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Armagh’s All-Ireland dream ended by Dubs

September 7, 2015

ARMAGH 2-5 DUBLIN 2-16

Richard Bullick at Parnell Park

Armagh’s All Ireland dream ended at the semi-final stage for a second successive season as beating Leinster champions Dublin simply proved too tall an order for James Daly’s depleted team at Parnell Park.

The writing was on the wall from fairly early in the game when the Dubs scored the first 1-5 and although Armagh goals twice offered faint hope, last season’s beaten finalists secured their rematch in Croke Park with champions Cork at the end of the month.

On the day, Armagh’s opponents were faster, stronger, slicker and ultimately worthy winners though they will have to be much more efficient converting chances to deny Cork a fantastic fifth All Ireland title on the trot.

Unfortunately the Dubs weren’t tested enough here as Armagh generally struggled to impose themselves on the game and didn’t exert enough pressure on their opponents all over the field with too many mistakes making it difficult for them to gain much momentum.

Orchard captain Caroline O’Hanlon, who had a big game if far from error-free either, really led by heroic example in covering every blade of grass and generally looked the class act she is but the All Ireland Player of the Year hadn’t enough support.

She showed ice cool composure in netting the first Armagh goal while teenager Aimee Mackin completed a fantastic first senior season by raising the other green flag to take her tally for 2015 past the century mark.

But any thoughts Armagh might have had of another late surge were emphatically ended within a minute of Mackin’s strike as the Dubs went right through to hit the net at the opposite end and kill off the Orchard challenge.

Already without four long-term lay-offs due to serious knee injuries, Armagh suffered a bad double blow coming into this last four tie with the loss of veteran vice-captain Caoimhe Morgan and half forward dynamo Aoife McCoy from their starting team.

Dromintee’s McCoy came on as a last throw of the dice in the second half and immediately showed what Armagh had been missing but it was clear she hadn’t fully recovered from the badly sprained ankle suffered in injury-time of the quarter-final win over Donegal.

Since coming into the set-up at the start of last season, McCoy has become an integral part of this Armagh machine, relentlessly running at defences to good effect and tracking back well.  She creates chances for others and has scored eight goals in the orange jersey in 2015.

Central to the successful fightback against Donegal, she hasn’t the highest profile in the team but McCoy is the sort of player whose value tends to be underlined in her absence and Daly had no obvious like-for-like replacement to turn to.

Caitlin Malone returned to the starting team alongside O’Hanlon in midfield with Fionnuala McKenna moved out to the right flank where she first featured for Armagh as a schoolgirl in the All Ireland Intermediate title winning team of 2012 in Daly’s first season in charge.

Nobody could ever fault the admirable McKenna’s commitment and she has been one of Armagh’s top players, earning an All Star nomination last year, but McCoy might have had more effect in curtailing Colleen Barrett’s role in launching regular raids.

All too often fed from wayward balls by Armagh and disappointingly tentative play up front from Aoife Lennon, Dublin typically transitioned well from defence with Player of the Match Noelle Healy and rising star Carla Rowe both having big games.

Although the Dubs scored 2-16, Armagh had many more let-offs thanks to a combination of the woodwork, wayward finishing from their opponents – who had 13 wides – and several vital interventions in the goalmouth from sweeper Sarah Marley in particular.

McCoy’s playing prowess was missed while the absence of the inspirational Morgan, revealed afterwards to be pregnant, not only robbed Armagh of their most experienced defender but their most vocal leader who brings unparalleled passion, physicality and drive to the team.

An All Star when Armagh reached their only All Ireland final in 2006, Morgan is in her 15th inter-county season and losing her ahead of such a massive match undoubtedly dented Orchard confidence.

Experienced campaigner Marian McGuinness, whose season has been blighted by injury, suspension and more recently strange selection choices, came in for what was her first start of 2015 and typically put in huge effort.

It was satisfying for the Carrickcruppen player to start an All Ireland semi-final having been reduced to a bit-part role in the Cork clash last season when she prematurely returned from an ankle injury sustained in training five weeks earlier.

However Morgan’s absence meant the versatile Sinead McCleary, who incidentally played full forward in the 2013 NFL Division Three final against Down in the same stadium, switching to the unfamiliar full back berth.

Such an important player for Armagh, McCleary can do a job anywhere on the field but naturally lacked Morgan’s authority and know-how while being back there for much of the time restricted her contribution coming forward and she was also hampered by the ankle injury first sustained in April’s NFL semi-final against Cavan.

Another stalwart Sharon Reel might have been an option for full back but spent most of a tough first half chasing after Rowe while Niamh Marley was working overtime to try and contain Player of the Match Healy, a 2014 All Star, on the other flank.

Tanya McCoy of Armagh Harps had come back into the team in place of Clann Eireann newcomer Clodagh McCambridge who was a shock selection for the Donegal game and she too fought hard in the Orchard rearguard.

Goalkeeper Katie Daly, the hero of the quarter-final with a stunning save towards the end, will wonder whether she should have come off her line for the first Dublin goal after Mairead Tennyson’s brilliant block late in an attack which came from an uncharacteristically casual McCleary being dispossessed.

Even All Star Tennyson, absolutely buzzing against Donegal, didn’t have an afternoon to remember by her high standards while it was a disappointing day for one of Armagh’s most improved players Kelly Mallon who was substituted towards the end.

Both Mallon and Lennon had played finals for their respective clubs in camogie and soccer during the week though whether their relatively disappointing performances can be blamed on that is hard to say.

Although forced to live off scraps at best in the first half thanks the Dublin’s packed and disciplined defence, Mackin typically looked dangerous when she got the ball but was often forced to shoot from too far out and 1-1 was her lowest tally of the year.

This is a player with a huge future in the game who should have done enough to make the All Stars shortlist along with O’Hanlon but, after their 11 nominations last season, Dublin seem certain to have a very healthy representation again.

Of their three remaining 2014 All Stars, Healy was the most effective on Saturday though former skipper Sinead Goldrick got plenty of space to run in midfield in the later stages.  Her successor as captain Lydnsey Davey didn’t do the damage she might have hoped up front but did top score with 1-2.

Dublin have lost several leading lights from last season and although they had done enough to retain their Leinster title and reach the All Ireland semis, the feeling coming into this tie was that they hadn’t been firing on all cylinders.

For their part, Armagh were wanting to produce a more complete performance than they’ve generally served up in this Championship campaign which had seem Daly’s ladies lose their Ulster title to Monaghan before coming through the qualifiers and then defeating Donegal.

The hope was that Armagh’s best might be good enough for victory but on the day it didn’t really happen and they were on the receiving end of a second double-digit defeat in successive All Ireland semi-finals.

Falling at the penultimate hurdle in any competition is considered toughest to take and although there was no Armagh anguish either time in terms of being pipped at the post, the imposing margins are soul-destroying in a different way.

But with Morgan pledging to return from maternity leave in time for next summer’s Championship campaign it is hoped the experienced campaigners will all keep playing in 2016 when Armagh will benefit from being back in Division One of the NFL.

The return from injury of Louise Kenny, Niamh Henderson, Sinead McCoy and Moya Feehan will be a big boost with Siobhan Mackle back from her American adventure and possible call-ups including Blaithin Mackin and Forkhill’s Division Two title-winning captain Amy Mulholland.

Henderson’s 16-year-old sister Aoibheann showed some classy touches when introduced off the bench for her first Armagh appearance on Saturday when Shauna Grey got a rare run this summer and Catherine Marley was the fourth sub used.

With the Orchard fans still reeling from Morgan’s absence, Dublin ominously scored their opening point inside 10 seconds and Davey’s goal in the 12th minute put them eight up before Armagh registered on the scoreboard.

The Armagh goal came two minutes later, the willing Lauren McConville running at the Dublin defence and Aimee Mackin hoisting a high ball in from the left which was broken down to O’Hanlon who clinically picked her spot.

But Dublin got four of the next five points before the break and two more within three minutes of the resumption, prompting McCoy’s introduction, though Armagh pulled one back through Mallon after a run from Lennon just before her withdrawal.

Armagh had a short purple patch which brought three unanswered scores in a spell of five minutes with a towering point from McKenna being followed by Mallon’s second after Mackin had almost got in for a goal.

But Dublin, with their still comfortable cushion, weathered the storm and although they failed to take chances clinically at the other end, Armagh never really looked like making Gregory McGonigle’s side pay for that profligacy.

When Mackin netted in the closing stages to reduce the arrears to six, Armagh hopes were raised briefly but sub Sarah McCaffrey broke their hearts by blasting to the net after a long run and Dublin celebrated with two more points in injury-time to the delight of their sizeable support.

They will move on to Croke Park with the hope of seeing their side secure the sport’s top prize but Armagh and Daly deserve great credit for reaching a second successive semi-final considering there had only been one previous appearance in the last four in Orchard history.

Armagh have a far smaller playing population than any of their fellow semi-finalists but the Orchard has a special crop of talent at present with the dedication to match and the hope remains that they will be back to reap a rich harvest in 2016.

ARMAGH: K Daly; M Tennyson, S McCleary, T McCoy, S Marley, S Reel, M McGuinness, N Marley; C Malone, C O’Hanlon (capt; 1-0); F McKenna (0-2), K Mallon (0-2), L McConville; A Lennon, A Mackin (1-1).  Subs: A McCoy for Malone (33 mins), A Henderson for Lennon (36), S Grey for McGuinness (50), C Marley for Mallon (55).

DUBLIN: C Trant; O Carey, M Ni Scanaill, H Noonan; S Furlong, S Finnegan, C Barrett; M Lamb, S Goldrick; N Healy, A Connolly, C Rowe; N McEvoy, L Davey, K Flood.  Subs: S McCaffrey for Flood (43), N Collins for Barrett (51), O Leonard for McEvoy (55), L Collins for Lamb (59), N Owens for Noonan (64).

Referee: Gerry Carmody (Mayo).

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