Armagh ladies set sights on Clones

June 3, 2019

Richard Bullick

Fit-again Armagh captain Caoimhe Morgan insists there will be no complacency in the Orchard ranks when they meet Monaghan in Sunday’s Ulster Senior Championship semi-final in the Athletic Grounds (6.45pm).

Monaghan have lost several stalwarts since last season and were relegated from the National League’s top flight this spring with six defeats followed by a draw in a dead rubber at home to Mayo.

By contrast, the Orchard crew can take confidence from having topped the Division Two table after every round of fixtures, with just one defeat in seven regular league games.

Armagh missed out on promotion as a result of being beaten by Kerry in April’s semi-final but the orangewomen were without multiple All-Stars Caroline O’Hanlon and Aimee Mackin, along with the latter’s younger sibling Blaithin, on that occasion.

The Mackins were on a trip to China with their club Shane O’Neills and O’Hanlon on British SuperLeague netball duty with Manchester Thunder so having them back this weekend will greatly strengthen Armagh’s hand.

Meanwhile Morgan, belatedly starting her 19th inter-county season, is relishing the prospect of returning to the orange jersey just nine months after cruciate surgery.

Armagh players (from left) Aoife McCoy (Dromintee), Niamh Murphy (Mullaghbawn), Maebh Moriarty (Clann Eireann) and Mairead Watters (Crossmaglen) at their Ulster Championship campaign launch. Picture courtesy of Armagh LGFA.

Her youngest sister Catherine Marley is also available for selection after a torn hamstring and Forkhill defender Megan Sheridan has recovered from a broken hand.

On the other side of the equation, Dromintee’s Shauna Grey has left the panel to spend the summer in America but Armagh have healthy competition for starting spots and some squad depth.

That is a particularly positive scenario considering that Armagh have also lost a significant contingent of previous regulars since these teams drew last July’s All-Ireland group game in Clones.

Goalkeeper Linda Martin, Sharon Courtney, Grainne McNally and Ellen McCarron are among notable names who haven’t featured for Monaghan this season and been badly missed.

However, the recuperating Morgan is one of six players who started at least 11 of Armagh’s 13 matches last season but haven’t pulled on the orange jersey so far in 2019.

All-Star Mairead Tennyson, fellow defensive stalwart Sharon Reel and another experienced campaigner Marian McGuinness have effectively, though unofficially, retired from inter-county football.

Armagh Harps skipper Fionnuala McKenna has opted out of Orchard duty for the season and Crossmaglen’s Lauren McConville is in Australia for a year but others have really stepped up to fill the gaps.

Clann Eireann’s Tiarna Grimes has been on the field for every minute of all eight games so far while her clubmate, Niamh Coleman, Sheridan and Grey all established themselves as regulars during the National League.

Silverbridge teenager Niamh Reel scored five points from play in the first half of the NFL semi, Crossmaglen captain Aveen Donaldson also laid down a marker and Grange’s Colleen McKenna has put herself firmly in the frame.

Ultimate team woman Morgan is happy to fight for her place like everyone else and just delighted to be back in the mix now when Armagh have so much to play for, firstly a second successive appearance in the Ulster showpiece.

“I always wanted to make it back by the time Championship came around and being handed an Armagh jersey for our recent challenge game against Down was so exciting it made me feel like I was 16 again,” says Morgan, who turns 36 next month.

“I feel fortunate to have played through several eras with Armagh alongside girls with the hunger and drive to do well and this emerging generation really have the bit between their teeth.

“We didn’t get the (NFL) promotion we wanted but it was an encouraging campaign which has left us in a really good place, even that losing semi-final against Kerry.

“Even though some previous regulars aren’t around now, we hit the ground running at the start of the season and players have grown with every game.

“There’s fierce competition for places and management have so many options now and different systems we can adopt rather than there just being one Armagh gameplan.

“We have a balanced blend between youth and experience which makes for a good dynamic.  There’s a big buzz around training and a huge hunger to do well.  Everybody’s bought in and is prepared to take personal responsibility.

“With the old heads still totally committed and enjoying it, younger girls standing up, squad players putting pressure on and a great management team in Lorraine (McCaffrey) and Fionnuala (McAtamney) at the helm, it feels like there’s something stirring,” she insists.

For now though the full focus is on this weekend’s Monaghan match and Morgan vows the Orchard crew won’t be lulled into a false sense of security by the Farney’s recent relegation or who might be missing on the opposition side.

“Both teams may be missing a few familiar faces from recent years but we know ourselves what younger girls can bring and Monaghan just seem to breed championship players.

“They’ve a remarkable record in Ulster this century, reaching 17 finals, and are rightly proud of that heritage.  Others may suggest they’re relatively vulnerable but I’m not listening to that.

“Players like Cora Courtney and the McAnespies need no introduction, they’ll have hungry young girls like we do, and although they were relegated recently, playing against all the top teams in the country should have been beneficial for them.

“I remember when we met Monaghan in an Ulster semi-final a few years ago and they’d been written off after a lean league campaign but beat us heavily that evening.  Sunday will be a typically full-blooded championship match and only our best will be good enough for victory.

“Obviously it’s a big bonus for us that the game is the Athletic Grounds.  It’s a special place for any Armagh footballer but we know the venue in itself won’t win it for us, we’ll need to have everything right on the evening.

“The last time we played a Championship match in the Athletic Grounds and the last time we beat Monaghan in the Championship were both double-headers and the crowd definitely helped.

“There’s no men’s match this time but hopefully people will come out to support us.  We work hard, have huge pride in that Armagh jersey and will give everything to get to another Ulster final,” promises Morgan.

She hopes it will ultimately be third time lucky as skipper having been Orchard captain for Ulster final losses to Monaghan in 2010 and Donegal last season, who will likely be Armagh’s opponents again if they make the decider on June 30.

Armagh’s most recent championship victory over Monaghan came in that unforgettable 2014 final in a packed Clones when the orangewomen won 2-19 to 2-7 having earlier trounced Tyrone by 15-point in the Athletic Grounds quarter-final.

Monaghan gained revenge in the 2015 Ulster semi at Breffni Park, had a convincing victory in the corresponding game at Killyclogher the following year and won on their last visit to the Athletic Grounds in a 2017 NFL Division One relegation play-off.

Ciara McAnespie caused havoc in that 2016 Ulster semi-final on her way to picking up an All Star while current captain Cora Courtney collected three in succession up until 2015.

With Monaghan’s greatest strength appearing to be in attack, the orangewomen will need to counter that not just by defending well but by doing damage at the other end and thankfully Armagh have prolific forwards of their own.

Aimee Mackin has topped the Orchard charts in each of the six games she has started this season but her sister Blaithin, National League skipper Kelly Mallon, Aoife McCoy, O’Hanlon and young Reel, if she plays, are each capable of making significant scoreboard contributions.