March 15th, 2024


ARMAGH 3-14 KERRY 1-13

Richard Bullick at the Athletic Grounds

Armagh are five points clear at the top of the National League table after a hugely impressive victory over Kerry in Sunday’s showdown at the Athletic Grounds between the only two previously unbeaten teams in Division One.

Played in glorious sunshine, this blockbuster battle between the league leaders and title holders was a superb spectacle and great advert for female sport at the start of a week which culminates in International Women’s Day.

Newly-promoted Armagh were worthy winners on an afternoon when star forward Aimee Mackin had some sublime scores in her haul of 2-6 and their fifth consecutive victory this season ended a seven-match losing streak against Kerry stretching back eight years.

Although Armagh held a healthy lead of five points after a superb performance in the opening period, Kerry hit back with a couple of scores right at the start of the second half and had two great goal chances before finally raising a green flag to draw level.

It had been mostly one-way traffic since the interval so when Kerry edged ahead for the first time less than a minute later, the momentum was all with the visitors and Orchard hopes of overthrowing the Kingdom for the first time since 2016 seemed to be fading fast.

The scars from those defeats could have fuelled doubts and Kerry had an ace card still to play with prolific forward Louise Ni Mhuircheartaigh, the 2023 All Ireland Player of the Year, ready to be sprung from the bench.

So it speaks volumes for Armagh’s character that they steadied the ship and then turned the tide in emphatic fashion, powerfully pulling away to win by the commanding margin of seven points with Mackin converting a penalty and then scoring a great goal.

The hosts had their noses back in front by the end of the third quarter thanks to a point apiece from the only two players who hadn’t started in the statement away win over recent All Ireland champions Meath in their Ashbourne backyard last time out.

Granemore’s Corinna Doyle, fresh from winning Dual Player of the Year at Friday night’s Gaelic Life Ulster All Star Awards struck an equalising score and then Niamh Henderson, playing her first Armagh match for nine years, nudged the home team ahead again.

Henderson, who had captained Clann Eireann to their historic Ulster title triumph last autumn under the now Armagh manager Gregory McGonigle, has been tempted back into the Orchard fold by her club boss and she already looks like a very valuable addition.

With Louise Kenny sidelined after needing 16 stitches in the head wound sustained against Meath, McGonigle turned to Henderson from the off against the All Ireland runners-up of the past two seasons instead of easing her back into county football after that long absence.

However, with six Clann Eireann players in the Armagh starting side for Sunday’s showdown including her four fellow Ulster Club All Stars – county captain McCambridge, Roisin Mulligan, Cait Towe and Niamh Coleman around her – Henderson would have felt at home.

When Henderson last played for the county, Caroline O’Hanlon was captain and teenage scoring sensation Aimee Mackin was on her way to picking up an All Star in her first full season with Armagh, and that pair remain key figures for the Orchard.

As against Meath, the 39-year-old O’Hanlon put in another huge shift here despite playing a British SuperLeague netball match the day before, with this Armagh win taking away some of the hurt of Leeds Rhinos being beaten 55-54 by Cardiff Dragons in Sheffield.

Back in her trademark No 9 jersey, O’Hanlon looked full of running and, along with dictating the game from midfield, she made significant contributions right at either end of the pitch, hitting the Kerry net from close range and crucially catching one ball on her own goal-line.

But it was O’Hanlon’s vision and delivery which were most outstanding as she picked out Mackin with some sublime balls which led to scores from the ace markswoman on a day when Armagh racked up a formidable 3-14, all of which was from play except a penalty.

Queen’s skipper Emily Druse and her fellow livewire Grace Ferguson gave everything in pursuit of a redemptive victory after last Wednesday night’s heartbreaking O’Connor Cup exit at the hands of TUD and their efforts were duly rewarded.

Dromintee dynamo Aoife McCoy was at her irrepressible best, causing havoc with her nippy, piercing runs at the Kerry rearguard which led to a couple of points for herself, several frees and the timely Mackin penalty.

Crossmaglen legend Lauren McConville scored from centre half back for a fourth game out of five this season as well as defending ferociously and, barring any mishaps, should bring up her century of Orchard appearances against Mayo on St Patrick’s Day.

A draw in Ballina would guarantee Armagh a first ever appearance in the National League final, with a home match against Dublin in the Athletic Grounds the following Sunday offering a second chance to secure the point required.

There will be no chickens counted at this stage and Armagh won’t get carried away with their recent results but McGonigle and his players deserve enormous credit for these last two performances in particular which have been excellent.

Sunday’s perfect conditions were more akin to what you might get for championship matches compared to some slugfest league game early in the year played on boggy ground and in awful weather, so this victory counted for plenty.

Kerry kicked the opening point of the afternoon but McCoy quickly equalised and Mackin put Armagh ahead in the third minute, rifling over the bar with her weaker right foot after being picked out by a brilliant ball from O’Hanlon.

Niamh Coleman doubled the Orchard lead and then, after O’Hanlon won the Kerry kickout and Kelly Mallon’s shot was deflected for a 45, the visiting goalkeeper spilled a high ball in and O’Hanlon pounced to tuck it away.

Kerry posted the next two points but O’Hanlon deftly found Mackin, who pulled one back, though her score was cancelled out by a free from captain Niamh Carmody towards the end of the first quarter.

Mackin was wide with an ambitious shot from long-range but Armagh soon registered a great team point after fantastic approach play from deep in which O’Hanlon was heavily involved before McCoy darted through to score.

After Carmody was wide with a free, Henderson ran onto Anna Carr’s long kickout and she kept probing before feeding McCoy, who was unceremoniously clattered but Mallon uncharacteristically missed the relatively straightforward free in.

O’Hanlon kicked a long wide after McConville caught the Kerry kickout and the latter dropped an ambitious shot into the keeper’s arms after more good build-up play, but Mackin soon turned her marker and scored with her right foot following another ball from O’Hanlon.

Captain McCambridge won a ball at the back and O’Hanlon found Druse, who fed Mulligan steaming through the middle and the attack led to a monster point from Aimee Mackin out on the right which put six between the teams in the 29th minute.

Kerry got the last score of the half and two more within 65 seconds of play resuming, as Armagh started struggling on their own kickouts, got pinned deep and began living dangerously as the Kingdom attacks came in waves.

McConville dropped another shot into the Kerry keeper’s arms but she did register the only Orchard point in a rocky period during which they conceded a total of 1-5 and had let-offs when two opposition shots rolled just wide.

Clonmore’s Sarah Quigley replaced Mallon just after Kerry went in front and Armagh responded with those points from Doyle, who had won a turnover and taken a return ball from Henderson, and the Clann Eireann skipper herself.

The visitors levelled again just before the introduction of Ni Mhuircheartaigh in the 48th minute but Aimee Mackin had added 1-2 for Armagh before the Kingdom taliswoman had her first effort at goal, which was off target.

The first of those points put Armagh ahead again and the second was an absolutely outrageous score from a really acute angle out on the more difficult left side for a left-footer after wonderful bravery by McConville had secured possession initially.

More riches were to follow when Niamh Coleman won the Kerry kickout, namesake Henderson took over and then McCoy got the ball back from Quigley and went right through before being brought down, which Mackin punished to the full from the penalty spot.

Ni Mhuircheartaigh got on the board with a routine free for Kerry and Anna Galvin kicked a long-range point but a brilliant point-blank save by Carr was followed by McCambridge imposing herself physically in the resulting scramble and Towe hoovering up the loose ball.

The supremely fit O’Hanlon went on one of her long runs from deep before offloading to Niamh Coleman, who sent McCoy running and she gave the ball to Mackin, who produced a lethal left-footed finish to the net from a narrow angle past the onrushing keeper.

McGonigle sent on the experienced Eve Lavery and Carrickcruppen’s Caitriona O’Hagan for Doyle and Henderson, with Megan McCann then taking over from McCoy after Carmody pulled a point back for Kerry following Carr’s initial punched clearance.

Carr needed treatment after crashing into Towe and, when play resumed, O’Hagan made a surging run from her first touch for Armagh this season and then O’Hanlon started taking charge of running down the clock.

Armagh were far from negative though, with corner back Mulligan up injecting pace into an attack which led to a free converted by Mackin, and Armagh had the last word with a lovely left-footed point by Lavery to round off a memorable afternoon.

Newcomer Mulligan has been a great find for Armagh and her clubmate Dearbhla Coleman, previously a peripheral figure who dropped out of the panel last season, is really flourishing under McGonigle as she has done at club level.

This was a superb performance, featuring fine football underpinned by belief and wonderful workrate, as in Ashbourne, but the exciting thing is that you feel there is still much more to come from a talented, driven Armagh team which the whole county should be very proud of.

ARMAGH: A Carr; G Ferguson, C McCambridge (capt), R Mulligan; C Towe, L McConville (0-1), D Coleman; N Coleman (0-1), C O’Hanlon (1-1); E Druse, A McCoy (0-2), C Doyle (0-1); A Mackin (2-6; 1-0pen), N Henderson (0-1), K Mallon.  Subs used: S Quigley for Mallon (42mins), E Lavery (0-1) for Henderson (57), C O’Hagan for Doyle (57), M McCann for McCoy (60).

KERRY: C Butler; E Lynch, D Kearney, F O’Donoghue; A O’Connell, K Cronin, C Lynch; M O’Connell, A Galvin (0-2); N Carmody (capt; 0-3, 1f), N Ni Chochuir, A Harrington; K Brosnan (1-2), E Dineen (0-3), H O’Donoghue (0-2).  Subs used: C O’Brien for F O’Donoghue (ht), D O’Leary for Ni Chonchuir (39), L Ni Mhuircheartaigh (0-1; 1f) for Dineen (47), C Murphy for C Lynch (49), C McCarthy for A O’Connell (56), S Burns for Brosnan (59).

Referee: Maggie Farrelly (Cavan).


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