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Final flourish clinches return to top flight

May 11, 2015

Richard Bullick at Parnell Park

ARMAGH 4-18 DONEGAL 4-6

Armagh will be playing top flight football next season after clinching back-to-back promotions by inflicting Donegal’s first defeat of 2015 in an enjoyably open NFL Division Two final at Parnell Park. James Daly’s ladies emulated the Armagh men by winning a Dublin decider this spring but there was more resting on this game with not only the title and trophy up for grabs but sole promotion place available also on the line.

Schoolgirl sensation Aimee Mackin made the headlines again and the prolific corner forward won Player of the Match for her haul of 2-5 as a dream first senior season continues but this really was a team effort right from No 1 to 15 for goalkeeper Katie Daly was another Orchard hero. Although Donegal got four goals, the manager’s daughter made several superb saves especially in the first half and the experienced campaigners in front of her produced some outstanding defence in the second.

Newcomer Mackin caught the eye in taking her tally to 13-38 in eight games but the Orchard defence also made a significant contribution to this game in nullifying the threat of Donegal’s formidable forward line.

This side has also a healthy balance between emerging talent and old dogs for the hard road and the battle-hardened Armagh rearguard played an important part in this ultimately convincing victory by the commanding margin of 12 points. Entrusted with handling Donegal dangerwoman Geraldine McLaughlin, veteran vice-captain Caoimhe Morgan may be hard on herself about the opposition’s second goal but other than that the Termon-ator was limited to a single point from play all afternoon. Likewise Sharon Reel found herself chasing heels as Donegal goaled well inside the opening minute of this final but the Killeavy lady was simply magnificent in the second half as her inspired interventions repeatedly foiled dangerous attacks.

All Star Mairead Tennyson was typically tenacious while schoolgirl Louise Kenny and sub Sinead McCoy also played important parts in ensuring Donegal didn’t turn dominant periods into significant scoreboard reward.

The fact Daly had hugely experienced players like former captain Mags McAlinden and a fit-again Marian McGuinness to introduce in the second half points to the Orchard’s developing depth and how this side isn’t even just about 15 players. By contrast, back in Armagh’s horror season of 2011 when they were relegated to the Third Division and dropped out of the Senior Championship, they were totally over-reliant on star turn Caroline O’Hanlon.

The All-Ireland Player of the Year was imperiously dictating terms from midfield on Saturday but Armagh’s leading scorer of 2015 didn’t register her only point of the afternoon until injury-time at the end in spite of Daly’s side piling up 4-18. Apart from markswoman Mackin’s scoreboard contribution, full forward Fionnuala McKenna kicked 2-2 before being taken off for McAlinden, with six points including two frees from Kelly Mallon while Lauren McConville chipped in with a couple. It was significant that Armagh won without the injured Sinead McCleary, such an important player for many years who along with O’Hanlon would have been the only survivor from the starting team in the corresponding game a decade ago.

Even without taking the field for this final, McCleary must be regarded as one of the heroes of this successful League campaign considering her selfless sacrifice in the semi-final when she bravely battled through the pain barrier in risking additional damage to her injured ankle. Resuming after lengthy treatment in the first few minutes, she didn’t leave the field in Clones until the game was won and although the upshot was watching from the sidelines on Parnell Park wearing a moon-boot, the Lurgan girl richly deserved to follow her team-mates up the steps on crutches for the presentation.

A fifth trophy triumph under his impressive stewardship was a fitting way to mark Daly’s 50th competitive match as Armagh manager and the Dromintee man has undoubtedly transformed the Orchard outfit’s fortunes during his four seasons at the helm. However while this silverware was a welcome addition to the Orchard cabinet, the most important prize was the return ticket to Division One after a six-season absence.

It is ironic that the first time Armagh reached the promised land it was courtesy of defeating Donegal in the 2005 NFL Division Two final when current captain O’Hanlon – the only survivor in Saturday’s starting side – won Player of the Match and current coach Aileen Matthews stuck five superb second half points as her team came from five down at the interval to win 1-8 to 1-7. Here too it was a young gun who claimed the top player prize and a prolific forward with the initials AM who was Armagh’s main scoreboard contributer, but this time those two were rolled into one in the shape of Mackin.

The youngster had missed the regular League game against Donegal due to soccer commitments so may have been something of a surprise package to them but after this televised display the talented newcomer will need no further introductions. Having weathered an early storm in the semi-final against Cavan, Donegal’s goal right at the outset here from Yvonne McMonagle didn’t seem to bother Armagh much and both times they went on to avenge being beaten by their Ulster rivals earlier in the campaign. Daly’s side doesn’t like losing any game but they won when it mattered most, in the knockout stages as table toppers Donegal left empty-handed after falling at the final hurdle. Armagh responded to that immediate Donegal goal with two Mallon points sandwiching one from Mackin and although the orangewomen went behind again when centre half forward Niamh Hegarty was let run for a point, they soon hit the front for good. Good build-up play led to Mackin’s first goal in the eighth minute with Aoife McCoy and Mallon getting two of the game’s next three points before McKenna netted after a determined Mackin did well to reclaim possession.

A brilliant save from Daly thwarted Donegal’s desire to hit back quite quickly and instead Armagh stretched their lead courtesy of a Mallon free when Mackin was pulled back and a point from McKenna following good approach play by Crossmaglen’s McConville. McKenna and Malone added points either side of one from the opposition and Armagh responded perfectly to McLaughlin’s late goal with Mackin kicking a point and then tucking away her second goal right on the hooter after a commanding Daly denied Donegal at the other end. Donegal drew first blood at the start of a half for the second time in the game but their keeper had to save superbly from O’Hanlon, who had been wide with a free moments earlier, and McConville landed two points in quick succession.

But a Donegal goal between a point and a free gave them fresh hope, compounded by Armagh not scoring for 11 minutes until Mallon put over a free and Mackin kept the board ticking over.

McKenna’s second goal was quickly cancelled out by McMonagle scrappily completing her hat-trick but O’Hanlon became Armagh’s seventh scorer in injury-time and Mallon got her sixth point before two from Mackin rounded off a very good day for the Orchard county.

ARMAGH: K Daly; M Tennyson, C Morgan, S Marley; S Reel, N Henderson, N Marley; C Malone (0-1), C O’Hanlon (capt; 0-1); A McCoy (0-1), K Mallon (0-6, 2f), L Kenny; L McConville (0-2), F McKenna (2-2), A Mackin (2-5).  Subs: S McCoy for S Marley (46 mins), M McGuinness for N Marley (55), M McAlinden for McKenna (55), S Grey for McConville (65), T McCoy for A McCoy (65).

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