribution couldn’t save the Tribeswomen from a third straight defeat this season.

By contrast, Armagh have begun with a hat-trick of victories just like they did on their previous return to Division One, also after a lengthy gap and under a new manager, when Ronan Clarke’s side defeated Tyrone, Kerry and Monaghan back in 2016.

With two teams due to be relegated this season in a change of National League regulations by the LGFA, getting points on the board in the first few fixtures was an important priority for Armagh and they have delivered on that objective.

“We wouldn’t have been happy with the second half performance, but if you’d have said at the start of the year that we’d get three wins from the first three games back in Division One, we’d have been happy enough.

“There’s plenty for us to work on but there were a lot of good performances as well and I though we were very good in the first half,” reflected McGonigle, after a strange game in which neither team did considerably better while playing into the wind than with it.

Galway are still largely without their expected contingent from All Ireland club champions Kilkerrin-Clonberne and, with home advantage, it was important Armagh made the most of what was a relatively rare clash between these counties.

The National League games in 2016 and 2017, both won by Galway, were the only times these teams have met in more than a decade and the Tribeswomen arrived in the cathedral city off the back of narrow losses away to Cork and at home to Connacht rivals Mayo.

Armagh’s home victory over Waterford in their opening game was followed by the Orchard outfit’s first ever away win against Cork and McGonigle named the same starting line-up for a third match running albeit O’Hanlon didn’t ultimately line out.

The veteran’s place in a reshuffled side was taken by Clann Eireann’s prolific forward Niamh Murray, making her first start for Armagh, while Eve Lavery, Moya Feehan, Megan O’Callaghan and Laura Kavanagh got game-time as subs in the final quarter.

Galway wore white jerseys instead of their traditional maroon but Armagh began brightly into the wind with McCoy confidently notching the first score with just 84 seconds gone after being brought through by Mallon.

The visiting goalkeeper produced a great save at the end of a sweeping Armagh move but Mallon landed a seventh minute free and the visitors kicked a wide before Booth’s dismissal left Galway with an unwanted headache.

Mallon and Mackin kicked frees in quick succession to put Armagh four up by the end of the first quarter despite a couple of off-target shots by the latter and Mulligan got their fifth point on 20 minutes.

Physically fearless notwithstanding that earlier blow to the face, Druse accelerated through a gap resembling the eye of a needle to launch an attack featuring great interplay which led to the Mulligan score.

The orangewomen were also working hard on the other side of the ball, with one intercept by Mackin inside her own 45 and another by Mulligan near her own goal as Galway were kept scoreless in that opening period.

Mallon converted another free after an attack featuring defenders Ferguson and McConville, complemented by Dromintee’s McCoy scooping up possession in deep defence when Galway tried to hit back and then an intercept by Druse just before the half-time whistle.

McConville and McCoy combined in attack at the start of the second half but Galway got the first score though captain Ailbhe Davoren followed by Leonard’s first free and a Leanne Coen point from play after Mackin had pulled a free wide at the other end.

Mallon made no mistake with the set-piece when McConville was hauled down streaming through the middle but Leonard curled over two more frees to leave just two points between the teams entering the last quarter.

A precious point from McConville, her third in as many matches this season, and a great tackle by Ferguson in her own goalmouth helped settle any Armagh nerves and they kept possession well after being reduced to 14 players by Mackin’s 58th minute sinbinning.

After the competition’s first free weekend, Armagh will travel to Ashbourne on Sunday week to tackle their former manager Shane McCormack’s Meath, who also made it three wins from three matches by defeating Waterford 2-10 to 2-5 at the weekend.

All Ireland champions Dublin spectacularly came from nine points down at half-time to record their first victory of the season by beating Mayo 2-15 to 2-8 in Ballina while the Munster derby between Cork and Kerry was scheduled for the southern Bank Holiday Monday.

ARMAGH: A Carr; G Ferguson, C McCambridge (capt), R Mulligan (0-1); C Towe, L McConville (0-1), D Coleman; N Coleman, K Mallon (0-4; 4f); E Druse, A McCoy (0-1), S Quigley; A Mackin (0-1; 1f), L Kenny, N Murray.  Subs used: E Lavery for Quigley (53mins), M Feehan for Murray (53), M O’Callaghan for Druse (54), L Kavanagh for Kenny (63).

GALWAY: D Gower; M Jordan, S Ni Loinsigh, E Gavin; K Geraghty, C Trill, A Ni Cheallaigh; M Glynn, L Coen (0-1); C Cleary, A Davoren (capt; 0-1), S Hynes; L Booth, A O’Rourke, R Leonard (0-4; 3f).  Subs: M Walsh for Cleary, E O’Riordan for Trill, C McCarthy for Hynes, E Reaney for O’Rourke.

Referee: David Hurson (Monaghan).

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