Armagh ready for fresh promotion push

January 26, 2015

Richard Bullick

Armagh will look to inspirational All Star corner back Mairead Tennyson to effectively curb the threat of Donegal dangerwoman Geraldine McLaughlin in Sunday’s National League opener at Cloghan (2pm).

McLaughlin is the talk of the country after firing Termon to the All-Ireland Senior Club Championship before Christmas and Armagh got a glimpse of her prowess in last June’s Ulster semi-final.

But switching Tennyson to mark her that day in Lisnaskea proved an inspired decision by manager James Daly and the Silverbridge livewire looks likely to take direct responsibility again this weekend.

Tennyson and veteran vice-captain Caoimhe Morgan are a very experienced pair of Orchard defenders and the latter’s sister Sarah Marley will be back alongside them in the Armagh rearguard after missing last summer’s entire Championship campaign with a broken ankle.

The tenacious corner back’s return will presumably enable St Paul’s schoolgirl Louise Kenny to slot into the vacancy left by stalwart wing back Sharon Reel stepping back due to business pressures though the likes of Rebecca O’Reilly, Roisin Murphy, Danielle Morgan and Shauna Grey will also have their eye on a starting spot.

O’Reilly got a taste of the big-time last summer when deputising for injured Carrickcruppen clubmate Marian McGuinness in the All-Ireland quarter and semi-finals and will hopefully push hard for further opportunities now her experienced colleague has returned.

A third Marley sibling, Niamh, wasn’t fit to start that last Donegal game, in which Armagh found themselves trailing by four points early on, but played a prominent part in turning the tide following her introduction.

Armagh went on to win by six that day but Donegal have home advantage this time and have been buoyed by that Termon triumph so will want to avenge last summer’s result and start strongly as they bid to bounce back from relegation.

For their part, Armagh are determined to hit the ground running in their bid for a second successive promotion in the NFL and, although this should be a significant step-up from Division Three which they romped through with a 100 percent record 12 months ago, the Orchard outfit beat four top flight teams last summer in the Championship.

These sides spent last spring playing two League levels apart but appear well matched and are both tipped to make the play-offs along with Westmeath, with Meath and Down also hopeful of a top-four finish.

On paper this arguably looks like Armagh’s toughest game of the entire campaign and something of a baptism of fire in an otherwise favourable fixture list which has handed them five home matches out of the remaining six.

In a division dominated by Ulster sides, Daly’s ladies won’t have to leave their own province for a regular League game and, with the only other trip being to Cavan, this weekend’s road trip to beyond Ballybofey is the longest journey they will undertake.

With the table’s top two being given home semi-finals for the first time, every match counts for more than in previous seasons and although this first result will hardly define anyone’s season, both teams are expected to put their best foot forward for what should be an intriguing tussle.

Especially if former captain Mags McAlinden has hung up her inter-county boots, Daly might hand a first start to young Shane O’Neill’s shooting star Aimee Mackin in the full forward line or utilise the teenager as an impact player off the bench.

Last season’s supersub Siobhan Mackle is off to the United States on a university placement so the Armagh manager could earmark Mackin as the new ace up his sleeve to bring on in the hope of changing a tight game.

Already an established senior international in women’s soccer, prolific forward Mackin has developed physically since her brief involvement last spring and, with her 18th birthday looming in April, appears ready to contribute to the Orchard cause.

Team-mates Sinead McCleary and Niamh Henderson had both worn the orange jersey in Croke Park finals before turning 18 and ace markswoman Mackin should prove a very valuable addition to the Armagh ranks this season.

Other fresh faces in the panel include her Shane O’Neill’s club colleague Moya Feehan, Forkhill sisters Lauren and Megan Sheridan and Lissummon’s Sarah Gamble, a diminutive centre half forward who really caught the eye at club level last season.

Every manager wants increasing competition for places and developing depth is one of Armagh’s aims as they seek to build on the impressive progress of 2014 and deliver on their trio of challenging goals for this season.

Securing back to back promotions, retaining their provincial crown and reaching Croke Park in September are testing targets but Armagh have been back in training since November and are ambitious to show that last season’s surprise package are no flash in the pan.

Having initially taken time to consider their futures, the highly-regarded Daly and his impressive management team are back fully focused on taking this team to another level and the players have been working with Ireland’s top trainer Mike McGurn ahead of the new campaign.

In iconic captain Caroline O’Hanlon, Armagh have the All-Ireland Player of the Year in their ranks while the versatile McCleary and forceful centre half forward Fionnuala McKenna can go one better than their richly-deserved All Star nominations of last term.

Last season’s newcomers, Crossmaglen’s Lauren McConville and Aoife McCoy of Dromintee, got 27 starts between them in Armagh’s 14 matches in 2014 which shows how it is possible for fresh talent to force its way into what looks like a settled side.

Few will emulate her All Star status but Tennyson’s superb example last season in finding a new personal level can also inspire players to hit fresh heights and help push Armagh to greater glory.

Armagh are no longer under the wider radar and last season’s success brought the All Ireland dream back to life, but for now Daly and his players are rightly fully focused on an NFL promotion push and this Donegal game will be a tough first test of their credentials.