Champions Cork crush Armagh’s All-Ireland dream

September 8, 2014

• All-Ireland Ladies Semi-Final Armagh 2-11 Cork 5-16

Richard Bullick at Pearse Park

Armagh’s All-Ireland dream ended in a nightmare as seemingly invincible Cork hammered home their champion class in emphatic fashion in Saturday’s semi-final at Pearse Park in Longford.

The upstart pretenders to the throne, Cork have virtually made their own for the past decade were brutally destroyed by a superb performance to which they had no answers on the day.

At one stage in the second half it looked like the wheels could come off completely as Cork ominously netted twice within a minute but a final flourish from Armagh which brought 1-3 in injury-time reduced Cork’s winning margin to 14 points

By then, though, scoreboard respectability was all James Daly’s shell-shocked side had left to play for at the end of an otherwise wonderful year in which they have done the county exceptionally proud.

Ulster champions Armagh had emerged as All-Ireland dark horses with four successive victories over first division sides since taking the NFL Division Three title back in May.

They had won all 13 matches since only losing by a single point to champions Cork in an All-Ireland qualifier in Birr last August and came to Longford with high hopes of taking their most famous scalp yet.

But on the day they came up against a Cork team at their absolute best and the holders’ devastating display has been branded one of their best during this incredible decade of dominance.

Their daunting depth was underlined by the impact of distinguished sub Nollaig Cleary, who has been edged out of the starting side by younger blood but showed her hunger for a nineth All-Ireland medal when coming on to post 1-3 from play in the second half.

The intensity of the Cork side even at the pre-match team photo was remarked upon and their manager Eamonn Ryan revealed afterwards that the champions had been on red alert coming into this tie.

He admitted they had been greatly impressed by Armagh’s dismantling of formidable provincial champions Monaghan in July’s Ulster final in Clones and remembered being taken to the wire last year.

So Armagh reaped the whirlwind in Longford with a brutal beating which left the Holy Grail feeling as far away as ever but this harsh result shouldn’t detract too much from what, from an objective view, has been a highly successful season for the Orchard outfit under Daly.

They finally secured promotion from NFL Division Three at the third attempt with a 100 percent record, imperiously marched to a first Ulster title since 2007 and hammered Laois by 22 points in the All Ireland quarter-final.

Firm foundations have been laid for becoming consistent challengers for the highest honour.  Although it could prove disastrous if Daly doesn’t continue at the helm but follows through on his post-match comments about standing down.

This was only the third of the Dromintee man’s 41 matches in charge that Armagh have lost by more than one point, there has been so much progress in the remodelled management team’s first season and playing in NFL Division Two next year will be beneficial.

Although Armagh were nowhere near good enough to challenge Cork last Saturday, they could have come closer on a different day and this side can undoubtedly develop further given the sustained hunger of the experienced players and potential of the younger generation.

If Daly and his highly-rated assistants remain in place it should help persuade the entire playing panel to come back for another year with high hopes of a second successive promotion in the National League and an Ulster title to defend before another tilt at the top prize.

Going from losing by one point to Cork to being beaten by 14 doesn’t suggest Armagh have gone backwards but reflects how seriously the emerging threat was taken by the most successful side in the sport’s history.

Although the Orchard crew were exceptionally positive about their difficult draw, the fact Cork have won an incredible eight All-Irelands in nine years and this was only Armagh’s second ever semi-final provided a chilling historical perspective.

The hope was that talented Armagh’s hunger, providing it wasn’t counter-productive desperation, could overcome Cork’s big game experience and acknowledged class in what had the makings of a fascinating contest.

Cork drew first blood with a couple of frees off the ground by corner forward Valerie Mulcahy inside the opening four minutes but Armagh hit back in uplifting fashion.

Sinead McCleary claimed Katie Daly’s kickout and broke forward before off-loading to captain Caroline O’Hanlon on her shoulder who ran straight and confidently drove over the first point for an Armagh team playing in all white to avoid an effective colour clash.

A long free from the skipper dropped just under the bar but she soon struck a second towering point after a neat exchange with Niamh Henderson who had twice been involved in a move which began with Mairead Tennyson winning the ball in deep defence.

It was a big boost that Tennyson was fit to play after dislocating her shoulder late on against Laois last time out, while Marian McGuinness and Sarah Marley were able to be introduced as subs having been sidelined by ankle injuries.

A Henderson shot was questionably called wide but Armagh hit the front when a long ball in led to McCleary being flattened and O’Hanlon nervelessly rolled home the penalty.

Armagh were playing well but a wide from Fionnuala McKenna and Kelly Mallon, firing low at the keeper meant they didn’t add to their tally and Mulcahy reduced the arrears with a third free off the ground followed by a point from play.

Katie Daly’s brilliant point-blank save was followed by a brilliant block from McCleary as Armagh typically put bodies on the line but Cork were lucky that Annie Walsh and Mulcahy didn’t receive more than ticks for high hits on Tennyson and Niamh Marley in quick succession.

Centre-forward Ciara O’Sullivan served notice of the elusive qualities which would have such an impact on this game when she ghosted past McCleary and O’Hanlon – wearing an unfamiliar No 8 on her back – to hit the net and Orla Finn followed up with a point.

With the wind behind her, McKenna suprisingly opted not to go for the posts with a long-range free but more concerning was the ominous space Cork were beginning to find.

Mulcahy kicked another free, harshly awarded against Sharon Reel, off the ground and then Grace Kearney fisted to the net for a questionable goal just before Sarah Marley replaced Rebecca O’Reilly.

The bigger issue in the Orchard defence was Niamh Marley’s struggle to curtail O’Sullivan, rightly named Player of the Match, but unlike in the Ulster semi-final, the Armagh sideline didn’t make a proactive change at the back by redeploying the more fleet-footed Tennyson.

The Silverbridge livewire could perhaps have picked up O’Sullivan with vice-captain Caoimhe Morgan moving onto Mulcahy, against whom she has been effective before and Niamh Marley dropping into an unfamilar full-back role rather than being left floundering.

Full forward Mallon pulled a point back for Armagh before trading places with McKenna at the end of the half and Henderson had the last word in injury-time after her team had somehow survived a concerted Cork attack.

Going in five down, Armagh were two points better off than at half-time last August in Birr but with Cork due to have the admittedly dropping wind, it was still going to be a very tough task unless the underdogs started well.

Instead Cork stuck twice with points in the first two minutes, though McKenna responded with a free just before Sarah Marley and Daly combined brilliantly to deny a certain Cork goal.

Regular supersub Siobhan Mackle, who had an effective cameo against Cork last season, replaced the anonymous Mags McAlinden five minutes in and McKenna kicked a point following good approach play by Henderson, McCleary and Aoife McCoy.

Daly tipped a shot over for a Cork point but after Reel lifted Armagh with her heroic effort to win a ball against the odds, Annie Walsh was given way too much space and netted to make it double scores.

O’Hanlon had debateably been moved into the full-forward line – aimed at giving Armagh more fire-power but making her a peripheral figure –  and her run led to a McCleary point which cancelled out another from Cork before the skipper was wide with a free.

She then looked like landing a great point cutting in but the ball dropped just short at the far post and Cork scored two more points either side of the introduction of the captain’s Carrickcruppen colleagues McGuinness and Caoimhe Murray for Louise Kenny and Crossmaglen’s McConville.

A bad ball from McCleary and wasteful wide from McKenna were frustrating for the Armagh management though the latter replied to another Cork point when Murray won the ball back after the Harps player’s initial effort was charged down.

Two more Cork points were sandwiched by a brace of goals in the space of a minute and they even went 20 clear before Armagh ralled right at the end.

McCleary pointed, O’Hanlon fired over a skimming free, Mackle confidently found the net after a rare run and the Orchard captain had the last word with her fourth point to make her Armagh’s top-scorer for the season but the new Ulster Ladies Footballer of the Year cut a forlorn figure afterwards.

O’Hanlon has had an extraordinary year with astonishing success both in gaelic football and netball but the fairytale ending of captaining Armagh to All-Ireland glory was a script Cork ruthlessly tore up in a way which was sobering but can’t crush hopes for future title tilts.