June 6th, 2024


Richard Bullick

Coming from behind to defeat title holders Kerry in their maiden Division One showpiece at Croke Park this month saw Armagh make history as the first county from Northern Ireland ever to be crowned National League Division One champions.

Northern Ireland isn’t regarded as a natural unit in the context of gaelic games but, ironically, their corporate partnership with National League sponsors Lidl has meant the LGFA having to operate some schemes separately for this geographic jurisdiction in recent years.

The Orchard’s historic triumph was also a first for Armagh gaffer Gregory McGonigle, who had been on the losing side on his five previous visits to GAA headquarters as a manager, suffering two All Ireland final defeats there with Monaghan and two as Dublin boss.

McGonigle actually managed the only Ulster team to have won the National League title this century, masterminding Monaghan’s Division One win in 2012, but their final against Cork back then was in nearby Parnell Park rather than the showcase stadium.

The Dungiven native was understandably delighted to ‘get that monkey off my back’ but also for his players, who had topped the table on their return to the NFL’s top flight after a six-season absence and now have silverware to show for their efforts.

This was a second ground-breaking success which McGonigle has presided over in the past six months, having also been at the helm last autumn when Clann Eireann became the first team from the Orchard county to reach the ladies Ulster Senior Club Championship final.

Just getting there wasn’t enough for either team as both went on to claim the silverware on offer, with six Clann Eireann players also in the Armagh starting side in Croke Park plus Meabh McCambridge came off the bench and Megan McCann was an unused sub.

But the most significant common denominator between the two teams has been manager McGonigle and this experienced campaigner unquestionably boosts belief in his players and knows how to get the best out of the talent available.

New Orchard captain Clodagh McCambridge, who started with six consecutive victories as skipper and delivered a superb, unscripted speech on the presentation platform in the Hogan Stand after her eighth game, readily acknowledges the McGonigle factor.

“Greg just tells you how it is.  He has a lot of confidence in his players and I think that belief has fed into us.  We talked about the final beforehand and didn’t shy away from the fact that we believed we could win it,” she mused when asked about his qualities.

“There’s no point in not addressing that, that is something that we were always trying to get to, and I think that is the belief he has instilled in us.  It’s a different approach to the way we had it before and he sets really high standards which we are trying to get to.”

The immaculate McCambridge has arguably been the best full back in Ireland over recent seasons so her nightmare moment which handed Kerry a goal just after half-time could have rocked confidence, but she credits McGonigle with having equipped her to cope.

“We’d spoken about how Kerry would come out at the start of the second half and press us really aggressively, and they did.  I made a mistake but, as Greg says, you can either go into your shell or you can push on,” reflected Clodagh.

“You just have to push on and we were lucky that going forward we were able to get our own second goal as well to balance it out.  Getting some setbacks in a big game is inevitable so it’s about how you respond and I’m proud of how well we pushed on.”

Having gone from three up to three down in a few minutes either side of the interval, Armagh responded by posting an unanswered 1-6 and subsequently saw the game out for a deserved victory in the spring sunshine on a 2-12 to 2-9 scoreline.

“It was a great game of football and I’m just glad to come out on the right side of it.  Both teams tried to expose each other and had good attacking shape, but the defences did well too and I think that’s testament to the calibre of the sides involved,” reflected McGonigle.

“That first half was relatively low scoring, though Kerry were creating chances and so were we.  We weren’t unhappy as such with our performance in that opening period but did feel that it was our own mistakes which were helping keep Kerry in the game.

“At half-time we talked about being more ruthless, bringing more energy, and we also made a couple of little tweaks, including Lauren McConville moving a little to the left to get her on the ball more.  Players like Emily Druse emptied themselves and subs brought fresh legs.

“Caroline O’Hanlon and other players spoke up at half-time and we’ve a good management team too who chipped in with useful contributions.  We talked about (the injured) Niamh Coleman – was she going to be coming out of hospital with a trophy to look forward to?

“It’s our first competition out of three this season and we wanted to be brave and just go for it in that second half.  Everyone was on the same page with that, management and players alike.  Kerry got that early goal but the girls responded how we would have wanted them to.

“We’ve talked about how opposition are probably going to have purple patches or you’re going to make mistakes, so we say it’s always about reaction and responding in the right way rather than going into ourselves.

“With regards to trying to get back up and get a score as soon as we can, we reacted very well to conceding that goal by getting a couple of points almost straight away and then pushed on.  It’s a good win which we’ll enjoy over the next couple of days before refocusing.

“From a defensive point of view, we’d be happy with where we are at, but we could possibly have been a little bit more clinical up front.  We maybe left a couple of chances behind, but it’s a great place to be in early April and now we’ve the chance to get a block of work done.

“The players will go back to their clubs now for a couple of league games at the start of the new domestic season and then come back ready to go for the championship period,” said McGonigle, who will double up by continuing as Clann Eireann manager.

Nobody is more aware that National League success doesn’t guarantee anything come Championship than McGonigle – the year he led Monaghan to the Division One title was the only one of his last six seasons as a county manager which didn’t end in an All Ireland final!

“Monaghan got to the All Ireland final in 2011 and again in 2013, but when we won the league in 2012 we didn’t kick on – Cork knocked us out with a nine-point winning margin in Birr, so although this is historic for Armagh we won’t get carried away.

“There’s plenty more work to do obviously but a lot to build upon ahead of the Ulster final and then the All Ireland series.  The reason I came into Armagh was because I knew what talent was there and that is being matched by excellent commitment too.”

McGonigle was as delighted with the hunger shown by Aimee Mackin in working back to win a great turnover against Anna Galvin as he was by the fantastic scores which have come to be expected from Armagh’s marquee forward.

He revealed that the captain’s younger sister Meabh McCambridge, who made her first Armagh appearance as a sub in the closing stages, the 34th Orchard player to get game-time this season, had actually come close to making the starting team.

By contrast, Caroline O’Hanlon has been wearing the orange jersey since 2002 and McGonigle admitted there was concern when he heard she had come off after just 15 minutes of her British SuperLeague netball match for Leeds Rhinos on the Friday night.

“Caroline will probably be in bits tomorrow after playing the full hour here but I was adamant she was staying on.  This is her 23rd season with Armagh, and she has never played in a Division One final until now so she wanted to make the chance count.”

Armagh hope to have the formidable Blaithin Mackin back for the Ulster final against holders Donegal on May 19 while McGonigle also acknowledged the value of having his Clann Eireann club captain Niamh Henderson back in county colours after a nine-year absence.

“If we wanted to get someone like Niamh back in, the environment had to be right for her.  She has a young son, Noah, and when we went to play Mayo last month, he travelled down with the team,” explained a manager who has a good understanding of each individual.


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