Armagh set sights on historic triumph

September 1, 2014

Richard Bullick

Armagh are hoping it will be a case of third time lucky when they take on champions Cork for a place in the All Ireland final this Saturday in Longford’s Pearse Park (time, 3.30pm. TG4).

Their opponents are the most successful side in ladies football history with an incredible eight All Ireland titles in the last nine years in contrast to Armagh who have only been to one previous semi-final.

Throw in the fact that Armagh have never beaten Cork in a competitive match and this appears the ultimate daunting draw on paper, yet James Daly’s side are genuinely upbeat about their chances and will have no inferiority complex this weekend.

Both teams have won Dublin finals earlier this season, but Armagh’s NFL Division Three triumph was only the warm-up act at the start of an afternoon which culminated in Cork reclaiming the National League title.

Since then however Armagh have recorded four successive victories against teams which spent the spring playing two league levels above them and the new Ulster champions fear nobody now.

They respect Cork’s remarkable record but have only lost both the two Championship matches between these counties in the last eight years, the 2006 All Ireland final – like then, Armagh will play in white this weekend to avoid an effective colour clash – and last August’s qualifier, by the miniumum margin.

Armagh have made massive progress since almost shocking Cork last season when the Orchard outfit might have earned extra-time but for a slow scoreboard confusing captain Caroline O’Hanlon into not going for the posts with a difficult free to level matters in the closing seconds.

On that occasion, Cork had got away to a healthy lead as Armagh – who hadn’t played a competitive match for seven weeks – took time to find their feet at the elite level but the orangewomen shouldn’t suffer from a slow start this time.

After 13 wins from 13 matches this season, Daly’s side are playing confident football with scores coming from a wide range of players – nine in the 5-17 to 0-9 quarter-final thrashing of Laois – and fantastic fitness has seen them finish strongly in most matches.

Superb Championship performances against Tyrone, Monaghan and Laois have ironically left the Orchard side slightly underdone in terms of experiencing close finishes, for this semi-final is sure to be a much tighter game.

But Armagh had to show character to salvage victory in a league game against Sligo, to turn round the Ulster semi against Donegal and kick on in Clones when a dodgy goal brought provincial champions Monaghan level with them early in the second half.

O’Hanlon herself is in imperious form, with many now hailing the majestic midfielder as the best ladies gaelic footballer in Ireland bar none, and as always she will have a crucial role but this talented team is no longer over-reliant on its All Star skipper.

It would be a big blow if Armagh are without another of the five survivors from that 2006 All Ireland final line-up, Mairead Tennyson, who suffered a suspected dislocated shoulder late on against Laois after an exceptional performance in defence.

But experienced corner back Sarah Marley is ready to make a timely return following a broken ankle alongside sister Caoimhe Morgan, immense against Cork last year, and Carrickcruppen’s Marian McGuinness might be back after missing the quarter-final with an ankle injury.

Armagh have a compelling mix of fearless youth and hard-nosed experience and there’s great mutual respect between the playing panel and an impressive management team headed by the popular Daly.

This is a high hurdle but, like eight years ago, Armagh have emerged rapidly as All Ireland dark horses and they will go into what should be a cracking contest with a decent chance of making it third time lucky against the Rebelettes.

Cork have recovered from the wobble last season which saw them relinquish their Munster title to Kerry following a double defeat in the provincial round robin and subsequent final.

Former captain Juliet Murphy came out of retirement to steady the ship ahead of the Armagh match but, although she has hung up her boots again after featuring in last September’s showpiece win, Cork have reclaimed their National League and provincial championship crowns.

They have vast experience in their ranks though the starting team against Mayo had a slightly transitional look with a few familiar names on the bench and fresh faces in the initial line-up.

For their part, Armagh have five players over the age of 30 who are all as fit and hungry as ever supplemented by half a dozen talented youngsters yet to reach their 21st birthday.

Daly’s ladies are no longer under the radar after the convincing victory over champions Monaghan in the Ulster final followed by thrashing Laois so the surprise element has gone compared to last year and they have much more to lose now.

The high stakes and enhanced expectations bring greater pressure but Armagh are relishing being involved at the business end of the season for the first time in years and appreciate precious chances like this must be taken when they come regardless of history or reputations.

This weekend’s winners will face former Armagh manager Gregory McGonigle’s Dublin, who beat Galway 2-14 to 1-13 in last Saturday’s first semi-final in Mullingar, in this year’s All Ireland final at Croke Park on the last Sunday in September.