June 6th, 2024


Richard Bullick

A stunning second half performance from Armagh’s history-makers in Croke Park saw the Orchard crew come from behind in their first ever Division One showpiece to dethrone Kerry as National League champions.

Title holders Kerry had got the last three scores of the opening period to go in level at the interval and pounced on an Armagh mistake to score a goal in the third minute of the second half but Armagh responded superbly and were well worth their 2-12 to 2-9 win in the end.

Inspired by irrepressible Player of the Match Lauren McConville, Gregory McGonigle’s side played some wonderful football on their way to a fully deserved victory, ace markswoman Aimee Mackin contributing 1-4 and former skipper Kelly Mallon five points.

It was a special afternoon for the iconic Caroline O’Hanlon who was regarded as an injury doubt having had to go off after just 15 minutes of an away win for Leeds Rhinos against Team Bath in netball’s British SuperLeague on Friday night.

However, the evergreen 39-year-old not only lined out but played the full hour and her hugely experienced, composed presence was crucial to the Orchard cause, especially with fellow midfielder Niamh Coleman having to go off injured before half-time.

One of six players from county champions Clann Eireann in club boss McGonigle’s starting line-up, Niamh had earlier scored Armagh’s first goal on a day when her younger sister Dearbhla had the game of her life.

Orchard captain Clodagh McCambridge not only had the honour of lifting the trophy but the delight of being joined on the field for the closing stages by her younger sister Meabh, for whom this was a very first Armagh appearance.

This has been a dream first season of county football so far for newcomer Roisin Mulligan, who now has a National League medal to go with six wins from six starts for Armagh, and a fairytale Orchard comeback for Clann Eireann club captain Niamh Henderson.

Last month’s league game against Kerry was Henderson’s first Armagh match for nine years and Sunday marked her return to headquarters for the first time since starting there as a 17-year-old in the 2012 All Ireland Intermediate decider victory over Waterford.

Henderson scored a point and came close to a goal while Dromintee dynamo Aoife McCoy raised the Orchard outfit’s first white flag from play and sub Corinna Doyle also got on the board after replacing Emily Druse in the final quarter.

Unluckily left out of the starting team for last April’s Division Two final against Laois while still a teenager, this time Druse had the honour of walking behind O’Hanlon – who was playing for Armagh before she was even born – in the pre-match parade and really emptied the tank.

Granemore dual star Doyle had been replaced by Louise Kenny in the only change from Armagh’s published line-up and the Shane O’Neills skipper played well before giving way to debutant Meabh McCambridge late on.

Shauna Grey got on in place of clubmate McCoy right at the end and Ballyhegan’s Eve Lavery replaced Mallon, who had kicked three frees, pointed twice from narrow angles and set up Mackin for her lethal finish to the top corner of the Kerry net.

Like the magnificent McConville seeming to be everywhere, Ballyhegan livewire Grace Ferguson scampered relentlessly all over the pristine sward while Cait Towe had a crucial intervention in her own goalmouth when Kerry looked like finding the net.

There was some wasteful finishing from the Kingdom but both their goals were fairly soft, the first having come after Armagh keeper Anna Carr punched away a dropping free from All Ireland Player of the Year Louise Ni Mhuircheartaigh.

Although Ni Mhuircheartaigh scored seven points, all but one of those were from frees, and the Orchard came close to another couple of majors of their own with both McConville and Henderson having shots saved at point-blank range by Kerry keeper Mary-Ellen Bolger.

Armagh have followed in the footsteps of Meath and Kerry by being crowned National League champions the season after being promoted from Division Two, and their next target will be reclaiming the provincial crown from Donegal by winning next month’s Ulster final.

Table toppers Armagh had booked their place in Sunday’s historic showpiece with six consecutive victories before an experimental line-up lost heavily to All Ireland champions Dublin in their last regular league game, but that defeat didn’t knock Orchard confidence.

Along the way, the women in orange ended a seven-match losing streak against Kerry by beating them in the Athletic Grounds while this triumph helped banish bad memories of their last clash in Croke Park, when the Kingdom women won the 2022 Division Two final.

New GAA President Jarlath Burns was in attendance on Sunday to watch his home county’s historic success and Armagh’s victory made it a very special 45th birthday for hard-working Orchard chairperson Sinead Reel.


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