June 6th, 2024


Richard Bullick

Bitter rivals Armagh and Donegal will contest ladies gaelic’s Ulster final for the sixth time in seven seasons when they clash in this Sunday’s decider at St Tiernach’s Park in Clones (3.30pm) a week after the corresponding men’s match between the counties.

This is Armagh’s seventh consecutive Ulster Senior Championship showpiece and, if the Orchard crew can reclaim the provincial crown from Donegal, it will be the seventh time in history that they have won the trophy.

Armagh suffered a nightmare 28-point pasting in Brewster Park in 2018 after reaching the Ulster final for the first time in four years and a disastrous start scuppered Orchard hopes of a revenge victory in Clones the following season.

Donegal opted out of the provincial championship in the pandemic-delayed campaign of 2020, stupidly putting all their eggs in the All Ireland basket, and Armagh won the Ulster title by beating Monaghan in a mid-December decider.

Part of the reason there is so little love lost between these teams is that Donegal made no attempt to disguise the fact they didn’t regard Armagh as legitimate provincial champions given that the holders hadn’t taken part in the competition.

So it was very satisfying for Armagh when they held on to defeat Donegal on a wet August afternoon in the 2021 Ulster final at Omagh’s Healy Park and the Orchard retained their crown after a thrilling game in Clones the following May.

Skipper Kelly Mallon followed up a cracking Aimee Mackin goal by landing an equalising free from long range with the last kick of the regulation hour and then netted a match-winning goal in the last half minute of extra-time.

That completed a hat-trick of Ulster title triumphs for the women in orange but Donegal turned the tables in the following season’s showpiece at Owenbeg when they won narrowly to stop Armagh making it four in a row.

Having comfortably beaten Donegal in an earlier group game, the orangewomen went into last year’s final as favourites but they failed to take advantage of having the breeze behind them in the opening period and O’Hanlon’s controlling influence was badly missed.

It emerged afterwards that there had been considerable disruption in the Orchard camp the morning of the match and Armagh also suffered a big blow when they lost ace markswoman Mackin to injury in the second half.

Not for the first time, Donegal manager Maxi Curran had a surprise up his sleeve, with the hitherto absent Niamh Hegarty parachuted into the team at the last minute for her first appearance of the season, and she was a significant factor in her team’s victory.

But arguably Armagh’s biggest problem was that they went into that Owenbeg game not sufficiently battle-hardened after cruising through their NFL Division Two campaign with eight wins from eight matches culminating in victory over Laois in the final in Croke Park.

There’s a saying that you can have a plan until you’re punched in the face, and Armagh hadn’t been challenged enough whereas Donegal had faced all of the country’s top teams over the previous few months albeit being relegated from Division One in the process.

With the teams swapping places for this season’s National League, the boot is on the other foot this time with the Orchard outfit famously winning Division One last month and Donegal not even making the second division decider.

However, being a league level below their opponents didn’t stop the orangewomen winning at Healy Park in 2021 or this weekend’s venue a year later so Armagh won’t be taking anything for granted as they target a second trophy of the current campaign.

Familiarity has arguably bred contempt more than mutual respect between these teams over recent years, though both have new managers now with Curran finally leaving the Donegal job and Greg McGonigle at the Orchard helm.

Having steered Clann Eireann to Ulster Senior Championship success at club level last autumn, McGonigle will want to repeat the feat with another team in orange featuring a significant contingent of the same players.

This will be a first Ulster final for a decade for Clann Eireann captain Niamh Henderson, who partnered Caroline O’Hanlon in midfield as a teenager when the then unfancied Orchard outfit famously upset reigning champions Monaghan in the 2014 Clones showpiece.

Sunday’s decider will be a new experience for Henderson’s young clubmate Roisin Mulligan but she shouldn’t lack confidence having already been on the winning team in the NFL final in Croke Park along with being part of that historic success for Clann Eireann.

If McGonigle’s women win it will mean a second trophy lift as Orchard captain for Clodagh McCambridge, who actually made her 100th start for Armagh in the National League final, a milestone which went unnoticed at the time.

The skipper’s sister Meabh McCambridge made her first Orchard appearance in the closing stages against Kerry in Croke Park and, judging by McGonigle’s remarks afterwards, she is someone who will be pushing for a starting spot moving forward.

It remains to be seen whether Blaithin Mackin is able to feature for the first time this season, having been sidelined up until now by injury, but even if she isn’t ready yet, McGonigle should be selecting from a position of strength.

Experienced pair Shauna Grey and Louise Kenny were back in action in time to feature as subs in the NFL final while previous regular Eve Lavery and Clonmore’s Sarah Quigley just came off the bench that day too along with Meabh McCambridge.

As on that occasion, there will be fierce competition within the Orchard’s largest ever panel even to make Armagh’s matchday squad of 30 never mind coveted starting spots, but these are positive selection headaches.

Armagh’s regular goalkeeper Anna Carr sadly lost her dad last week so it remains to be seen whether she will line out in Clones but Brianna Mathers is a capable understudy in required behind an Orchard defence anchored by McCambridge and Lauren McConville.

McConville was a worthy winner of the Player of the Match award in the National League final but her attacking capacity was significantly curtailed in last May’s Ulster showpiece by having to mark Hegarty and Armagh missed those hugely effective forays forward.

Donegal will look to captain Niamh McLaughlin, the 2022 All Ireland Player of the Year and Player of the Match in last season’s Ulster final, while forward Susanne White and young defender Abigail Temple-Asokuh also made the NFL Team of Division Two last month.

Fermanagh meet Derry in the straight Junior Championship final in Augher on Saturday (2pm) and the Intermediate decider between Down, who have beaten Cavan and Antrim to get there, and Tyrone’s conquerors Monaghan will take place in Clones on Sunday (1pm).

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