June 6th, 2024


Richard Bullick

Armagh can draw inspiration from the last two title winners along with provincial club champions Clann Eireann when they take to the Croke Park pitch for the first ladies National League final in Orchard history this weekend.

Gregory McGonigle’s Orchard crew will tackle Kerry in Sunday’s NFL Division One showpiece (3pm, TG4) after topping the table on their return to the top flight following a six-season absence.

Remarkably, if Armagh triumph in this Dublin decider, it will complete a hat-trick of counties coming up from the second division and claiming the top title at the first attempt following in the footsteps of Meath and this weekend’s opponents the past two years.

Sunday’s showdown is a repeat of the 2022 Division Two final in which Kerry narrowly defeated Armagh before going on to lift the first division silverware at headquarters just 12 months later.

The Orchard outfit finally secured promotion by beating Laois last April and have made an immediate impact in Division One, starting with six consecutive victories before fielding an experimental line-up in a heavy home defeat to All Ireland champions Dublin.

Under new manager McGonigle, Armagh got their season underway with a first ever away win against Cork between victories over Waterford and Galway and then hit fresh heights in their next three matches.

They thumped recent All Ireland champions Meath, who had also come that match with a 100 percent record this season, by a double-digit margin in their own Ashbourne backyard before showing real character in inflicting Kerry’s first defeat of the current campaign.

Although Armagh relinquished a five-point interval lead, they came from behind in the second half to record an impressive 3-14 to 1-13 victory against the National League title holders at the Athletic Grounds.

The orangewomen then secured their ticket to Croke Park by digging deep for a first away win against Mayo on St Patrick’s Day courtesy of a wonderful late free from Aimee Mackin on Crossmaglen legend Lauren McConville’s 100th Orchard appearance.

Armagh had led by nine points after playing with the wind behind them in the opening period in Ballina but were pegged back by a fantastic comeback by Mayo and also had to cope with Caroline O’Hanlon being in the sinbin for most of the final quarter.

The iconic O’Hanlon faces a race against time to be fit for Sunday’s NFL final having had to sit out a second consecutive British SuperLeague netball match at the weekend when her Leeds Rhinos side defeated Surrey Storm 64-60 in a Sheffield thriller.

Along with the injured O’Hanlon, McGonigle didn’t risk star forwards Mackin and Aoife McCoy in the last regular league game against Dublin and also left a host of frontliners out of his starting side on an afternoon when Armagh took a 24-point pasting.

By contrast, the All Ireland champions had seven 2023 All Stars in their starting line-up at the Athletic Grounds for a match they needed to win to stay in contention for a place in the final, though those hopes were dashed when Kerry saw off Galway the following day.

McGonigle’s selection was criticised by RTE pundit Nadine Doherty but her words will have been like water off a duck to the experienced campaigner, who has been such an influential factor in the Orchard blossoming this season.

Under McGonigle’s management, Clann Eireann became the first Orchard outfit to reach the ladies Ulster Senior Club Championship final last autumn and that team in orange went on to win the big game.

Now Dungiven native McGonigle has steered the Orchard county team into uncharted territory with this ground-breaking NFL final appearance and the hope will be that they can follow Clann Eireann’s lead by coming away with the silverware.

Orchard captain Clodagh McCambridge may have as many as five Clann Eireann clubmates behind her in the pre-match parade on what will be her 99th Armagh appearance, plus previous skipper Kelly Mallon, who lifted the Division Two trophy last spring.

Armagh ended a seven-match losing streak against Kerry when these teams met in the regular league game a few weeks ago, though 2023 All Ireland Player of the Year Louise Ni Mhuircheartaigh just came off the bench for the Kingdom on that occasion.

As All Ireland finalists the past two seasons along with back-to-back triumphs in National League divisional deciders, Kerry have more experience playing in Croke Park than Armagh but this should be a fascinating contest between well-matched teams.

If Armagh can mark this historic occasion with a trophy triumph, it would be the perfect celebration for inspirational Orchard county chairperson Sinead Reel as Sunday’s NFL final falls on her 45th birthday!