June 6th, 2024


Richard Bullick

Armagh have managed to reach their first ever National League showpiece while giving game-time to no fewer than 33 members of their panel, which suggests that developing players and getting results don’t need to be mutually exclusive objectives.

There have been seven Orchard debutants so far this season, five of whom are among nine players to get their first start for Armagh in 2024, and a total of 27 players have been in the run-on line-up at least once.

Admittedly, those statistics were bolstered considerably by the Orchard outfit fielding a very experimental line-up in their last regular league game against Dublin, but by then gaffer Greg McGonigle had the latitude to make wholesale changes and mass substitutions.

That was because Armagh had already secured their ticket to Croke Park for Sunday’s historic showdown with Kerry (3pm, TG4) thanks to recording six consecutive victories on their return to the top flight after a six-season absence.

New manager McGonigle had fielded a fairly settled side through the earlier rounds of the league as Armagh firstly sought to consolidate their first division status, especially with two teams to be relegated this year compared to only one in previous seasons.

So picking up precious points in the early rounds of fixtures was essential and Armagh got off to a strong start with a first ever away win against Cork sandwiched between home victories over Waterford and Galway.

That insulated newly-promoted Armagh from fears of relegation but, rather than take their foot off the pedal, McGonigle’s side found further gears with impressive victories over the last two teams to win the National League title.

They defeated recent All Ireland champions Meath, who under last season’s Armagh manager Shane McCormack had come into the match with a 100 percent record, by a double-digit margin in their own Ashbourne backyard.

Armagh then ended a seven-game losing streak against Kerry by inflicting a first defeat of the season on the current National League title holders, relinquishing a five-point interval lead and falling behind briefly before finishing strongly to win by seven.

That left the women in orange needing just a point from their last two matches to guarantee a place in a first showpiece, but a last-gasp first away win against Mayo on St Patrick’s Day also secured top spot in the final table.

The visitors were nine ahead at half-time after playing with the wind at their backs but Mayo twice drew level against an Armagh team missing the sinbinned Caroline O’Hanlon only for ace markswoman Aimee Mackin to snatch victory with a wonderful free at the end.

With the ticket to Croke Park in the bag, McGonigle made nine changes to his starting team for the home match against Dublin, fielding just five first choice players from the off and making a dozen substitutions on the day, six of them at half-time.

One of the three Orchard debutants was among five players making their first starts for Armagh whereas Dublin had 11 of the same starters from last August’s All Ireland final win in a side featuring a magnificent seven 2023 All Stars.

The line-ups were starkly imbalanced and conceding three goals in the opening six minutes set the tone for a chastening afternoon for Armagh during which they didn’t raise a white flag from play and former skipper Kelly Mallon scored their entire tally in a 7-10 to 1-4 defeat.

In contrast to the day they beat Kerry in glorious sunshine on the same pitch, the hosts didn’t linger in the rain after the final whistle and this match won’t last long in Armagh memories, though it did have value and significance for McGonigle and some players.

McGonigle’s first defeat since returning to the Orchard helm may have been by a very emphatic margin against the county he took to three All Ireland finals last decade but this was still a useful exercise for the Armagh manager.

Having qualified for the final with that great run, Armagh had nothing to prove and there was little to gain from going toe-to-toe with a Dublin team needing a win to keep alive their hopes of a place in the first division showpiece.

With timeless taliswoman O’Hanlon ruled out by injury and another key player Aoife McCoy carrying a niggle, the orangewomen would have had a difficult fight on their hands to win so it was a pragmatic move not to put all the eggs in that basket for no good reason.

Armagh’s approach was clear with the announcement of a very understrength team which would have caused some consternation at the LGFA considering this was the sport’s showcase televised match of the round.

McGonigle acknowledged in his pre-match interview with TG4 that the scenario wasn’t ideal for the broadcaster but was justifiably unapologetic about his selection and Dublin boss Mick Bohan backed his counterpart’s right to send out whatever line-up he wanted.

As in previous seasons, Dublin had mixed and matched in selection terms at the outset of the league after being crowned All Ireland champions the year before, whereas Armagh rightly went hard from the off on their return to Division One.

They put their best foot forward with strong selections and relatively few subs used until late in games and that approach paid off in terms of the results which have led to what will be an historic first for the Orchard outfit this Sunday.

However, with Armagh having their biggest panel ever and McGonigle getting good buy-in in terms of commitment, there was an understandable desire to reward some relatively peripheral players with coveted game-time in the orange jersey.

The unfamiliar line-up put out in the final fixture wasn’t about disrespecting Dublin, devaluing the competition or even as much a case of playing cat-and-mouse or keeping powder dry as it was about squad development and player management in several regards.

Apart from McCoy and O’Hanlon’s absence, McGonigle pointed out that his hefty Clann Eireann contingent were due a break after their historic club campaign of last season which ran until the start of December, a few weeks before the National League began.

Captain Clodagh McCambridge played every minute, as she always does, against Dublin but four club colleagues who normally start just came off the bench here while Cait Towe, like star forward Mackin and Eve Lavery, was an unused sub.

The other side of the equation was taking what will, with the National League final followed by May’s straight Ulster Senior Championship showpiece against Donegal and then the All Ireland series, be the last opportunity this season to give game-time to fringe players.

Some of that is investing in potential stars of the future by giving them valuable early experience, part is seeing who might be capable of adding to the actual capacity this season and also firming up pecking orders in terms of the bench for big games ahead.

As with the Ireland men’s rugby set-up, the Armagh ladies gaelic team is operating at a really high level at present so precious chances must be grabbed and any not taken could prove very costly for the individuals involved such are the harsh realities of elite level sport.

It’s tough trying to prove yourself in an understrength side against the All Ireland champions, who have more to play for as a team on the day, but that’s how the cookie crumbles sometimes and McGonigle was very keen to see who would put their hand up.

Any manager wants more options, squad depth to help cope with inevitable injuries and increased competition for places even if that means positive selection headaches and difficult conversations.

It was far from ideal having to throw so many of his relatively unproven players in together against such strong opposition but the Orchard head honcho was willing to take the hit of a potentially heavy defeat for the sake of bigger picture considerations.

In perhaps the most impressive interview by an Armagh manager your correspondent can recall in many years reporting on this team, McGonigle comfortably opined on a range of topics in the tunnel for fully 15 minutes after the game.

As a competitive person, the ugly scoreline would have rankled a bit but there is no sense of insecurity with experienced campaigner McGonigle, who wasn’t defensive or ruffled but cogent and assured as he talked to the small press pack.

The Orchard boss spoke candidly about his strategy for this last league game and overall approach to the current campaign, explained the rational thinking behind his selection and described it as a proud day for the debutants and their families.

McGonigle reflected on his time as Dublin boss, and subsequently being attached to their performance pathway, but also mused on how Armagh are one of the best supported counties in gaelic football and his desire for that to translate across to the ladies side.

He welcomed the fact that his team had got to play three league games at Orchard headquarters, praised county chairperson Sinead Reel and hailed O’Hanlon as Armagh’s ‘greatest ever’ female player and Mackin as ‘one of the best forwards in Ireland at present’.

As well as giving an injury update, including on long-term absentee Blaithin Mackin, McGonigle looked towards the historic Croke Park showpiece and name-checked a list of Armagh greats who had never got the chance to play in an NFL Division One final.

Had Armagh and Dublin been meeting again in the league final two weeks later, there might have been some hangover effect from the 24-point pasting, but it was always likely Kerry would come through to be the Orchard’s opponents and so it proved.

None of that stopped RTE pundit, former Donegal player Nadine Doherty, from being critical of McGonigle’s approach on the basis of her assertion that the fringe players used are unlikely to feature for Armagh in championship matches this season.

Realistically, some of those who lined out against Dublin may never take the field for Armagh again, but that doesn’t invalidate McGonigle’s selection strategy and some other assumptions made by Doherty on RTE radio were questionable or expressed poorly.

McGonigle is grateful for the effort of those less-heralded squad members who have given significant commitment over recent months and whose presence in an expanded panel has facilitated useful in-house training games.

With tough games every week in Division One, there wasn’t much room to manoeuvre earlier in the campaign without jeopardising results and McGonigle was right to prioritise winning when Armagh had something tangible to play for.

One recalls the stupidly premature substitutions made by a previous regime against Tyrone in 2020, which contributed to that Orchard defeat, or that same manager’s ridiculous decision not to start O’Hanlon in the Division Two final against Kerry two years ago.

A few seasons back there was infuriating talk coming from the then Armagh hierarchy that the purpose of the league was to develop players – at a time when the Orchard desperately needed to secure a return to Division One.

Under the more pragmatic McGonigle, Armagh got business attended to as the top priority and were so efficient in doing so that they then had latitude later to share out opportunities more widely than has happened previously.

Not everyone who has featured for Armagh this season will fit into the matchday squad of 30 for this Sunday’s big game in Croke Park but even those more peripheral players should at least feel a valued part of this set-up.

There were concerns coming into this season that, whatever about the overall numbers, Armagh had a very constricted core group of proven performers but that base has been broadened over the past couple of months.

As a complete newcomer, Roisin Mulligan has been the find of this season so far, but her clubmate Dearbhla Coleman has also made impressive progress along with Granemore dual player Corinna Doyle and Clonmore’s Sarah Quigley.

Some others remain worthwhile works in progress for the future, Clann Eireann club captain Niamh Henderson’s Orchard return after a nine-year absence is a big bonus in the here and now, and it is hoped Blaithin Mackin will be back in the orange jersey soon.