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Armagh make history by beating Dublin

April 4, 2016

ARMAGH 2-10 DUBLIN 3-6

Richard Bullick at the Athletic Grounds

Aimee Mackin magically led the way with 1-7 at the Athletic Grounds as badly depleted Armagh held on for a famous first ever victory against Dublin yesterday.

Two late Dublin goals couldn’t spoil the party for birthday girl Niamh Marley who had hit the net herself for the first time in an eight-season Orchard career.

This wonderful win was sweet Orchard revenge for losing last season’s relatively one-sided semi-final when dominant Dublin, who had won four of their first five league games this spring, had 11 points to spare.

This superb result for Ronan Clarke’s ladies should hopefully prove enough to secure a place in the NFL Division One semi-finals even if Armagh lose away to All Ireland champions Cork next Sunday.

On an afternoon that no other player on either side raised more than one flag of a particular colour, Mackin kept the scoreboard ticking for the heroic Orchard crew who went into the crunch clash as unfancied underdogs.

Few would have given Armagh much chance of reversing last September’s resounding defeat in the All-Ireland semi-final when it emerged that two of the team’s top players had joined the lengthy list of Orchard absentees.

Crossmaglen’s Lauren McConville had started all 33 Armagh matches since she was brought into the panel ahead of the 2014 NFL campaign while her contemporary Aoife McCoy was in the initial line-up for all but three of those games.

Both have become key cogs in the Armagh machine and have made a crucial contribution to the team securing back to back promotions in the NFL either side of winning the 2014 Ulster Championship and reaching consecutive All-Ireland semi-finals.

So it was a big gamble for manager Clarke to get rid of this important pair along with McCoy’s Dromintee clubmate Shauna Grey when the trio revealed their plans to travel to America in June.

In spite of Armagh being in the hunt for a top four finish and having very tough fixtures to finish with against last September’s All-Ireland finalists Dublin and Cork, Clarke elected to cut the three players from his squad rather than wait until the league challenge ended.

That left Armagh going into the Dublin game minus no fewer than 12 of their best matchday squad of 30 for one reason or another, which appeared a unfeasibly huge handicap against the county with the deepest player pool in Ireland.

Last September the Dubs blew Armagh away early on in Parnell Park in scoring the first 1-5 of the All Ireland semi-final and the contest was effectively over well before the interval.

Dublin never looked like losing that big game and the fear was that they could be out of sight here too before Armagh adjusted to life without their two wing forward dynamos.

Sure enough it all looked ominous in the opening phase of the contest and a Dublin goal made it 1-2 to 0-1 in the 11th minute but Armagh bounced back to lead by three at the interval and had incredibly extended their advantage to eight going into the final quarter.

Two quickfire goals by the Dubs set up a frenetic finale which captivated the growing crowd ahead of the Armagh men’s match against Derry but the Orchard character shone through rather than their nerve faltering.

This side had proved during their run to surprise Ulster Championship success two seasons ago that they thrive on playing in front of curtain-raiser crowds – beating Tyrone and Monaghan who were then both two league levels above them – and this was another special chapter in Armagh history.

On an afternoon for Orchard heroes, scoring machine Mackin and Marley’s birthday delight dominated the headlines but the plaudits should definitely be shared throughout the Armagh ranks.

The old guard delivered typically inspiring performances and around them everyone really rose to the occasion including Crossmaglen’s Aveen Donaldson, who deserves a special mention, and a couple of schoolgirls.

A peripheral figure in the Armagh squad which won the All Ireland Intermediate title in 2012, Donaldson has returned to the panel this season but Sunday’s start was her first time to take the field in a very different environment to second division club football.

Thrown in at the deep end alongside Niamh Marley in midfield with former captain Caroline O’Hanlon playing further forward, Donaldson stepped up progressively as the game went on and can be very pleased with her afternoon’s work.

The other player brought into the starting line-up was Lurgan schoolgirl Aoibhinn Henderson who had a nice cameo off the bench against Dublin last September in her first Armagh appearance.

She scored one of the Armagh points before giving way to Amy Mulholland midway through the second half and the Forkhill captain, who got her first few minutes in the orange jersey against Monaghan in February, threw herself into the fray with relish.

Unfortunately Mulholland lasted only 10 minutes after appearing to damage her collarbone and her departure enabled Niamh Coleman of Clann Eireann to get her first taste of Armagh action.

There was also a first ever Armagh appearance in that pulsating last quarter for Orchard camogie great Bernie Murray and Forkhill’s Megan Sheridan got onto the field for the first time this season.

Sheridan came on while Kelly Mallon was being treated following a bad bang to the face but the fact the Harps player wanted to continue after treatment before realising the change had already been made typified the sort of Orchard courage which was rewarded with victory.

Goalkeeper Anna Carr made several vital saves, the best with her legs, as a valiant last line of defence behind the steady Sarah Marley, ever-improving youngster Clodagh McCambridge and feisty skipper Mairead Tennyson.

Stalwarts Sharon Reel and Sinead McCleary are always willing warriors with the experience to help those around them while the untypically scoreless O’Hanlon happily put herself about too and Niamh Marley really relishes the physical combat.

Dublin had a player yellow-carded for an off-the-ball incident after only 12 minutes but were lucky to avoid a second sinbinning when Niamh Marley was absolutely flattened late on.

It must be said O’Hanlon got away with a virtual rugby tackle towards the end too and, as tempers threatened to boil over, there was even an apparent physical altercation between team management members in front of the main stand.

The growing crowd were getting good value from the increasingly confrontational finish to a tight game as the ladies delivered the first victory of what would prove an Orchard double albeit that the later win wasn’t enough to save the Armagh men from relegation.

So it was a bitter-sweet afternoon for McCleary and her husband Tony Kernan in terms of what their respective victories meant, the ladies taking a significant step towards the first division semis as the men drop to the third division.

Apart from Mackin’s 1-7 and the Marley goal, Armagh’s scores came from the influential Fionnuala McKenna, young Henderson and a Mallon free while All-Star Sinead Aherne, former captain Lyndsey Davey and full-forward Niamh McEvoy each hit 1-1 for the Dubs.

Last season’s full-forward McKenna had a big game from centre half-back including contributing a superb solo score which saw her stride half the length of the field and drive the ball over the bar.

Armagh’s enforced changes meant this spring’s regular full-forward Sinead Finnegan had a slightly deeper role than usual but she worked hard before being substituted late on while an unusually scoreless Blaithin Mackin linked well with her sister especially in the opening period and tracked back willingly.

Both the younger Mackin and Henderson are still only 17 so it is hugely encouraging for the future that they are already making significant contributions to Armagh winning big games in Division One.

Marley took her goal with aplomb after a characteristically sublime ball by O’Hanlon to bring Armagh level on 20 minutes and from then on they visibly began believing and never really looked back.

Considering it was achieved without McConville, McCoy, Grey, Niamh Henderson, Catherine Marley, Caoimhe Morgan, Louise Kenny, Moya Feehan, Siobhan Mackle, Aoife Lennon, Marian McGuinness and Caitlin Malone this certainly counts as one of Armagh’s greatest ever victories.

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