Armagh go top of national league

February 22, 2016

ARMAGH 2-14 MONAGHAN 2-9 Richard Bullick at Pearse Og Park

Armagh went top of the Lidl National League on points difference with yesterday’s deserved victory over Ulster rivals Monaghan in an intriguing tussle at Pearse Og Park.

Ronan Clarke’s ladies have marked their return to Division One for the first time this decade with a hat-trick of victories, scoring an imposing aggregate of 9-45 in the process, though this time they had to bounce back from leaking two early goals.

After trouncing Tyrone away and following up with an impressive victory over Kerry by a double-digit margin, Armagh went into the weekend’s rearranged game against Monaghan with considerable confidence.

They had been due to face the Farney outfit in their opening game but it fell foul of the wintry weather and earlier in the week Monaghan gave up home advantage for the second attempt.

Original venue Emyvale was among a number of unplayable pitches in Monaghan so instead Armagh hosted the fixture at Pearse Og Park where they had defeated Kerry in near perfect conditions.

This time the weather was more like it had been for the Tyrone match but Armagh weren’t bothered by the prospect of wind and rain having proved their adaptability already this month.

Monaghan were without three All-Stars who had helped Donaghmoyne to All-Ireland Senior Club Championship glory before Christmas and are still adjusting to life under new management with Paula Cunningham appointed more recently than Clarke.

Cunningham’s side have had a testing start to the campaign, losing reasonably narrowly in Galway before suffering a heavy home defeat at the hands of former manager Gregory McGonigle’s Dublin.

However, with Tyrone really struggling, and only one team due to go down, Monaghan have no real relegation worries so they came into the Armagh game as unaccustomed underdogs with a sense of opportunity.

Much has been made of Monaghan’s absentees, but it should be remembered that Armagh were also shorn of up to eight of what might reasonably be regarded as their top 20 players on paper.

Although listed in the matchday squad, Niamh Henderson has yet to return from last season’s knee injury while Louise Kenny won’t be back from her cruciate rupture until later in the league campaign and her Shane O’Neill’s clubmate Moya Feehan is still sidelined for similar reasons.

Grange’s Siobhan Mackle, due to make her Orchard comeback this season after spending last summer in the United States on placement, is being held back by a knee problem of her own while previous vice-captain Caoimhe Morgan is on a maternity break.

In addition, Newry City Ladies soccer skipper Aoife Lennon, who made such an impact on her return to gaelic football last summer, is currently unavailable along with the experienced Carrickcruppen pair of Marian McGuinness and Caitlin Malone.

With that number of regulars missing and as a new manager giving his team time together, Clarke kept a settled side with only one change to the starting team between the Tyrone and Kerry matches, Dromintee’s Shauna Grey replacing Forkhill’s Lauren Sheridan.

There was only one alteration in personnel this time too, stalwart Sinead McCleary getting her first start after honeymoon in place of an ill Aoife McCoy at wing-forward.

Monaghan have been the dominant county in Ulster ladies football this century, appearing in all but one of the 16 provincial showpieces, with the exception being 2007 when Armagh beat them in the semi-finals.

The Orchard crew upset them in the 2014 Ulster final but Monaghan gained revenge in last season’s semi before losing to first-time provincial champions Donegal in the decider.

Although new to the Monaghan job, Cunningham has worked with Armagh’s leading lights as Ulster interpro title winning manager in each of the past two seasons so came into this fixture familiar with the opposition’s top players.  Incidentally, like Clarke’s number two Lisa Woods, Cunningham is a former Fermanagh manager.

Watched by an encouraging crowd, the game got off a dramatic start as an Armagh attack straight from the throw-in saw Crossmaglen’s Lauren McConville rattle the crossbar after McCleary linked between midfielders Niamh Marley and Caroline O’Hanlon.

Aimee Mackin kicked a point but Monaghan goaled twice within 30 seconds to lead by five points in only the third minute, All-Star Cora Courtney and full forward Ciara McAnespie each finding the net.

However Clarke’s ladies fought back to lead 2-9 to 2-3 by the interval, Mackin contributing 1-3 of that from play plus a free with McConville getting the other goal and a point, Kelly Mallon landing two frees in her three scores and Blaithin Mackin chipping in with one white flag.

Armagh had a tough fight in the second half but Niamh Marley landed her first ever point for the Orchard county in the eighth season since her debut, Aimee Mackin kicked a free, Mallon landed another point and centre half back Fionnuala McKenna came forward to drive over two nerve-settling scores.

Ellen McCarron got the first five scores of that second period for the visitors but by the time Ciara McAnespie ended that sequence by pointing with the last kick of the game, it was scant consolation to Monaghan – who had credible claims for a penalty waved away – that they had edged the second half six to five.

This was another very encouraging effort for Armagh who withstood the justifiable sinbinning of Shauna Grey in the second half to claim a valuable victory which sets them up for the rest of the campaign.

Armagh now make the long trip west next Sunday to take on the other team with three wins so far, Mayo, who have beaten both of last September’s All-Ireland finalists Cork and Dublin before edging the Connacht derby away to provincial rivals Galway.

They arguably caught NFL and All-Ireland champions Cork cold in the opening game but beating Dublin was a strong statement of intent and the Galway win was notable too considering their opponents topped last season’s Division One table.

Few would dispute that they have had tougher games than Armagh and with home advantage will start favourites this Sunday but Clarke’s ladies will travel in positive spirits relishing the opportunity to test themselves against in-form opponents.

The most prolific forward in ladies gaelic history, 10-time All-Star Cora Staunton, has been rattling up notable tallies for Mayo but Armagh have their own ace markswoman in teenager Aimee Mackin.

She led the way with 1-5 again yesterday but Armagh had other heroes too as well as those who got on the scoreboard including Sarah Marley who had a big game at the back and former captain O’Hanlon who was immense in the crucial last quarter.

The latter’s Carrickcruppen clubmate Sinead Finnegan didn’t register from full forward but selflessly set up the second Armagh goal for McConville, an excellent example of her worth in intelligently facilitating colleagues up front.

Classy Clann Eireann’s teenager Aoibhinn Henderson came on for Finnegan while Forkhill captain Amy Mulholland made her first Armagh appearance in the closing stages, replacing Grey as Clarke refused to just shut up shop.

ARMAGH: A Carr; S Marley, C McCambridge, M Tennyson (capt); S Reel, F McKenna (0-2), S Grey; N Marley (0-1), C O’Hanlon; S McCleary, K Mallon (0-4, 2f), B Mackin (0-1); L McConville (1-1), S Finnegan, A Mackin (1-5, 2f).  Subs used: A Henderson for Finnegan (49 mins), A Mulholland for Grey (59 mins).