June 6th, 2024


ARMAGH 0-17 DONEGAL 1-13 (aet)

Richard Bullick at Clones

Armagh are Ulster champions once again after reclaiming the provincial crown from Donegal thanks to a free by sub Niamh Reel a minute from the end of extra-time which decided the sixth showpiece between these counties in the last seven seasons.

This was Armagh’s seventh consecutive Ulster final appearance but the first in a decade for Clann Eireann captain Niamh Henderson, who kicked three points from play and picked up the Player of the Match award.

Caroline O’Hanlon’s then teenage midfield partner in the famous upset of champions Monaghan in the 2014 Clones showpiece captained Clann Eireann to an historic Ulster Club title triumph under Greg McGonigle last November.

Wearing his new hat as Armagh manager, McGonigle persuaded Henderson to return to county football after a nine-year absence and she played an important part for a team captained by her clubmate Clodagh McCambridge.

Clann Eireann sisters Niamh and Dearbhla Coleman were among an astonishing 11 scorers for Armagh on a day when they lost star forward Aimee Mackin to injury in the second half of the Ulster final for a second consecutive year.

Mackin had kicked three points, two of them from frees, in a somewhat soporific first half as favourites Armagh went in with a 0-6 to 0-5 interval lead and the contest didn’t really catch fire for most of the second period either until that dramatic conclusion.

Recently crowned National League champions for the first time in their history, Armagh looked to have done enough for victory as they led by four points going into the last couple of minutes at St Tiernach’s Park.

But former skipper Katy Herron lashed home a great goal to give Donegal a late lifeline and top-scorer Susanne White brought the teams level with a monster free in a mirror image of what had had happened in the corresponding game two years ago.

Back then, Donegal had led by four points very near the end but a cracking goal by Aimee Mackin was followed by the then skipper Kelly Mallon equalising with a last-kick free from long range for Armagh.

On that occasion, Mallon slammed home the winning goal in the last half-minute of extra-time but here the Harps forward – who had scored two points – had been replaced by Shauna Grey just before the Donegal goal as Armagh sought to hold what they had.

With Sunday’s contest seemingly set for a shootout of free-kicks, Mallon was about to be brought back on as the clock ticked down at the end of extra-time, but was still standing on the sideline when Aoife McCoy was caught under the chin as she darted forward.

So the responsibility of taking what may have appeared a relatively straightforward free, but with a lot of accompanying pressure, fell to Reel, who had just been introduced in place of Cait Towe moments before.

But the Silverbridge forward, who has probably been unlucky not to get more game-time for Armagh in the past couple of years, split the posts and the final whistle went a minute later after a Donegal 45 came to nothing.

A week on from the Armagh men relinquishing a four-point lead against Donegal in their Ulster final in the same stadium before going on to lose a penalty shootout, there were happy scenes of Orchard celebration in Clones this time.

Although Armagh had come into Sunday’s decider as firm favourites against a Donegal team which had failed to bounce back at the first attempt following relegation to Division Two, this wasn’t a dominant display from McGonigle’s side.

Unlike champions Dublin demolishing Meath to win yet another Leinster title the previous Sunday, the Orchard didn’t embellish their credentials as All Ireland contenders here on a weekend when Kerry saw off faded force Cork in the Munster showpiece.

However, the orangewomen will go into next month’s All Ireland series as top seeds in a group which also includes their former manager Shane McCormack’s Meath and Tipperary with two trophies in the cabinet this season so far.

The luckless Louise Kenny had her arm in a sling after being forced off in the first quarter, while there will also be injury concerns over the Mackin sisters with Aimee limping off and Blaithin taking no part on Sunday despite togging out for the first time this season.

McGonigle went with an unchanged starting team from the NFL final in Croke Park after dual star O’Hanlon came through her British SuperLeague netball match for Leeds Rhinos on Friday night unscathed.

Despite the baking heat, the 39-year-old legend was on the field throughout on Sunday, just as she had been for every minute of Armagh’s first nine Ulster finals before missing last season’s having stepped away from the panel following the National League.

At the other end of the age scale, this was a first Ulster final for newcomer Roisin Mulligan while the win was sweet for fellow young gun Emily Druse after the bitter taste of Ulster final defeat on her 20th birthday last May.

When Armagh won that 2014 final, McCoy and a 19-year-old Lauren McConville were the exciting fresh faces and these two wonderful stalwarts remain fiercely committed to the Orchard cause a decade on.

Armagh had six of the same starters from the win 10 years ago in O’Hanlon, Mallon, McConville, McCoy, Henderson and Kenny, while several more of the present panel were on the bench that memorable day when the Orchard ended seven years of famine.

National League final Player of the Match McConville has subsequently been honoured with All Ireland Player of the Month awards for April by both the GPA and LGFA as well as being one of seven Armagh representatives named in the NFL Team of Division One.

With Donegal defending deep, the Orchard centre half back had fewer opportunities than usual on Sunday to make those swashbuckling breaks we have become accustomed to and there weren’t many of those monster turnovers she specialises in either.

But big players find a way to make their mark and it was McConville who burst forward to bring Armagh level again with a great point midway through the second period of extra-time after two Donegal scores had sandwiched one by Orchard corner back Grace Ferguson.

Just before Ferguson’s point, Armagh had a goal rightly disallowed when sub Corinna Doyle, who came on in the second half for Druse, stepped over the endline in catching a high ball launched in by Henderson before swivelling and finishing to the net from an acute angle.

Henderson had twice put Armagh ahead in the first period of extra-time, the second after a nice catch of Carr’s kickout by sub Meabh McCambridge, but both her points from play were cancelled out by White frees.

At the start of the afternoon, Mackin kicked a wide with just 24 seconds gone after O’Hanlon had won the throw-in but the Shane O’Neills star matched White’s first free with a point from long-range in the fifth minute.

Mackin converted two frees either side of a White point from play and then O’Hanlon raised a white flag in the 11th minute following nice interplay between her and McCoy just before Kenny had to be replaced by Sarah Quigley following a lengthy stoppage.

Mallon pushed a free wide but she scored with her next attempt after captain Niamh McLaughlin had halved Donegal’s deficit, though Amy Boyle Carr responded straight away and White soon landed an equalising free.

Clonmore’s Quigley gave Armagh their interval lead and, although it took a stop on the line by Towe behind the beaten Carr to prevent a Donegal goal right at the start of the second half, the gap grew to four points by the 43rd minute.

Niamh Coleman fisted over the bar, McCoy nipped through for a trademark score and Mackin got what would prove her last point of the game while Donegal spurned some chances at the other end.

Mackin pulled a straightforward free wide midway through the half and she soon had to leave the field injured after getting hurt in a collision as Armagh tried to respond to a Donegal point by sub Eva Gallagher.

She was replaced by Meabh McCambridge and two scores from White reduced the arrears to one but Armagh replied promptly with a superb point from Mallon and actually went four up in old-fashioned injury-time.

Henderson rounded off a nice attack by fisting over and Dearbhla Coleman potted a point effortlessly from long range, though Niamh Carr had scuffed a great goal chance for Donegal in between.

But just as it looked like what had been a fairly forgettable final up until then was drifting to its predicted conclusion, the underdogs struck with 1-1 and might even have won it with a free right at the death but didn’t go for the posts from an acute angle wide on the right.

The teams were still level after the first period of extra-time, with Eve Lavery replacing Quigley ahead of the second, and the Orchard outfit found themselves trailing twice but got over the line in the end thanks to those scores from Ferguson, McConville and Reel.

This wasn’t Armagh’s most accomplished performance of what has been a superb season so far, but they showed character in salvaging victory from a game they were expected to win but could easily have lost, and there is much more to come from this fantastic team.

ARMAGH: A Carr; G Ferguson (0-1), C McCambridge (capt), R Mulligan; C Towe, L McConville (0-1), D Coleman (0-1); N Coleman (0-1), C O’Hanlon (0-1); E Druse, A McCoy (0-1), L Kenny; A Mackin (0-4; 2f), N Henderson (0-3), K Mallon (0-2; 1f).  Subs used: S Quigley (0-1) for Kenny (11mins), M McCambridge for Mackin (45), C Doyle for Druse (50), S Grey for Mallon (58), E Lavery for Quigley (ht et), N Reel (0-1; 1f) for Towe (78), Mallon for D Coleman (79).

DONEGAL: C Friel; S McLaughlin, A Temple-Asoko, E McGinley; K Dowds, N Boyle, T Hegarty; R Rodgers, N Carr; C Keon, N McLaughlin (capt; 0-1), A Boyle Carr (0-1); S White (0-9; 5f), K Herron (1-0), K Long.  Subs used: E Gallagher (0-1) for Long (43), L Cunningham for Carr (58), J McFadden for Keon (58), K O’Donnell for Rodgers (58), Carr for O’Donnell (ht et), R Rodgers for Herron (75).

Referee: Eddie Cuthbert (Down).

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