June 6th, 2024



Richard Bullick at Croke Park

When Armagh gave away a calamitous goal in the third minute of the second half following Kerry’s three points in a row at the end of the opening period, it felt like a considerable blow to Orchard hopes of marking their first ever National League final with silverware.

But top teams deal well with the setbacks which can happen anybody even in the biggest games and, from three down, Armagh responded superbly by hitting 1-6 without reply in a stunning 12-minute purple patch to take control of Sunday’s showpiece in Croke Park.

All but two points of that haul came from ace markswoman Aimee Mackin, including a blistering left-footed finish to the top corner of the Kerry net from a pass by former skipper Kelly Mallon, who notched up five points of her own including a hat-trick of frees.

Mallon’s other two scores came from acute angles, one threaded through the eye of a needle, on an afternoon when stalwart Aoife McCoy, Clann Eireann captain Niamh Henderson and sub Corinna Doyle also got on the board for Gregory McGonigle’s side.

The hugely experienced new Armagh manager has given his team enhanced belief but also a real licence to play in supplementing the underpinning gameplan, and they produced some wonderful football in the sunshine on an unforgettable afternoon at headquarters.

There was an inspired Player of the Match performance from Crossmaglen legend Lauren McConville, who was simply magnificent in both defence and attack, combining crucial interventions with thrilling forays forward.

While there was some wasteful finishing from Kerry, Armagh had at least two more goal chances with both McConville and Henderson hitting the keeper from point-blank range and the two Kingdom majors were fairly soft if truth be told.

The first had been rifled to the net after Armagh goalkeeper Anna Carr couldn’t hold a dropping long-range free from the prolific Louise Ni Mhuircheartaigh and the second came from a misplaced ball at the back by Orchard captain Clodagh McCambridge.

But McCambridge kept her head up and finished the afternoon being joined on the field by younger sibling Meabh, who made her first Armagh appearance in the closing stages, before delivering an accomplished speech as the orange and white flags were waved wildly.

Among those watching with pride was the new GAA President Jarlath Burns, one of whose aims in office will be presiding over the integration of the four gaelic games codes, and his home county certainly showed ladies football in its best light here.

Meanwhile, it was a special Sunday for his Silverbridge club colleague, and a possible first female President of the GAA in the future, Sinead Reel, as this historic success came on the hard-working Orchard chairperson’s 45th birthday.

There was a big hug afterwards from Burns for the iconic Caroline O’Hanlon, whom he had worked with way back in the autumn of 2006 when managing Ireland in the inaugural, one-off International Rules series against Australia.

O’Hanlon had played in the Orchard’s sole All Ireland final appearance a few weeks earlier and, now in her 23rd season, Armagh’s greatest ever female footballer is still dreaming of getting back to the sport’s biggest game and claiming that top prize.

Despite only lasting the first 15 minutes on her return from injury in an away win for Leeds Rhinos against Team Bath in netball’s British SuperLeague on Friday night, the evergreen 39-year-old somehow managed to be on the field for the full hour here.

Her experienced, composed presence was invaluable, especially with Armagh having lost her fellow midfielder Niamh Coleman after a big collision before half-time, while Blaithin Mackin remains sidelined by injury and rugby convert Niamh Marley is no longer around.

Coleman had palmed home an Armagh goal midway through the first half after Aimee Mackin rattled the Kerry crossbar, putting the Orchard ahead again six minutes after being rocked by Lorraine Scanlon raising a green flag for the Kingdom.

Despite marquee forward Mackin’s couple of wides in the first two minutes, Armagh had twice led early on courtesy of a free from Mallon and a tasty point by Dromintee dynamo McCoy either side of Ni Mhuircheartaigh’s first set-piece conversion.

Carr had been called upon to make a couple of saves ahead of the Kingdom goal and a second free from Mallon halved the deficit shortly before that goal by Niamh Coleman, whose younger sister Dearbhla had the game of her life.

Armagh produced several scintillating attacks without reward early in the second quarter, one after a brilliant turnover by McConville, followed by a Henderson wide from play and Mallon being off-target with a towering free.

But Mallon split the posts from an almost impossible angle in the 23rd minute not long before Armagh lost the elder Coleman sister, who was replaced by Clonmore’s Sarah Quigley after a lengthy stoppage.

The 2023 All Ireland Player of the Year Ni Mhuircheartaigh reduced the arrears with a point, followed by a free and she added a straightforward free from the 21-yard line when Carr was penalised for taking too long over the resulting kickout.

So Kerry would have felt the happier going in level at 1-4 apiece and disaster struck Armagh not long after the resumption when McCambridge played a wild ball back across her own goal and Niamh Ni Chonchuir took full advantage of the uncharacteristic lapse.

It was a nightmare moment but Armagh hit back right away with two scores in as many minutes, another fine point from Mallon and a successful free by Mackin, who then produced a towering strike which had to be ruled out by the Hawk-Eye technology.

But Henderson, just recently returned to Orchard duty after a nine-year absence, equalised with a typically composed point and Mackin put them ahead again with Armagh’s fourth score in a five-minute purple patch.

Manager McGonigle afterwards declared himself equally impressed with the hunger shown by Mackin to get back and wrap up on opponent out on the sideline near halfway forcing a turnover shortly before her stunning goal.

O’Hanlon found the ever-energetic Emily Druse from the resulting free and, although her ball into the right corner for Harps clubmate Mallon was too heavy, the former Orchard captain was still out there after Armagh won the long Kerry kickout.

She played the ball across perfectly for Mackin, who evaded two defenders and unleashed an unstoppable shot high into the net at the Hill 16 end before adding a free after Mallon won the Kerry kickout and Henderson had a shot well saved by Mary-Ellen Bolger.

Armagh had now plundered 1-5 in eight magical minutes and Cait Towe mopped up brilliantly at the other end to avert danger as Kerry, who had begun making substitutions, tried in vain to break the scoring sequence.

Mackin kicked a very long wide and Kerry attacked well from the restart but the diminutive McConville somehow won a ball in the air and O’Hanlon released young Roisin Mulligan, Armagh’s find of the season, on a glorious run right up the middle of the pitch.

That led to a superlative point from Mackin which put Armagh a barely believable two goals clear and, although Ni Mhuircheartaigh replied with one of her half dozen frees, O’Hanlon was applying increasing control for the Orchard, both on and off the ball.

The industrious Druse gave way to Granemore dual star Doyle, who had been named in the published starting line-up but was replaced before throw-in by Shane O’Neills skipper Louise Kenny, and Ni Mhuircheartaigh kicked another free after a foul by O’Hanlon.

McConville made a stunning 60-metre run and then shot at the keeper moments later and Kerry broke away at pace for the only point of the afternoon from Hannah O’Donoghue, Armagh’s tormentor as a rising star in the 2017 All Ireland quarter-final.

O’Hanlon again controlled the tempo before a burst by Ballyhegan’s Grace Ferguson, irrepressible as always, led to Mallon landing a free from distance to give Armagh a little more scoreboard comfort.

But Ciara Murphy pulled that score back by pointing for Kerry with six minutes still remaining on the stop-clock and Mackin couldn’t split the posts from long-range again so the outcome remaining firmly in the melting pot.

However, O’Hanlon did brilliantly when initially appearing bottled up in defence after McConville cut out an opposition ball and Armagh got on the attack again with Doyle edging them four clear.

Meabh McCambridge came on for her debut in place of Kenny, McCoy gave way to her Dromintee clubmate Shauna Grey and another experienced player, Ballyhegan’s Eve Lavery, replaced Mallon just after Ni Mhuircheartaigh’s final free of the day.

Armagh began playing the ball around among themselves as time ticked away but they were well inside opposition territory by the time the Orchard followers loudly began the official countdown before the hooter went and the celebrations began in earnest.

This was such a special day for Armagh, who have followed in the footsteps of Meath and Kerry the past two seasons by winning the top title the year after being promoted from Division Two, but hopes are high that this won’t be this team’s last big day in Croke Park.

They’ve an excellent core contingent of players at the peak of their powers, supplemented by youth and experience, while heavyweight manager McGonigle has cultivated invaluable unity in his squad by giving 34 players game-time during this successful campaign.

Armagh’s attention now turns to the Ulster Senior Championship showpiece in Clones on May 19 and the opportunity to reclaim the provincial crown from Donegal, who dashed Orchard hopes of four title triumphs in a row with victory at Owenbeg last spring.

ARMAGH: A Carr; G Ferguson, C McCambridge (capt), R Mulligan; C Towe, L McConville, D Coleman; N Coleman (1-0), C O’Hanlon; E Druse, A McCoy (0-1), L Kenny; A Mackin (1-4; 1f), N Henderson (0-1), K Mallon (1-5; 3f).  Subs used: S Quigley for N Coleman (24mins), C Doyle (0-1) for Druse (49), M McCambridge for Kenny (57), S Grey for McCoy (58), E Lavery for Mallon (59).

KERRY: ME Bolger; C Lynch, D Kearney, E Lynch; A O’Connell, C Murphy (0-1), K Cronin; M O’Connell, A Galvin; N Carmody, N Ni Chonchuir (1-0), L Scanlon (1-0); H O’Donoghue (0-1), E Dineen, L Ni Mhuircheartaigh (0-7; 6f).  Subs used: D O’Leary for Ni Chonchuir (39), C O’Brien for Kearney (39), A Harrington for Scanlon (44), K Brosnan for O’Donoghue (57).

Referee: Gus Chapman (Sligo).


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