Distraught Armagh miss out on promotion

May 13, 2013

Richard Bullick

Armagh’s hopes of promotion were cruelly dashed at Parnell Park as a late surge by Down denied James Daly’s side in Saturday’s Tesco HomeGrown National League Division Three final.

It was a scappy contest, played out in difficult conditions and poorly refereed, which was settled by Down’s double whammy of two goals in the closing stages of a match Armagh had been firmly in control of for much of the afternoon.

Everything appeared perfect early on as Armagh got off to a flying start with five unanswered points in the first seven minutes but, with hindsight, they should have tried to push on even more with a strong wind at their backs.

Sinead McCleary confidently opened Armagh’s account on two minutes after a turnover was won in defence, Niamh Marley and captain Caroline O’Hanlon came away with the ball and good interplay was rewarded with a white flag.

The strong wind took an O’Hanlon free dead and Kelly Mallon was wide after fielding a kick-pass from her captain but the Orchard crew then struck with a devastating burst of three points in little over a minute.

O’Hanlon surged through the middle to land a nonchalant point, almost immediately added another and then Mallon got in on the act with an effort which magically curled inside the far post.

McCleary was just wide from O’Hanlon’s quick free but another burst upfield by Niamh Marley saw the powerful Fionnuala McKenna cut in and confidently fire over a towering point from long range.

A dangerous ball dropped in by O’Hanlon was well dealt with by the Down defence and the Mourne women finally mounted their first attack in the 10th minute albeit that Kyla Trainor went wide after a strong run by Clara Fitzpatrick.

Grainne Kelly had a bad wide for Down but they soon got their first point courtesy of a Trainor free though Armagh responded when McCleary played in her fellow forward Mallon before pointing from the return pass.

That restored Armagh’s five point lead but, significantly, they failed to trouble the umpires during what was a scoreless third quarter and Down would have gone into the interval very positive about their prospects of overturning that manageable deficit.

The vastly experienced Caoimhe Morgan and her two younger sisters, Sarah and Niamh Marley, all made valuable interventions in defence during the opening half, while Carrickcruppen pair Marian McGuinness and Caroline O’Hanlon helped avert real danger on other occasions.

Sarah Marley and O’Hanlon got ticks from an irritating referee who handed out cautions like confetti, leaving players anxious about being binned, but followed through on nothing and was infuriatingly inconsistent at best.

Facing into the wind, Armagh needed to reassert themselves and they did get the second half off to the perfect start with two quick points from McCleary, firstly a free after she’d nearly had her head taken off and then capitalising on half back Clodagh McCann’s long foray forward.

But again Armagh didn’t kick on as an uncharacteristically misfiring McKenna was guilty of a bad ball in and then Mallon got charged down after a great run by her skipper O’Hanlon.

Down pulled a point back just after a great block by former All Star Morgan but Armagh responded with some robust play by the imposing McKenna and in due course the teenager drove over a point just after a good score at the other end.

Again the Marleys did well in defence but Down closed the gap to five with a free and, just after Shauna Grey replaced Mairead Tennyson on the Armagh side, goalkeeper Katie Daly had to juggle a shot from Natasha Ferris.

The game suddenly became interesting in the 53rd minute when Trainor fisted to the Armagh net and three minutes later Daly had to tip a Down shot over the bar, reducing the gap to a single point.

That was wiped out by a Ferris free in the 60th minute and a clearly rattled Armagh really needed to get the next score but instead they were hit with a second Down goal inside a minute after Caitlin Malone was whistled up for picking a ball off the ground.

It was an easy finish for recently introduced sub Hazel Jordan after good work from Player of the Match Trainor, though the video analysis won’t be particularly pleasant for the Armagh rearguard.

In the third minute of injury-time, and with four minutes left on the countdown clock, Armagh’s Intermediate All Ireland winning captain Mags McAlinden made her first appearance of an injury-ravaged 2013 – an unscheduled emergency measure, but it was now or never.

Her side’s salvage attempt wasn’t helped by the now awful weather with huge gusts driving the torrential rain but McCleary picked herself off the floor after treatment to land a point and a free in the space of a minute to give Armagh hope.

They had 94 seconds left to get one more score but the time ticked away and Down’s delirium at the final whistle was in stark contrast to Armagh’s desolation as the realisation of what might have been started to hit home.