Armagh ladies set for Tyrone test

June 2, 2014

Richard Bullick

New National League Division Three champions Armagh will take a 100 percent record this season into Sunday’s Ulster Senior Championship quarter-final against Tyrone in the Athletic Grounds (2.15pm).

Admittedly their nine wins from nine matches came against inferior opposition and Tyrone will have benefitted from tougher games against top teams in their successful struggle to avoid relegation from Division One.

But there was nothing between the teams when they met in last year’s Ulster Senior Championship semi-final in Inniskeen, James Daly’s side agonisingly losing by a point after failing to take any of five chances carved out in a marathon period of injury-time.

The team has another 12 months of development under their belt by now, including last August’s epic encounter in Birr when they held perennial All Ireland champions Cork to the minimum margin in a thrilling qualifier.

With the emergence of exciting Crossmaglen newcomer Lauren McConville and Dromintee’s Aoife McCoy along with gifted genius Siobhan Mackle playing a more prominent role and veteran forward Mags McAlinden being back to full fitness, Armagh have increased their attacking threat.

Equally significant in that regard has been the recruitment of former full forward Aileen Matthews as a specialist attack coach with another distinguished Orchard No 14 of yesteryear, Crossmaglen’s Patricia McAvoy, recently added to the Armagh management team for good measure.

For their part Tyrone have one of the most renowned forwards in Ireland, Gemma Begley, who scored 2-3 in captaining Ulster to victory in the recent interpro final against Connacht.

However, Armagh great Caoimhe Morgan was nominated as player of that match by Ulster manager Paula Cunningham after restricting the most prolific forward in the history of ladies gaelic, Cora Staunton of Mayo, to a mere 1-2 from play.

The battle between those two should be worth the admission money alone with the subsequent men’s match against Cavan a mere bonus and if the ferociously combative Morgan is reasonable effective in curtailing Begley, Armagh have a great chance.

Captain Caroline O’Hanlon and the fit-again Sinead McCleary can command midfield with the increasingly influential Fionnuala McKenna at centre half-forward another player unfamiliar fans are likely to be impressed by.

It is interesting that in spite of the relative league position of the two teams, Armagh had six players in the successful Ulster squad to two from Tyrone, even though the recuperating McCleary and exam-tied McKenna were unavailable.

In the mid to late noughties, the bitter rivalry between Armagh and Tyrone on the ladies side of things was every bit as intense as in the men’s game with their titanic tussles being the stuff of legend.

Both teams had some great triumphs against the other, Armagh notably destroying Tyrone in the 2007 Ulster Senior Championship final in Clones, winning the following spring’s infamous Battle of Beragh in an NFL Division One play-off six days after a stormy draw in Crossmaglen and emerging victorious in a Breffni Park curtain-raiser four years ago.

Tyrone had the satisfaction of ending Armagh’s run in the All-Ireland Championship in successive years and also seeing off their resurgent neighbours 12 months ago.

There was certainly no love lost between the teams in the old days though there appears to be less outright animosity now.  Quite a few players from the current teams have worked well together for Queen’s under Armagh manager Daly and Neamh Woods was part of O’Hanlon’s Larkfield netball team which won the NI Premier League and Senior Cup double this spring.

The respective stars recently linked up successfully for Ulster but on Sunday friendships will be set aside as the best female footballers from Armagh and Tyrone do battle in the Ulster Championship.  It is a mouth-watering match not to be missed.