Armagh’s place in National League semi-final confirmed

April 18, 2016

CORK 2-16 ARMAGH 4-7

Richard Bullick reports

A fantastic comeback against All-Ireland champions Cork saw Armagh dramatically claim their place in the NFL Division One semi-finals for the first time since 2008.

Seven days after a wasted journey to weather-hit Cork, Ronan Clarke’s ladies made the second chance count by taking exactly what they needed to from this rearranged game at Abbotstown on the outskirts of Dublin.

With all the other fixtures completed, Armagh knew that losing by two points or less would be enough for a place in the knockout stages at the expense of Kerry.

In the end they were beaten by three leaving the outcome open to some doubt but thankfully Croke Park’s official interpretation of the LGFA’s own rather unclear criteria went in the Orchard outfit’s favour.

There were five teams finished joint second but Armagh go through in official fourth place and will meet runaway table toppers Mayo this weekend with the other semi being a repeat of the last two All-Ireland finals between Cork and Dublin.

Cork knew they needed to beat Armagh to join their opponents and three other teams, including Galway and Dublin, on 12 points but that any win would do given their healthy points difference following commanding margins against Monaghan and Galway in their last two outings.

The LGFA’s first criteria for teams tied on points is applicable points difference, namely points difference calculated after results against the table’s bottom team are removed and a three point defeat left Armagh and Kerry level on minus five.

The second criteria listed for placing tied teams was overall points difference, namely with the results against the bottom team included – which would have cost Clarke’s side as Kerry thrashed Tyrone 7-22 to 0-8 in their final fixture in contrast to Armagh’s margin of 26 against the struggling Red Hands in the opening game.

The wording of the regulations appeared ambiguous as to whether the second criteria would be used even if only two teams were still level after the first criteria but LGFA confirmation came following the final whistle that this wasn’t the case.

Instead, with only two teams now needing split – as Cork and Dublin were ahead of Armagh and Kerry on the first criteria and Galway were behind them – the tie-breaker became what was listed as the third criteria, namely head to head result between the relevant teams.

So Armagh got the benefit from having handsomely defeated the Kingdom girls by 11 points at Pearse Og Park in February rather than suffering as a consequence of old rivals Tyrone’s abject capitulation in Killarney this month.

And in truth it would have been a travesty had Armagh’s magnificent comeback at the national sports campus in Abbotstown not been rewarded with a ticket to the semi-finals for it was a wonderful effort from Clarke’s ladies.

Until clarification came from the LGFA there was an agonising sense among some Orchard fans that Armagh had fallen an agonising one point short against Cork for the third time in a decade as a result of Rebelettes sub Eimear Scally’s score in the final few minutes.

Armagh had lost by the minimum margin to the most successful county in the sport’s history in the 2006 All-Ireland final and again in a 2013 qualifier and another near miss here would have been hard to take.

Before Scally’s score, Armagh had dramatically closed the gap to two points after having trailed by 10 with 13 minutes remaining on an afternoon of fluctuating fortunes and, in the end, deserved delight.

The semi-finals looked a fanciful notion for badly depleted Armagh when in-form Cork raced into a seven-point lead inside the opening six minutes and Annie Walsh tagged on another point before Aimee Mackin opened the Orchard account with a free.

Cork captain Ciara O’Sullivan had netted after only 30 seconds after Orlagh Farmer had hit the crossbar but fears Ephie Fitzgerald’s girls could run away with the match, like the 2014 All-Ireland semi-final, were allayed somewhat by a much-needed goal from Caroline O’Hanlon.

The team in red – Armagh were wearing white – got the next four points though Armagh could have had more majors thanks to the inspired O’Hanlon but firstly Sinead McCleary palmed a great goal chance wide and then Mackin missed a penalty after her fellow Camlough superwoman was brought down when right through on goal.

Having taken over the penalty duties from O’Hanlon herself, Mackin hit the post with her effort but she made amends with Armagh’s second goal after O’Hanlon had played her right through.

In between the penalty miss and goal, O’Hanlon’s successor as All-Ireland Player of the Year Briege Corkery and Mackin had exchanged scores, the latter’s coming courtesy of her second left-footed free of the afternoon.

Cork got another two points before Blaithin Mackin had the last word of the first half when she somehow managed to get the ball over the bar in spite of being surrounded by four defenders to make it 1-11 to 2-3 at the interval.

Unfortunately for Armagh, Cork captain O’Sullivan again got a goal at the start of the half to stretch the Orchard deficit to eight points although the elder Mackin sister responded with a wonderful point at the other end.

It. however, was called out by the dangerous O’Sullivan, who had carved Armagh open in that last meeting between these teams, and Orla Finn added her third free and third point from play either side of the Mackins combining beautifully with Aimee setting up Blathin for a score.

Annie Walsh widened the gap to 10 when she pointed from an acute angle but McCleary landed a beauty for Armagh before a great goal from Fionnuala McKenna really launched the Orchard comeback.

Blaithin Mackin pointed and big sister Aimee finished brilliantly to the net after another sublime ball by O’Hanlon had played her through and suddenly Armagh had a foot in the semi-finals with six minutes remaining.

Lively sub Scally’s subsequent score complicated matters in some minds but ultimately the news was good for Armagh, who have had a very encouraging campaign on their return to top flight football for the first time this decade.

Following back to back promotions from the third division, Armagh have looked at home among the elite and whatever happened in the final fixture they were guaranteed at least joint runners-up place in the table.

Had Armagh missed out on a place in the knockout stages they would have had the satisfaction of having beaten two of the semi-finalists but getting their result against Cork is another significant step forward for this team and gives them another big game to look forward to.

Although Armagh have been without a plethora of notable names in this campaign, they have played confident football throughout and in the multi-talented O’Hanlon and Mackin have two of the brightest stars in the sport to spearhead their challenge.

That special pair are also completely committed to the Orchard cause in spite of the pull of their second sports – Mackin gave up playing for Northern Ireland in two women’s European Championships soccer qualifiers rather than miss the original game against Cork while O’Hanlon now won’t be able to captain her club Larkfield in netball’s NI Senior Cup final this Saturday.

Talking of dual stars, there was a first start for Armagh yesterday for Orchard camogie great Bernie Murray, who came in for Clann Eireann teenager Aoibhinn Henderson in the only change to the starting team from that first ever victory over Dublin last time out.

Armagh were well beaten by Mayo in Swinford in February’s league game which they went into as table toppers after winning their first three games of the campaign but Mackin, who celebrates her 19th birthday this Friday, was a big miss that day due to injury.

ARMAGH: A Carr; S Marley, C McCambridge, M Tennyson (capt); S Reel, F McKenna (1-0), S McCleary (0-1); N Marley, A Donaldson; K Mallon, C O’Hanlon (1-0), B Mackin (0-3); B Murray, S Finnegan, A Mackin (2-3, 2f).  Sub: N Coleman for Murray (40mins).