Fifth trophy would crown Daly’s landmark day

May 4, 2015

Richard Bullick

A fifth trophy triumph under his impressive stewardship would be a fitting way to mark the occasion of James Daly’s 50th competitive match as Armagh manager this weekend.

Of course as with any player reaching an appearances milestone, the personal landmark will mean little to Daly unless his side can beat Donegal in Saturday’s NFL Division Two final at Parnell Park (2pm, TG4).

His players have hailed the highly-regarded Dromintee man’s significant contribution to date but, like their ambitious boss, the main motivation for Armagh’s hungry team getting a result is not to garnish Daly’s day but to keep progressing by securing back to back promotions.

This is a more meaningful match than the men’s National League finals for only the winners go up so Daly’s ladies have extra incentive as they seek to emulate their male counterparts by winning a Dublin decider this spring.

It will be Armagh’s third successive appearance on NFL finals day in Parnell Park where they dramatically collapsed late on against neighbours Down in the third division decider in 2013 before seeing off Waterford 12 months ago.

Having gone through their last two League campaigns unbeaten, albeit a level lower, Armagh finished third in the Division Two table but easily eclipsed Cavan 2-20 to 1-8 in the subsequent semi-final.

The final brings together the two teams who were new to the division this season, Armagh having come up from the third and Donegal dropped out of the first tier.

A win would secure Armagh’s top flight football for the first time since 2009 when the premature retirement of the O’Donnell twins saw the Orchard crew relegated after four seasons among the League’s elite.

Ironically Armagh’s original promotion to the top section came courtesy of a narrow win over Donegal in the corresponding game exactly a decade ago, a match in which current captain O’Hanlon won Player of the Match.

On that occasion, Armagh had to battle back from a half-time deficit with their prolific forward Aileen Matthews, now proving an excellent coach in Daly’s set-up, kicking five superb second half points.

Armagh edged home by 1-8 to 1-7 and it should be a close contest this time too between the well-matched Ulster rivals who most regard as the best two teams in this section in spite of an encouraging campaign for surprise package Cavan.

The orangewomen came from behind to defeat Donegal in last summer’s Ulster Senior Championship semi-final and lost this season’s League game between the teams by a point at Glenfin in February.

However Armagh were quite understrength for that rearranged game, originally postponed due to the wintry weather, with Fionnuala McKenna, Aimee Mackin, Niamh Marley, Marian McGuinness, Moya Feehan and Caitlin Malone missing for a variety of reasons.

Vice-captain Caoimhe Morgan was a late withdrawal due to a stomach bug, O’Hanlon herself had to dash to Ballybofey after playing netball for Northern Ireland against Scotland in Lisburn that morning and the recently returned Sharon Reel wasn’t starting.

Armagh have lost only eight games under Daly, four of them by the minimum margin and another by a mere two points.  Two of those defeats were against All-Ireland champions Cork and his side has enjoyed revenge victories over Down, Tyrone and Cavan.

This is a team which doesn’t like losing League games but the recent reversals against Donegal and Cavan were rendered less unpalatable by knowing they could earn a second chance against both opponents.

The Ulster champions have plenty of big game experience now, with Parnell Park having become a home from home in early May, and a great record in the National League under Daly.

Saturday’s will be his 35th League game at the Orchard helm with just five defeats including two to Westmeath in his first season, that slip-up against Down in the 2013 final and the two this spring.

Having won an All-Ireland B Championship with Armagh Minors, new manager Daly led the Orchard county’s senior side to Ulster and All-Ireland second tier titles in his first year before an agonising hat-trick of one-point defeats in their three biggest games of 2013.

But last season brought National League success at the third attempt and Armagh went on to clinch a famous first Ulster Senior Championship since 2007 with three impressive victories over sides who had spent the spring playing two NFL levels above them.

Armagh’s great achievement came at an incredibly difficult time for their manager as his beloved wife Ann lost her brave battle with cancer eight days after that special Sunday in a packed Clones and dad Pete passed away within a week.

After obliterating Laois by an astonishing 23 points in the All Ireland quarter-final, Armagh found themselves on the receiving end of an exceptional performance by perpetual champions Cork in the last four and Daly announced he was stepping down.

The official line was about it being time for change but, having recently refreshed his management team by recruiting Matthews and her fellow former players Patricia McAvoy and Fionnuala McAtamney, Daly’s set-up was far from stale.

However it emerged Daly had been going through unspeakable anguish with concerns that his son Ryan was seriously ill but thankfully there was good news after the teenager underwent major surgery.

With the players yearning for his return, a relieved Daly agreed to come back even though the then County Board made him jump through the hoops of a protracted appointment process for a job he had been doing so well.

The chastening story of what has happened to Down in the wake of their All-Ireland Intermediate title win reminds Armagh gaels of how crucial keeping Daly on board has been, for had he gone, there would inevitably have been an exodus of experienced players.

Daly has given Armagh hope and direction and few would bet against them taking another significant step forward this weekend by securing a return to top flight league football for next season after a six-season absence.