Armagh Ladies faces Down in derby decider

May 7, 2013

Richard Bullick

Armagh meet Ulster rivals Down at Dublin’s Parnell Park (12.15pm, live on TG4) in Saturday’s Division Three final of the Tesco HomeGrown National League with promotion as well as the trophy up for grabs.

The derby dimension should add an extra edge to this showdown, particularly as the near neighbours shared the spoils when they met in the opening game of the season back in early February.

On that occasion, Armagh needed three late points to get the draw but did register almost twice as many scores as Down, who were bolstered by three goals, so it would be wrong to say the Mourne women were robbed in Hilltown.

Since then both teams have had encouraging campaigns though, unlike James Daly’s side, Down did suffer one reversal – a spectacular thrashing at the hands of a Tipperary team who also gave the Orchard outfit problems.

Tipp only lost to a late free by Armagh captain Caroline O’Hanlon in the League game in Silverbridge and then gave her team a serious scare in last Sunday’s semi-final in Mullingar thanks to three early goals.

But All-Ireland Intermediate Champions Armagh battled back to notch up a magnificent seventh straight victory – by 3-8 to 3-6 – and extend their unbeaten record past the one-year milestone, taking in a total of 16 matches.

The experience of having played and won in Croke Park last autumn should stand to them in this latest Dublin final, though resurgent Down are making confident noises that suggest they fancy their chances of usurping the table toppers.

The Mourne women will also be buoyed by the manner in which they spectacularly came through from an apparently hopeless position in their semi by scoring 2-1 in the final few minutes to beat Longford by a point.

Silverbridge veteran Mairead Tennyson is the only Armagh player to have scored a goal on the biggest stage of all – in the All-Ireland final of 2006 – and she must surely be in line to start after hitting the net and adding a point last Sunday.

Initially named on the bench for the semi in spite of fine form since returning to the fold full-time this year, the lively Tennyson scored 1-1 to stake a strong claim for a corner forward role even if Derrynoose’s Kelly Mallon is fit to return from a knee injury.

In that scenario, assuming Daly continues to deploy Sinead McCleary as a converted full forward, enterprising schoolgirl Niamh Henderson would drop back to wing forward with Carrickcruppen’s Marian McGuinness possibly switching flanks.

Mallon’s return could come therefore at the expense of Ballyhegan’s Danielle Morgan, who Daly has used as a sweeper both for Armagh and in Queen’s University’s O’Connor Cup winning team.

The woman who lifted the Mary Quinn Cup last October, Mags McAlinden, has still to take the field since then due to a persisting knee problem, so rising star Fionnuala McKenna will continue in the No 11 jersey with Caitlin Malone paired with her Carrickcruppen clubmate O’Hanlon in midfield.

It is likely Daly will stick with his six most experienced defenders, the permutation which played the entire semi-final, including the three Marley sisters, 2012 All Star nominee Laura Brown, Killeavy’s Sharon Reel and Clodagh McCann of Ballyhegan.

Daly’s daughter Katie, who like him was absent from the semi-final due to a close family bereavement, is expected to return in nets having played every minute of all seven league games before Catherine McAlinden stepped in as emergency cover in Mullingar.

Even without an increasing number of the household names who backboned the glory years in the middle of last decade, Armagh have a strong side which can boast significantly more experience than their rivals.

Double All Star O’Hanlon has seen and done it all, alongside former captain Caoimhe Morgan, and their big game mentality could prove crucial in a contest which has so much resting on it.

Under new management, Down have plenty of fresh faces who don’t appear to lack confidence but Armagh can match that boldness of youth in the shape of McKenna, Henderson and Niamh Marley.

This Armagh side has previously proved its big match temperament, and if they perform to their full capability on Saturday, should have a little too much for Down.

ARMAGH (possible): K Daly; C Morgan, L Brown, S Marley; S Reel, N Marley, C McCann; C Malone, C O’Hanlon (capt); M McGuinness, F McKenna, N Henderson, M Tennyson, S McCleary, K Mallon.