Orchard heroes into All-Ireland Semis

August 24, 2015

Armagh 2-13 Donegal 2-11

Richard Bullick in Clones

Armagh showed fantastic character to fight from behind and keep their All-Ireland dream alive with this heroic victory over their successors as Ulster champions Donegal in a pulsating quarter-final in Clones.

The Orchard crew will now meet last year’s runners-up Dublin in the semi-finals for a Croke Park showdown with champions Cork or Kerry after the Leinster champions saw off Monaghan 1-13 to 0-13 in the second game of Saturday’s double-header at St Tiernach’s Park.

James Daly’s ladies were behind for most of the afternoon and then had to finish this absorbing battle without iconic captain Caroline O’Hanlon who was harshly sinbinned just after putting her team into the lead for the first time.

The skipper being left to watch helplessly from the sideline for the remainder of the game was the latest of several blows which might have convinced a team of less fortitude than Armagh that this simply wasn’t going to be their day.

Earlier Niamh Marley had been binned for what the exasperating Kerry referee deemed an offence in the lead up to the first Donegal goal and McMonagle’s second strike really rubbed salt in the wounds for it came from a breakaway when Aoife McCoy wasn’t awarded what looked like a free in at the other end.

Neither of those setbacks broke Armagh who had fought hard to finally hit the front by the time O’Hanlon left the stage – Donegal were already down to 14 with Niamh Hegarty having seen yellow – and they heroically held on through a nail-biting seven minutes of injury-time with every woman in orange giving everything in the Orchard cause.

Player of the Match Aimee Mackin was successful with the second of two left-footed frees which she had to take responsibility for in O’Hanlon’s absence to double Armagh’s advantage.

However with deadly duo Geraldine McLaughlin – restricted to three points from play all afternoon – and McMonagle up front for Donegal, two points was far from a comfortable cushion and Armagh had to be on their guard right until the hooter brought relief and delight.

The Orchard heroes included goalkeeper Katie Daly, who was composed under the high ball and pulled off a stunning save from close range towards the end when McMonagle looked certain to complete her second hat-trick of goals against Armagh this season having hit the net three times in Parnell Park in May.

This was only Ulster champions Donegal’s second defeat in 12 matches this year, both at the hands of Armagh, who were expecting a titanic tussle in spite of having won that NFL Division Two final by the commanding margin of 12 points.

Since then Armagh have relinquished their Ulster title with a resounding defeat to predecessors Monaghan and failed to produce complete performances in overcoming Laois and Westmeath in the qualifiers.

Daly and his side were under no illusions that better would be needed to keep their All Ireland dream alive against a Donegal team with their tails up but there was no fear factor facing them either.

Most independent pundits had sided with Donegal and a difficult first half for Armagh did little to suggest those predictions weren’t reasonably based.

Having twice trailed by three points, Armagh battled back to draw level and then equalised again at six each before being hit with the double whammy of a Donegal goal allied to the questionable sinbinning of Niamh Marley.

Donegal quickly raised another white flag to go four up but battling Armagh regrouped and the deficit was halved by the break courtesy of an O’Hanlon free and point by Aoife Lennon which left it 1-7 to 0-8.

Armagh’s scores had come from five players, with Kelly Mallon landing two right-footed frees and O’Hanlon one with her left while Lauren McConville kicked one point and Mackin and Lennon two each.

Lennon was one of two changes to the published line-up, replacing Carrickcruppen’s Caitlin Malone with regular full forward Fionnuala McKenna partnering O’Hanlon in midfield after her compelling cameo against Westmeath there last time out.

Tanya McCoy also dropped out with a shock first start for Clann Eireann teenager Clodagh McCambridge who was replaced by another of the Armagh Minors Megan Sheridan for a stint – on a day Donegal subbed subs too – before experienced campaigner Marian McGuinness came on for that crucial last quarter.

If the thinking was to have the extra experience on the field for a frenetic finale to a tight game a little like Monaghan have held back Dick Clerkin lately, it was a good decision and likewise soccer star Lennon more than justified her inclusion by ending up top scorer.

Newry City Ladies skipper Lennon has only recently returned to gaelic and it took time for her to get into the game but she ended up top-scoing with 1-3 including Armagh’s first goal in the sixth minute of the second half following a great run from Aoife McCoy who exchanged passes with O’Hanlon.

Lennon netting after two earlier efforts from her on goal had gone wide and been saved by the keeper respectively was an invaluable boost for Armagh just after Donegal had pushed their lead out to four again through points from Niamh McLaughlin and captain Katy Herron.

Although McMonagle subsequently pointed, Mallon’s third free was followed by a spectacular point Lennon launched from the acutest of angles way out on the right sideline but a significant setback in the shape of the second Donegal goal came almost immediately.

Like Lennon’s, O’Hanlon’s goal after a big build-up was extremely timely too coming within two minutes of what might have proved a demoralising second strike from McMonagle given Armagh’s rightful grievance that they should have had the free in at the opposite end.

O’Hanlon’s goal levelled the scores at 2-10 apiece and although McLaughlin nudged Donegal back in front, she was wide with a free and McKenna equalised in the 60th minute before the skipper kicked her second free.

The All Ireland Player of the Year regularly gets the plaudits but the routinely underestimated Mallon was very reliable in converting three with her right to match Mackin’s scoreboard contribution of three, albeit two of the teenager’s were from play.

In O’Hanlon’s absence, the young sharp-shooter pulled her first free just wide from long range in injury-time but made no mistake with the second effort from closer in as the Armagh fans finally dared to believe.

Mackin missed the rearranged League game away to Donegal in February but has started Armagh’s other 12 matches so far in her first senior season and after taking her tally to 15-53 needs only two more points to reach her century.

Aoife McCoy, a key cog in this side, uncharacteristically couldn’t make much impact in the opening period but turned things around with a superb second half before being helped off with an ankle injury deep in time added on.

Crossmaglen’s McConville, who has started every one of Armagh’s 27 games since she came into the squad, wasn’t as effective as sometimes so Malone was introduced instead late in the third quarter to add ballast in the middle of the field.

Veterans Caoimhe Morgan and Mairead Tennyson typically defended ferociously and were effective in launching counters with the latter running some great lines and relishing being on the ball more than usual while fellow veteran Sharon Reel likewise epitomises Armagh’s heart and passion.

Vice-captain Morgan’s sisters Sarah and Niamh Marley made significant contributions, the former primarily deloyed as sweeper and the third sibling being left unattended to make huge ground on a regular basis.

The fourth sister Catherine Marley replaced the injured McCoy in the final few minutes though the sight of former captain Mags McAlinden waiting on the touchline as an alternative was welcome confirmation of her return to Orchard duty after missing the two qualifiers.

Tanya McCoy started those two matches, Roisin Murphy had a very satisfactory cameo against Laois in Clones, Shauna Grey featured in every NFL fixture this spring and Siobhan Feeney got gametime in last season’s All-Ireland quarter and semi-finals so Armagh have still considerable depth and options in spite of four players being long-term lay-offs with knee injuries.

Of those, Niamh Henderson and Louise Kenny would likely have featured in the first choice line-up with Moya Feehan and Sinead McCoy as useful subs but Armagh have adjusted well without the quartet and Daly has still scope to pick horses for courses.

With Dublin beating Monaghan, Armagh are the last Ulster team still standing in the TG4 Championship for the second year running, a great tribute to the massive strides they have made under Daly in the past four seasons.

ARMAGH: K Daly; M Tennyson, C Morgan, S Reel, S Marley, C McCambridge, S McCleary, N Marley; C O’Hanlon (capt; 1-2, 2f), F McKenna (0-1); A McCoy, K Mallon (0-3, 3f), L McConville (0-1); A Lennon (1-3), A Mackin (0-3, 1f).  Subs: M Sheridan for McCambridge (29 mins), C Malone for McConville (43), M McGuinness for Sheridan (49), C Marley for McCoy (67).

DONEGAL: L Gallagher; T Doherty, E Gallagher, Nicole McLaughlin; T McCafferty, K Keeney, C Hegarty; G Houston, K Herron (capt; 0-1); Y McMonagle (2-3), N Hegarty (0-1), Niamh McLaughlin (0-1); G McLaughlin (0-4, 1f), A Barrett, A McDonnell (0-1).  Subs: R Boyle for T McCafferty (30 mins), E McCrory for Barrett (39), R McCafferty for Houston (43), K Guthrie for Boyle (60), A Cunningham for McCrory (65).

Referee: Seamus Mulvihill (Kerry).