Armagh Ladies survive Westmeath scare

August 10, 2015

Richard Bullick at Breffni Park


A game-changing goal from Kelly Mallon and a series of precious points from Aimee Mackin carried Armagh into the All-Ireland quarter-finals with this far from convincing victory over Westmeath on Saturday night.

The Orchard crew came into this last 12 tie as firm favourites but contributed to making life difficult for themselves with one of their poorer performances which helped fuel Westmeath hopes of causing an upset at Breffni Park.

In some senses this was Armagh’s most disjointed display since surprisingly losing the 2013 NFL Division Three final to Down but this time they turned things around and got the right result.

Armagh deserve credit for fighting through in difficult circumstances and experienced manager James Daly’s positive perspective afterwards was a reassuring sign that what may have appeared a worrying wobble won’t affect confidence for a bigger game on a different day.

They’ll learn any applicable lessons and move on quickly to the challenge of facing new Ulster champions Donegal for a place in the All-Ireland semi-finals against Monaghan or Dublin.

A combination of factors made it an anxious night for captain Caroline O’Hanlon on her birthday, but the triple All-Star really led by tireless example in ensuring her team fought through adversity, some of which was self-inflicted.

The early loss of lynchpin Sinead McCleary to a recurrence of her ankle injury, with a player already in the sinbin, posed problems for Armagh and tricky conditions caused by the relentless rain and a gusting breeze, were a leveller, but their reaction to these challenges could have been better.

For a team now well used to big games, Armagh surprisingly lacked composure and a damaging mix of poor option-taking and flawed execution regularly led to balls being given away and attacks coming to nothing.

At the other end, occasional confusion contributed to Armagh regularly living dangerously and they had cause to be thankful for a succession of Westmeath wides, woodwork strikes, shots dropping short and the imposing presence of goalkeeper Katie Daly.

After a frustrating first half, Armagh went in level with Westmeath at five points each though things got worse before they got better as Leinster’s beaten finalists went in front for a while before the Orchard response proved decisive.

Perhaps as a result of the high expectations this Armagh team has created among its supporters with their wonderful wins over the past couple of seasons, at times it felt like Saturday’s situation was worse than the actual scoreboard suggested.

The bottle-half-full fans remained reasonably confident Daly’s ladies would pull through in the end given the experience, character and talent in the Armagh ranks and they were proved right, thanks in no small measure to that timely and well-taken goal by centre-half-forward Mallon.

Mallon is already an All-Ireland champion having recently retained her road bowls crown and her clinical finish midway through the second half was a massive moment in an unexpectedly tight game.

O’Hanlon had warned this would be a much tougher tussle than Armagh’s opening National League game in February when a freakish first half goal rush from the hosts in Silverbridge effectively ended the contest early.

Armagh hit the net six times before the interval that day with debutant Mackin and Crossmaglen’s Lauren McConville both bagging braces while Mallon and McCoy each hit 1-1 and Fionnuala McKenna kicked five points.

Considering Westmeath were expected to be one of second division newcomers Armagh’s main challengers as they sought a second successive promotion in the NFL, that 17-point win was unexpectedly comfortable.

Since then, Westmeath have finished fourth in Division Two – beaten by Donegal in the semi-finals – and only lost the Leinster final by seven to 2014 All-Ireland runners-up Dublin in spite of having a player sinbinned in that provincial showpiece.

They’d beaten Meath and Armagh’s most recent opponents Laois en route to the final so Westmeath came into this match with reasonable belief they could claim a place in the last eight of the TG4 Senior Championship.

On the evening, they were buoyed by finding Armagh more vulnerable than usual and, even after Mallon’s goal, Westmeath were far from finished.  It took three injury-time points from the women in orange to double the margin to a deceptively comfortable six.

After finishing strongly, a reasonably relaxed Daly and O’Hanlon were perhaps surprisingly upbeat, though that may have reflected relief that the All-Ireland dream hadn’t been derailed and an unshakeable belief that their team will be better next time.

The experienced duo along with head coach Aileen Matthews will be under no illusions that a performance like this would suffice from now on for a team with genuine All-Ireland aspirations but they also know Armagh have the component parts for success.

The Armagh representatives were entitled to point out the mitigating factors on the evening including conditions, Malone’s yellow card not being balanced by similar sanctions against Westmeath offenders – Niamh Marley found herself repeatedly on the receiving end – and the disruptive effect of losing McCleary.

In April’s NFL semi-final McCleary bravely battled through the pain barrier after first sustaining the ankle injury early in the game against Cavan and it initially looked like she harboured hopes of returning to the field this time too following touchline treatment.

Thankfully sense prevailed over reckless courage because while Armagh got through the NFL final against Donegal without her they will want the highly influential Lurgan girl available when the teams meet again on Saturday week for a place in the All-Ireland last four.

O’Hanlon had to take increased defensive responsibility after McCleary’s departure – surprisingly replaced by young clubmate Clodagh McCambridge – and Daly afterwards hailed his skipper’s efforts in typically covering every blade of grass in the Orchard cause.

The captain picked up Player of the Match to round off her 31st birthday but otherwise Armagh may not have felt like much celebrations, though they will relentlessly look forward to the quarter-final rather than dwelling too much on this stumble.

There are times teams simply have to scrape through tests and ultimately Armagh got this job done in spite of a few failings against a worthy Westmeath team, to secure qualification for the same All Ireland quarter-final they would have been in had they retained their Ulster title.

The evening had begun brightly with Mallon registering Armagh’s opening point inside the first 50 seconds and although Malone was sinbinned for a high tackle after five minutes, Mackin fired over from a narrow angle to double the lead.

But McCleary’s injury only 10 minutes in had an understandably unsettling effect and Westmeath were level within three minutes though it could have been worse as Armagh really lived dangerously.

O’Hanlon helped steady the ship with several vital interventions in defence and then the skipper kicked a free, sandwiched by points from Mackin, to put Armagh three up as Westmeath were wasteful at the opposite end.

But Westmeath finally found their range and got the last three scores of the first half to go in all square and they then went two up within five minutes of the resumption.

Although a McKenna point halved the deficit, clearly rattled Armagh appeared on the ropes – though from there they kept Westmeath scoreless for the next 23 minutes – and Daly made two substitutions before Aoife McCoy kicked an equalising score with 40 gone.

The introductions included Northern Ireland soccer international Aoife Lennon, recently returned to gaelic, which allowed McKenna to come out into the middle of the field where her and O’Hanlon began working well together.  Malone was withdrawn while the other substitution saw young Megan Sheridan replace Tanya McCoy.

Mackin nudged Armagh back in front with a good point, Mallon hit the net a minute later and then followed up by raising a white flag within 60 seconds to turn the tide decisively.

Recovered from a dislocated finger, Marian McGuinness made a welcome return to action after her harsh suspension – with McCambridge brought off again – and Catherine Marley joined her three sisters on the field for the closing stages as a sub for Aoife McCoy.

Two Westmeath points closed the gap to a single goal but Armagh reeled off three scores in quick succession in injury-time through Lennon, McKenna and an effortless strike from Mackin to put the result beyond doubt and feel a bit better about a fairly forgettable evening.

Aspects of the video review will be painful for many and this Orchard display won’t have impressed either the armchair fans nor given next opponents Donegal sleepless nights, but an improved performance from Armagh against the North West women will quickly consign what went before to history.

Although Armagh defeated Donegal without her in May, McCleary leaving the ground hobbling badly was a sobering sight but she will hopefully be back for the quarter-final along with clubmate Niamh Henderson who has recently been sidelined by a knee injury.

It is easy to be critical from a position of armchair comfort but those who put their bodies on the line in the orange jersey can take some justifiable pride from the resilience shown in coming through a pretty physical contest with referee John Niland letting numerous heavy hits go.

It speaks volumes for how well Armagh have bounced back from the ultimate low of 2011 that they are now one of the top teams routinely expected to win Senior Championship matches against some of the best sides in Leinster with raised eyebrows when the opposition aren’t comfortably beaten.

The fact this Armagh win over the Leinster runners-up will probably receive criticism more than acclaim is testament to how highly this side of Daly’s is regarded and the talent is there to reach Croke Park providing they perform when it matters most in the big games ahead.

ARMAGH: K Daly; M Tennyson, C Morgan, T McCoy; S Reel, S McCleary, N Marley, S Marley; C Malone, C O’Hanlon (capt; 0-1, 1f); A McCoy (0-1), K Mallon (1-2, 1f), L McConville; F McKenna (0-2), A Mackin (0-5).  Subs: C McCambridge for McCleary (10 mins), A Lennon (0-1) for Malone (36), M Sheridan for T McCoy (38), M McGuinness for McCambridge (50), C Marley for A McCoy (54).

WESTMEATH: S Keegan; C Finch, J Rogers (capt), A Martin; C Blundell, F Claffey, L Brennan; T Durkan, E Morris; M-A Foley (0-2, 1f), J Maher (0-2), F Leavy (0-2); K Boyce-Jordan, K Hegarty (0-1), K McDermott (0-1).  Subs: S Dolan for McDermott (47 mins), C Kelly (0-1) for Finch (50), F Coyle for Blundell (52).

Referee: John Niland (Sligo).