February 15th, 2024


Emily Druse was the Orchard’s big breakout star of 2023, starting all but two of Armagh’s 14 competitive matches in the year she turned 20, with strapping Carrickcruppen teenager Caitriona O’Hagan also meriting an honourable mention.

Before returning to the county panel ahead of last season, Harps prospect Druse had never started an Armagh match but the ebullient Queen’s medical student grabbed her chance with both hands and never looked back.

Young O’Hagan got a start in the NFL Division Two final against Laois, which brought Armagh’s first victory at Croke Park for more than a decade, and also featured from the off in several other big games.

Armagh have reached at least the All Ireland Senior Championship quarter-finals in each of the past seven seasons and are now back in NFL Division One for the first time since losing a relegation play-off against Monaghan in April 2017.

If the orangewomen are to stay at the elite level and challenge for the ultimate prize of All Ireland glory, it is vital that at least a couple of fresh stars keep emerging every year to increase competition for places, add depth and plug gaps which inevitably arise.

For various reasons, Armagh’s matchday squad for this month’s opening National League game against Waterford had as many as 10 differences from the 30 on duty for last July’s All Ireland quarter-final loss to Cork.

Notable absentees Blaithin Mackin, Niamh Marley, Catherine Marley and Tiarna Grimes have all been Armagh regulars in recent years, while Blathnaid Hendron, Aoibheann McConville, Megan Sheridan and Megan McShane were all part of the panel last summer.

Two unused subs from that Cork clash in the Athletic Grounds, Eimear O’Brien and Millie Lavery, remain involved this season but weren’t part of the matchday squad against Waterford along with two of the 12 fresh faces, Caitlin McCormack and Rachel McCabe.

The list of 10 incomers compared to the panel on duty for that All Ireland quarter-final is headed by Armagh’s greatest ever ladies footballer Caroline O’Hanlon, who stepped away after last season’s NFL Division Two final, but is back for a 23rd Orchard campaign.

O’Hanlon’s fellow netball international Dearbhla Coleman also left the panel during last season but has returned to Orchard duty on the back of her impressive performances in Clann Eireann’s run to that historic Ulster Senior Club title triumph last November.

Coleman’s Clann Eireann clubmate Megan McCann is giving Armagh another go and likewise Crossmaglen namesake Megan O’Callaghan, who was part of the 2022 panel, while Moya Feehan from Shane O’Neills has come on board again after a lengthier absence.

Granemore dual star Corinna Doyle, shortlisted for 2023 Gaelic Life Ulster Club All Stars in both codes, who made her Orchard debut as a schoolgirl but has been a county camog more recently, is back in the football fold under new Armagh manager Greg McGonigle.

The most prolific forwards from the respective teams who won in last autumn’s Buttercrane Championship finals double-header in the Athletic Grounds, Clann Eireann’s Niamh Murray and Clonmore’s Sarah Quigley, are also part of McGonigle’s squad for the new season.

Quigley was a peripheral figure for a couple of seasons as a teenager while accomplished musician Murray is a newcomer to the Armagh senior squad as is young clubmate Roisin Mulligan, who really caught the eye during Clann Eireann’s run to glory.

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Although she started that club campaign as one of the lower-profile figures in a Clann Eireann team packed with household names, Mulligan’s star has risen so quickly that her club boss McGonigle put her straight in from the start for Armagh against Waterford.

The only representative from the 2023 Armagh Junior Championship in this season’s 34-player panel, Quigley was also included in the run-on line-up to take on Waterford while last year’s Minor county captain Laura Kavanagh got her first taste of action near the end.

There wasn’t much scope to make substitutions in a tight game in difficult conditions when a win was essential but, with the match being in Crossmaglen, McGonigle gave O’Callaghan game-time on her home pitch, making it a very special afternoon for the little livewire.

McGonigle is a hugely experienced campaigner with a great track record in ladies football having steered Monaghan and Dublin to a total of five All Ireland finals and, most recently, taken Clann Eireann further than any Orchard club side has ever gone in ladies football.

The confident Dungiven native understands what makes each individual in his teams tick at a personal level and, as demonstrated at Clann Eireann, helps his players set their horizons higher and to believe almost anything is achievable.

That will be especially important this season because, on paper, this Armagh panel looks lighter than last year’s in terms of tested depth, proven pedigree and collective experience at this level and they will be facing tough opposition every match.

With the injured Blaithin Mackin rather ominously listed as part of the management ticket rather than the playing panel, no Marleys around for the first time since 2011 and Grimes gone, Armagh have arguably a core group of just 16 players including Druse and O’Hagan.

Of those, O’Hagan, Shauna Grey and Niamh Reel took no part in the Waterford fixture and their low jerseys numbers suggested they may not have been fit for selection, so the orangewomen went into that important game without much of a comfort blanket.

The flip side is that there are very obvious opportunities at present for incomers or previously peripheral players to put their hands up, establish themselves and take significant first steps towards becoming Orchard heroes over the next few years.

With Armagh in Division One, those fresh faces will be trying to prove themselves against good teams in high-profile fixtures, but there is nobody better than McGonigle to navigate them through those shark-infested waters.

He has brought in an excellent number two in former county footballer Joe Feeney, who was incredibly influential in Armagh Harps becoming back-to-back Orchard champions earlier this decade after a famine stretching back to last century.

Feeney will bring great intensity and attention to detail working behind a comfortable frontman in McGonigle, who has also spoken of O’Hanlon’s value as the ultimate mentor to young colleagues in addition to her ongoing importance as a player.

With the heavyweight gingers Blaithin Mackin and Niamh Marley missing along with other options such as Grimes and Harps skipper Fionnuala McKenna, who stepped away at the end of the 2022 season, having O’Hanlon to partner Niamh Coleman in midfield is vital.

Despite being relentlessly targeted by the opposition, O’Hanlon showed all her hunger, experience and class in controlling the game against Waterford while new captain Clodagh McCambridge was typically commanding at the back.

Her predecessor as skipper, Kelly Mallon, demonstrated that her less-heralded left foot isn’t just for standing on by scoring a nice point to supplement a couple of frees while stalwarts Lauren McConville and Aoife McCoy set the tone as always in the 2-13 to 2-8 win.

Top-scorer Aimee Mackin’s tally was a comparatively modest 1-2 but the star forward deserves special plaudits for putting the body on the line in defence in atrocious conditions which were a leveller and meant Armagh really had to fight for their deserved victory.

Had newly-promoted Armagh been beaten at home by Waterford they would have become early favourites for relegation but they were well worthy of claiming the all-important points in what was a very significant fixture for just the third weekend in January.

Converted defender Louise Kenny had an encouraging first outing up front at this level, Druse and Grace Ferguson’s pace will be an increasing asset as pitches firm up, while newcomer Mulligan and Quigley – on her first start for Armagh – didn’t look out of place.

It is hoped that McGonigle can get the best out of the hitherto enigmatic Dearbhla Coleman – who made her first start against Waterford – at this level of football while players like her clubmate Cait Towe and goalkeeper Anna Carr are proven performers for Armagh.

Experienced frontliner Eve Lavery, an Ulster All Star last season, just came off the bench in the opening NFL fixture, which Armagh won without any contribution from Grey, Reel or O’Hagan, who will have important roles to play as the campaign goes on.

Derrynoose’s prolific forward Maeve Lennon showed glimpses of her potential last season while still a schoolgirl, so she will be hoping for further exposure, though Doyle and Murray are also competing for scarce match minutes up front.

The diminutive Maeve Watters of Carrickcruppen, who has returned to the panel, has yet to get on the field for Armagh along with clubmate Ciara Garvey while simply making the bench is the first target for Ballyhegan teenager McCormack and McCabe of Shane O’Neills.

For various reasons, the Irish women’s rugby team have ended up putting faith in a number of very young players recently, some of whom have thrived on being thrown in at the deep end, while locally tyros Druse and O’Hagan have flourished in the Armagh gaelic jersey.

Although Armagh may not have much scope to experiment while facing all of the country’s top teams in Division One, the relatively limited nucleus of established performers means McGonigle will have to develop players alongside the imperative of getting results.

At Clann Eireann last season, McGonigle raised his team’s expectations of themselves, individually and collectively, and then helped them reach those fresh heights.  It is hoped that he can mastermind similar growth with Armagh in his new role.

Reaching Croke Park for April’s National League showpiece would be a bonus but if Armagh can secure their top flight status and some previously unproven players step up over the next two months, the first phase of the 2024 Orchard campaign will have been a success.

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