Injuries spoiled Orchard’s dreams this year

December 14, 2015

Richard Bullick

Like Ireland’s Rugby World Cup campaign, there remains a lingering sense of what might have been but for injuries for the Armagh ladies gaelic team in 2015.

It was still one of Armagh’s most successful seasons as they clinched back to back promotions in the National League and reached the All-Ireland last four for a second year running but the exceptional campaign which had gone before contributed to some sense of anti-climax.

Considering Armagh haven’t played top flight NFL football since 2009 and had got to only All-Ireland semi-final before last season, this year has undoubtedly been one of merit and substantial achievement.

With the benefits of playing Division One football and so many promising prospects coming through, it isn’t hard to make the case for a bright future for Armagh under new manager Ronan Clarke.

But there are also legitimate feelings of frustration for a talented and dedicated team who had harboured hopes of reaching Croke Park and even landing the sport’s top prize in 2015.

The bar had been set so high by the special season of 2014 when Armagh won all but the last of their 14 matches, emphatically ended a seven year run without an Ulster title and played to packed crowds in the Athletic Grounds and Clones.

But by the end of the season, no fewer than four Armagh players had suffered cruciate ruptures, the most serious among a catalogue of disruptive injuries which the Orchard county could ill afford.

Already without Niamh Henderson, Louise Kenny, Sinead McCoy and Moya Feehan, Armagh were dealt a further double blow when neither veteran vice-captain Caoimhe Morgan nor Player of the Year Aoife McCoy took the field for September’s All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin.

The sense of foreboding was well-founded and the Dubs were ruthless in exploiting Armagh’s vulnerability as they were well on their way to securing a second successive showpiece appearance before the end of the first quarter.

Defeat marked the end of the line for manager James Daly, who stepped down after a successful four-season stint at the Orchard helm which featured five trophy triumphs and only 10 losses in 55 matches.

This past season will probably best be remembered for the emergence of teenage genius Aimee Mackin, who had a fantastic first inter-county campaign in the orange jersey which culiminated in a deserved All-Star.

She accumulated more than a century of scores in her 13 matches, top-scoring in no fewer than 10 of them to finish with an aggregage of 16-54, and picked up Player of the Match in three televised games.

Another talking point was the impact made mid-season by her Newry City Ladies soccer captain Aoife Lennon who only took up gaelic again in July but top-scored in the epic All-Ireland quarter-final victory over Donegal.

Last year’s significant newcomers Lauren McConville and Aoife McCoy consolidated their first choice status rather than suffering from second season syndrome while Kenny looked like joining Shane O’Neill’s clubmate Mackin as a regular before injury struck.

Regular left corner back Sarah Marley, who had missed almost the entire Championship summer with a broken ankle, was glad to be back in action and proved very versatile in also lining out at full-back, midfield and then as sweeper.

Two more significant moves made during the National League were the decisions for Fionnuala McKenna and Kelly Mallon to swap places, with the former going to full-forward, and to deploy McCleary in the centre half-back berth which meant Niamh Marley pushing out to the flank.

Although recently promoted Armagh were the divisional newcomers, their Championship pedigree from the previous summer made them among the advance favourites for the Division Two title.

In the event it proved a two tier section with three Ulster sides and to a lesser extent the other predicted contenders Westmeath proving a significant cut above the remaining quartet including 2014 All-Ireland Intermediate title winners Down whose decimated squad struggled badly.  They were obliterated on a 10-24 to 0-0 scoreline by Armagh in the final fixture.

Armagh began by walloping Westmeath and, with the anomaly of five home matches including several against noticeably inferior opposition, the Armagh management had generous scope to experiment positionally and in selection, creating opportunities for numerous newcomers.

For the first time under Daly, Armagh lost two regular league games in the same season, going down away from home by one and two-point margins respectively to Ulster rivals Donegal and Cavan.

The Donegal defeat didn’t cause undue alarm considering Armagh had a very depleted team out for what was a rearranged game, while surprise package Cavan’s victory could be attributed to a combination of their artificial pitch and poor Orchard discipline on the day.

Confirmation that those were real reasons rather than mere excuses came when Armagh beat both teams in emphatic fashion in the knockout stages, eclipising Cavan comfortably in Clones and then defeating Donegal by 12 points in the televised Dublin decider.

In the end undefeated Donegal and Cavan finished joint top of the table having drawn their direct clash on identical scores before a spurious play-off confirmed what points difference had already done – that the Breffni women were runners-up and would meet third-place Armagh in the semis.

Armagh got off to a bad start against confident Cavan and were grateful for Sinead McCleary’s bravery in resuming after treatment for a significant ankle injury which subsequently kept her out of the league final.

Daly’s side scored 4-18 against Donegal in Parnell Park, Player of the Match Mackin and McKenna each netting twice in a hugely impressive victory over a team which went on to win their first ever Ulster title.

They replaced Armagh as provincial champions, the holders having relinquished their crown courtesy of a very disappointing defeat to their predecessors Monaghan at Breffni Park on an afternoon the Orchard outfit failed to hit the heights of their wonderful win over the Farney women the previous summer.

The next day’s All Ireland draw gave Armagh the chance of reaching the same quarter-final they’d have been in as Ulster champions via the back door route and they duly came through the qualifiers without particularly convincing victories over Laois and Westmeath.

They leaked three late goals against Laois and had to come from behind in the Westmeath match before digging deep to inflict what was only Donegal’s second defeat of the year in a pulsating last eight tie.

Of the 39 players were togged for Armagh in 2015, 33 got at least one start and 10 made their Orchard debut during the season, not counting Mackin’s cameo appearance the previous spring.

Armagh Harps defender Tanya McCoy was one of several fresh faces who forced their way into the reckoning for Championships starts, with extra opportunities presented by injuries and Marian McGuinness seeming to be badly out of favour following her return to fitness.

A combination of a surprising post-NFL campaign cut to the panel, the plethora of injuries and several players leaving during the Championship campaign meant Armagh’s resources were well stretched towards the end of the season.

However, when everyone is fit again and assuming most of the experienced players remain on board, Armagh have the sort of squad depth which will be needed during their forthcoming first division campaign ahead of another Championship challenge.