February 26th, 2024



By Richard Bullick

Armagh are out on their own at the top of the NFL Division One table after a superb performance by Gregory McGonigle’s women was rewarded with a deserved double-digit victory over recent All Ireland champions Meath in their own Ashbourne backyard.

With title holders Kerry having been held to a draw by Mayo the day before, outright leadership of the National League was the prize on offer for whoever won Sunday’s showdown between the only other two teams with 100 percent records this season.

The fact that the Orchard crew were facing a Meath team managed by last season’s Armagh gaffer Shane McCormack gave this round four fixture an extra edge but the match was over as a contest well before the end with newly-promoted Armagh emphatic winners.

In fact, the main interest in the closing stages was whether swashbuckling centre half back Lauren McConville could maintain her record of scoring in each Armagh match this season and which of the visiting subs would get a run-out.

Crossmaglen legend McConville had a shot just wide near the end after one of many trademark bursts forward and almost grabbed a goal in injury-time, the final whistle sounding with her sprawled on the ground under the Meath crossbar.

Although her afternoon finished scoreless, the relentless McConville’s commitment typified Armagh’s spirit as she took repeated blows for the Orchard cause while the incredible Caroline O’Hanlon also kept putting her body on the line until the end.

Despite playing the full hour for Leeds Rhinos in the 150th British SuperLeague game of her netball career the day before, the 39-year-old O’Hanlon started in midfield and kicked two points in the first five minutes as Armagh got the perfect start into the wind.

“Caroline is nearly superhuman, a credit to not even just female athletes but any athlete as regards playing at the top of your game.  We have a lot of younger girls who are getting great experience playing with Caroline and learning from her,” remarked McGonigle.

Her first was a lovely left-footed effort from the left following a patient build-up and, after Aimee Mackin rounded off neat interplay with a point, a 90-metre run by McConville and lovely offload by Emily Druse after dancing through set up O’Hanlon’s second score.

With Aimee Mackin soon raising her second white flag, Armagh were four up by the seventh minute and, although Niamh Gallogly kicked a towering point midway through the half, former skipper Kelly Mallon replied with a well-struck free after being hauled down.

Prolific forward Emma Duggan, who was wonderfully well shackled for the most part by Clann Eireann’s quietly effective Cait Towe, pointed with her left foot for Meath and then took her tally to 21 points for the current campaign by converting a free.

But Mallon nailed another set-piece for Armagh when McCoy was fouled, quickly cancelled out by Meath midfielder Maire O’Shaughnessy pointing from play, before Duggan replied to a Mackin free – following a brilliant run by Grace Ferguson – making it 0-7 to 0-5 at the break.

Having the wind behind them now wasn’t going to guarantee anything for Armagh in the second half and Meath began brightly, albeit without securing the scoreboard reward the visitors had done early in the opening period.

Composure, patience, belief and hard work remained the key factors for McGonigle’s side and the huge effort from the entire team continued, with forwards defending deep at times and players with low numbers on their backs comfortable joining in the attacks.

Fresh from their endeavours in the middle of the field for their university in an agonising near miss against O’Connor Cup favourites DCU in midweek, tireless terriers Ferguson and Queen’s captain Druse were real livewires and always available to carry.

Druse might have netted her first Armagh goal but sensibly settled for keeping the scoreboard ticking after racing right through the Royals rearguard while fellow wing forward Eve Lavery also chipped in with a lovely left-footed point.

An Armagh regular in recent years, Lavery has been named on the bench for the first four matches of this season but was drafted in to start here in place of Clonmore’s Sarah Quigley in the only change to the line-up published on Friday.

Meath played as selected but both teams had to make an early substitution after a sickening collision in the eighth minute saw an accidental clash of heads between Louise Kenny and Royals full back Katie Newe which left both needing prolonged treatment.

O’Hanlon helped tend to Kenny in her doctor capacity and, thankfully, both players were able to walk off the field with their heads swathed in bandages, with Granemore dual star Corinna Doyle the sub sent on by McGonigle.

Crossmaglen’s Megan O’Callaghan caught the eye after replacing Lavery for the final quarter, Killeavy’s Eimear O’Brien made her maiden Armagh appearance in the closing stages and there were brief first runs of the season for Maeve Lennon and Maeve Ferguson.

Having sustained no damage from Meath’s early onslaught at the start of the second half, Armagh struck with the game’s first goal on 37 minutes – a lethal, low, left-footed finish from an acute angle on the right by Mackin with referee Eddie Cuthbert playing advantage.

O’Hanlon won a fantastic turnover after sprinting back but Aoibhin Cleary kicked a long-range point for Meath before brilliance by Towe and then her Armagh keeper Anna Carr denied the hosts a goal.

Mallon got the breaking ball from Carr’s long kickout and McConville, Druse and Ferguson combined in the lead-up to Aimee Mackin putting five between the teams by pointing with her weaker right foot from an acute angle on the left.

Full forward Marion Farrelly kicked a 43rd minute free awarded against Clodagh McCambridge but Lavery responded with a nice point before sub Doyle was off target trying to chip Monica McGuirk after intercepting the Meath skipper’s kickout.

When Mallon finished soccer-style from a ball rolled across the face of goal by Aimee Mackin, it felt like an unassailable lead for Armagh but Druse showed discipline by opting to put nine between the teams on 51 minutes instead of getting goal-greedy.

The orangewomen weren’t done yet, as Mallon soon added a superlative point from wide on the right and, after a consolation effort from Duggan, the Armagh Harps forward drew level with Mackin’s tally of 1-4 by registering the last score of the afternoon.

“As I keep saying to younger players coming into our set-up, Aimee Mackin and Kelly Mallon are the last two people to leave they field every single night and they’re the first two people on the field.

“(What they can do) doesn’t come from our coaching, it comes from them being diligent and putting in the hard work.  That’s obviously why they’re two of the best forwards in Ireland,” enthused McGonigle.

Mallon had played in Armagh’s midfield for the first time in her Orchard career against Galway with O’Hanlon on netball duty with Rhinos but the latter’s return meant she could revert to her familiar forward role albeit dropping deep on a regular basis.

O’Hanlon’s replacement in the Galway game, Niamh Murray, was absent from the matchday squad at Ashbourne but there were still seven Clann Eireann players listed with club captain Niamh Henderson togging out for Armagh for the first time since 2015.

Henderson’s clubmate McCambridge has led Armagh to four wins from four since being appointed Orchard captain at the start of the year while rising star Roisin Mulligan has yet to taste defeat in the orange jersey.

Having got the best out of previous enigma Dearbhla Coleman at club level last season, McGonigle has shown faith in the towering Lurgan girl by handing her an Armagh starting spot and she had a very encouraging outing against Meath.

Dearbhla’s older sister Niamh Coleman has become a midfield mainstay for Armagh over recent years and she is a very valuable player now with Blaithin Mackin on the long-term injured list and the loss of namesake Niamh Marley to rugby.

Three-time Armagh Player of the Year Aoife McCoy may not have got on the scoreboard in Ashbourne but the Dromintee dynamo gave everything as always and stalwarts like herself and McConville are great examples to the emerging generation.

After four fantastically successful years as skipper, Mallon has returned to the ranks and, seemingly mercifully free of the injury issues which plagued previous seasons, she is evidently enjoying her football and has still so much to offer.

In contrast to McCormack leaving her languishing unused on the sideline for several league games last season, experienced campaigner McGonigle has restored O’Hanlon to her rightful place and she is clearly revelling in being back at the heart of the action.

Even with Armagh’s win well in the bag by then, O’Hanlon was still fighting for every ball until the end and covering huge ground despite her exertions in Nottingham the day before, and Sunday showed what an exceptional competitor she is.

Never mind her outstanding ability and incredible level of fitness, O’Hanlon’s hunger is second to none and McGonigle paid glowing tribute to her afterwards just as she had acknowledged his influence in an LGFA feature interview coming into the weekend.

When Meath beat Armagh in the 2021 quarter-final on their way to back-to-back All Ireland title triumphs, it was the first knockout championship match O’Hanlon, whose jaw had been broken against Mayo the week before, had missed for 13 years.

Former Kildare goalkeeper McCormack was at the helm when Armagh clinched promotion to the top flight last spring with victory over Laois at Croke Park and now the Orchard crew will be eyeing up a return there in April for a first ever appearance in the Division One decider.

With two teams to be relegated this season, the Orchard outfit’s first objective was to maintain their first division status but they no longer have to worry about avoiding the drop after four consecutive victories.

After a free weekend Armagh host Kerry on the first Sunday in March before facing Mayo in Ballina on St Patrick’s Day and then hosting All Ireland champions Dublin in their final regular league game the following Sunday.

It took a free from former Irish rugby international Hannah Tyrrell to snatch victory for Dublin against Galway at Parnell Park where the hosts had trailed by three points going into the closing stages, but they ended up winning 0-16 to 1-12.

Galway remain pointless after four rounds of fixtures while Waterford drew level with Cork on three points after surprising their more fancied neighbours with a convincing 2-12 to 1-6 victory at Pairc Ui Rinn.

MEATH: M McGuirk (capt); K Newe, A Sheridan, N Troy; N Gallogly (0-1), MK Lynch, A Cleary (0-1); M O’Shaughnessy (0-1), S Melia; M Thynne, E Moyles, C Smyth; M Byrne, M Farrelly (0-1; 1f), E Duggan (0-4; 2f).  Subs used: C Lawlor for Newe (12mins), S Lynch for Farrelly (45), L Young for Smyth (49), T Foster for Thynne (55), S Ennis for Melia (60), R Casserly for Byrne (60).

ARMAGH: A Carr; G Ferguson, C McCambridge (capt), R Mulligan; C Towe, L McConville, D Coleman; N Coleman, C O’Hanlon (0-2); E Druse (0-1), A McCoy, E Lavery (0-1); A Mackin (1-4; 1f), L Kenny, K Mallon (1-4; 2f).  Subs used: C Doyle for Kenny (12), M O’Callaghan for Lavery (45), E O’Brien for Druse (55), M Lennon for McCoy (58), M Ferguson for D Coleman (59).

Referee: Eddie Cuthbert (Down).