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Orchard girls set for rich harvest

October 2, 2012

Richard Bullick

Armagh ladies return to Croke Park on Sunday (TG4, 2pm) as firm favourites to be crowned All-Ireland intermediate champions with victory over Waterford but manager James Daly isn’t counting any chickens.

It will be the Orchard County crew’s first trip to headquarters since narrowly losing out to champions Cork as surprise packages in the 2006 senior showpiece – a year after winning the Junior All-Ireland final.

There are good grounds for optimism going into this final given the talent in the Armagh line-up and an experienced core including four players who were in the Orchard County team that came agonisingly close to shocking Cork in that thriller six years ago.

Captain Mags McAlinden, the incomparable Caroline O’Hanlon and two of the skipper’s Clann Eireann clubmates, Sinead McCleary and Shauna O’Hagan, are the survivors from that team and all four will be key figures this weekend.

Having endured dark days as Armagh’s hitherto upward curve fell away again in recent seasons few would begrudge that quartet of stalwarts this stage on which to shine and they will be determined to make the most of it.

Dromintee clubman Daly, who is laying firm foundations towards reviving Armagh’s flagging fortunes, readily admits winning the Intermediate All Ireland has been the clear objective for his first year in charge.

Having dropped down from senior level after several lean years it was right that Armagh should be unequivocal about targeting the second tier title and now the Orchard County crew are an hour’s action away from securing significant silverware.

Although Armagh would have their sights set on higher honours in the years ahead, there has been a sense of realism about the need to go back to the drawing board in 2012 and recognition that past glories guarantee nothing in the present or future.

But by being positive, working hard and treating intermediate inter-county football with due respect, Armagh have thrived and generally looked like the best second tier team in the country.

If they play to their potential at the weekend, McAlinden should be lifting another trophy to go with the Ulster Intermediate Championship success on home turf at the Morgan Athletic Grounds back in June.

Failure to reverse last season’s relegation from Division Two of the National League reinforced the sense that nothing could be taken for granted, though the first few months of the year were as much about building for the Championship as winning at all costs.

Daly experimented plenty in the spring, mixing and matching combinations, adopting different styles and introducing fresh faces from the group he had guided to an All-Ireland title at Minor level last season.

Positional switches included deploying O’Hanlon at wing forward and McCleary at centre half back, but come the Championship campaign those two stalwarts have been brought together in a formidable midfield pairing which most senior sides would love to call upon.

Armagh have had an increasingly settled side in this half of the season and although Daly insists his final line-up isn’t set in stone, he appears to have hit on the best team out of the players available.

Several established stars from Armagh’s glory days are still impressing at club level and hopefully some may return to the mix in the future, but the emergence of exciting young guns has been one of the most encouraging features of this season.

Fionnuala McKenna, Niamh Henderson and Ciara Lennon – none of whom have yet reached the age of 19 – have established themselves in the first choice line-up while fellow teenagers Siobhan Mackle and Aisling Hughes have featured prominently too.

The latter pair have understandably lost out in recent times to the more seasoned duo of Sharon Reel and Marian McGuinness for starting spots but Daly is adamant that he has hard choices and, consequently, good bench back-up for whoever starts.

His only significant injury concern surrounds first choice goalkeeper Catherine McAlinden, who was ruled out of the semi-final against Longford due to a shoulder problem with the manager’s 18-year-old daughter, Katie Daly, deputising.

The Clann Eireann net-minder has returned to training but a decision on her fitness will not be made until nearer the match.  If former Armagh Minor Daly has to step up again, the experience of playing in the televised semi-final should stand to her.

Unusually, this will be the third time these teams have met in this summer’s Championship, with the drawn group game between them meaning Armagh needed a play-off to top the table and qualify for the semi-finals directly.

The Intermediate Championship format featuring three groups of four teams meant Waterford got a second chance to reach the last four and they duly came through the back door route at the expense of the other runners-up.

Waterford defeated Fermanagh in the semi a week after Armagh impressively saw off Longford and will want to avenge the eight-point defeat by Daly’s ladies in the last meeting, a midweek match in Dublin.

A few weeks earlier, Armagh had had to snatch a late draw with Waterford in the opening group game in Killeavy but O’Hanlon – hugely influential in the second meeting – was absent that day due to an international netball tour of South Africa.

As always, the Carrickcruppen captain will be a key figure for Armagh, but although she won Player-of-the-Match in the semi-final, that was a great team performance which offered reassurance that this side isn’t over-reliant on one individual.

Last time the girls in orange graced Croke Park, the Crossmaglen contingent of the O’Donnell’s and Sharon Duncan along with Killeavy ace Aileen Matthews were at the heart of the team but south Armagh clubs still make up half the matchday panel of 30 in the class of 2012.

However the most striking statistic is that more than half this squad are aged 21 and under, which will fuel hope that the future can indeed be orange – with a victory on Sunday proving a springboard rather than an end in itself.  But for now no-one is underestimating Waterford.

Paths to the final

National League 2012

Armagh 5-15 v Sligo 3-04

Armagh 3-15 v Roscommon 2-01

Armagh 0-17 v Wexford 3-03

Armagh 1-06 v Westmeath 3-07

Armagh 5-16 v Down 1-08

Armagh 2-10 v Leitrim 2-08

Armagh 6-09 v Wicklow 1-07

CHAMPIONSHIP

ULSTER SEMI FINAL

Armagh 2-10 v Fermanagh 1-11

ULSTER FINAL

Armagh 3-10 v Cavan 2-04

ALL IRELAND SERIES

Armagh 0-10 v Waterford 3-04

Armagh 5-15 v London 1-05

Armagh 1-17 v Down 1-06

Armagh 4-14 v Waterford 2-12 (play offs)

ALL IRELAND FINAL

Armagh v Waterford

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