Armagh hearts broken but heads held high

August 12, 2013

by Richard Bullick in Birr

ARMAGH 2-9 CORK 0-16

A sensational second half comeback couldn’t deliver Armagh’s greatest ever victory as yet another one point defeat in a big game broke Orchard hearts in Birr.

Few would fancy the chances of a third division side trailing by seven points at half-time against the team that has won the All Ireland title in seven of the past eight years.

But the only opinions which mattered were in the Armagh changing room and neither James Daly nor his players were prepared to let many months of hard work be lost without throwing everything, almost more than they even knew they had, at this last chance of salvation in 2013.

After losing both the NFL Division Three final to Down and Ulster Championship semi-final against Tyrone by the minimum margin, Daly’s ladies had approached the daunting Cork challenge with impressive positivity.

Unused to playing at this level, facing into what wind there was and sold short by a Kerry referee who should have sinbinned two of his neighbours, Armagh had to hang on by their fingertips in a first half which hardly hinted at the stunning transformation which was to come.

Armagh didn’t do badly in that opening half hour, with several encouraging aspects to their play, but Cork kept the scoreboard relentlessly ticking and by the break had put ominous daylight between themselves and the underdogs in this qualifier.

But if it felt like game over to the pundits, the Orchard crew begged to differ and crucially they had more than hurt, hunger and desperation to draw upon in their quest to turn the tide.

Those emotions may have driven them but they were backed by belief, fitness and footballing ability as, rather than run out of steam and ideas after a defiant flourish, Armagh grew relentlessly in stature and confidence throughout that uplifting second half.

It was fitting that the TG4 television cameras captured this immensely spirited and accomplished Orchard display as it epitomised pride, passion and every quality which any Armagh football fan could wish for in their team.

On a day for Armagh heroes, young goalkeeper Katie Daly came of age in keeping a clean sheet with her best performance ever and the three Marley sisters were immense in an Orchard defence which in the second half featured regular forward Mairead Tennyson.

Tennyson scored the Armagh goal in the only previous Championship match between these counties, the 2006 All-Ireland final, which of course champions Cork also won by a single point against the rank outsiders.

Back then Armagh had been forced to play in white and this time it was Cork who had to change, but although the two were very different games, there were compelling parallels in the warrior spirit shown by the outsiders.

No-one gave Armagh a chance on either occasion but both times Cork were left fighting for their lives against increasingly bullish upstarts who resolutely refused to accept their fate, albeit that the pattern of the corresponding games was very different.

On that occasion, Armagh made the running early on and this time they came from behind but the common denominator was sheer heart and a team really raising its game against the best in the business.

The survivors of 2006 gloriously rolled back the years to reach those heights again and the young guns can now feel part of their own new chapter in footballing folklore, albeit still searching for that happy ending.

Although Fionnuala McKenna quickly cancelled out Cork’s opening point of the evening after inspirational play by Caroline O’Hanlon, the favourites scored seven before the Carrickcruppen captain and Kelly Mallon replied with two in quick succession in the second quarter.

Cork regularly capitalised on Armagh attacks breaking down in the first period but it was role reversal in the second as the Orchard defence effectively snuffed out most threats and launched confident counters.

Back out on the field, well before their opponents, Armagh were eager to get on with it and, although they needed Katie Daly to prevent an immediate disaster, the goals quickly came at the other end.

Full-forward Kelly Mallon got the first and O’Hanlon the second either side of Cork’s 11th score and although McCleary was wide with a free, electric sub Siobhan Mackle kicked an uplifting point from an attack that began in deep defence.

Cork responded instantly but the pattern had been established and Armagh’s next point, from Marian McGuinness out on the right after a long cross-field ball by initially subdued skipper Mags McAlinden, followed a great intervention by Niamh Marley.

A McKenna shot dropped short and Cork doubled their lead but McCleary converted the longish free awarded for a high tackle on her and O’Hanlon levelled the scores off an upright midway through the half.

It got even better entering the final 10 minutes on the stop-clock as Armagh deservedly went in front through McKenna following another trademark waltz by Mackle in those white boots which must feature in defenders’ nightmares.

Of course champions never know when they’re beaten and Cork reasserted themselves with three unanswered points before Armagh hit another purple patch which, however, didn’t bring the scoreboard reward it merited.

Pouring forward in waves they threatened repeatedly before finally closing the gap to a point through O’Hanlon, but the great woman was soon to turn inadvertent villian in an episode which will puzzle as much as haunt her.

When her team were awarded a free, with less than half a minute left on the clock, it was an opportunity to tie up the scores and send the contest into extra-time and Armagh fans held their breath as she stepped up.

It was a now or never moment but, rather than the ball going over or wide, there was gasps as O’Hanlon simply played it into the middle and the hooter went 10 seconds later.  Somehow she had it in her head that Armagh were still two down and needed a goal.

Armagh’s most famous footballer was both bewildered and distraught to discover her elementary mistake and understandably blamed it for costing her team the match but everyone rightly ralled round her.

Over many years no-one has given more or done more to make Armagh a force in ladies football than the Daisy Hill Hospital doctor and she was typically immense on the evening, emptying everything she had in the Orchard cause.

Although Armagh would have fancied themselves in extra-time, the O’Hanlon free was for a lifeline rather than victory.  It was far from easy, the ultimate pressure kick and from long range out on the right but she’ll be tormented by believing  it would definitely have gone over.

Hitting it wide would have been infinitely easier to live with than always wondering, but she and Armagh can come back next year with well-placed conviction that they can reach the promised land of All-Ireland glory.

Relentlessly looking forward rather than dwelling on what has gone has always served O’Hanlon well and focusing on the potential for a bright future will help her lift her head again now.  This orange march has only just begun.

ARMAGH: K Daly; L Kenny, C Morgan, S Marley; S Reel, N Marley, N Henderson; S McCleary (0-1, 1f), C O’Hanlon (1-3); M McGuinness (0-1), F McKenna (0-2), M Tennyson; C Malone, K Mallon (1-1), M McAlinden.  Subs – S Mackle (0-1) for Kenny (28), C O’Hare for Mallon.