Armagh ladies back in Athletic grounds on Sunday
Armagh ladies will play their first National League game in the Athletic Grounds for five years when they host top four play-off rivals Galway this Sunday (2pm).
Playing what looks like a crunch clash at county headquarters is a big boost for the Orchard women who suffered their first defeat under Ronan Clarke yesterday as formidable Mayo went clear at the top of Division One.
The legendary Cora Staunton contributed 2-10 as the hosts triumphed 4-17 to 1-13 in what was, as expected, Armagh’s toughest game so far on their return to the top flight for the first time this decade.
Orchard hopes had been badly dented by an untimely injury to their own prolific forward Aimee Mackin, who was sidelined with the torn calf muscle sustained playing for Queen’s University in the O’Connor Cup last Thursday night.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, her likely replacement Catherine Marley suffered a fractured cheekbone in training the same evening and then captain and All-Star defender Mairead Tennyson was ruled out after being ill all week.
With Staunton on fire, Armagh were in danger of being swamped early on and it was 2-4 to 0-1 after 13 minutes with the great woman having got both goals and two points but Clarke’s side dug deep.
They got it back to 3-6 to 0-6 before Mayo finished the half with a three point flourish and a goal by doctor O’Hanlon, who had got on the bus for the long journey west after an all-night hospital shift, gave the Orchard outfit further encouragement.
The former captain continued after medical attention at one stage and Armagh, captained by young gun Fionnuala McKenna, were within eight points at 3-13 to 1-11 but the new league leaders finished strongly to complete a convincing victory.
As well as being billed in advance as a shootout between two ace markswomen in veteran Staunton and young gun Mackin, Sunday’s Swinford showdown was a top of the table battle between the two teams in Division One with 100 percent records.
The Orchard crew went into this match leading their opponents on points difference after three convincing victories for the first division newcomers who have achieved back to back promotions.
But as well as having home advantage this time, Mayo had faced more difficult tests on paper than Armagh and were reasonably regarded as favourites to pick up the win points even if the Orchard hadn’t suffered such misfortune coming into the game.
After a relatively lean 2015, Mayo had started this season strongly with wins over both of last September’s All-Ireland finalists Cork and Dublin plus last spring’s Division One table toppers Galway.
The fact that they had beaten both All-Ireland champions Cork and Connacht rivals Galway away from home either side of defeating advance title favourites Dublin would have given Mayo justifiable confidence coming into the Armagh match.
Those were arguably their three toughest fixtures on paper and few would be surprised if the western women now go through the entire regular league phase unbeaten.
For their part, first division newcomers Armagh remain very well placed for a top four play-off push ahead of welcoming Galway to the Athletic Grounds this Sunday, though Mackin’s injury is obviously a big blow.
In contrast to Mayo, Clarke’s ladies have faced their more straightforward fixtures in the first few weeks with wins over struggling Ulster rivals Tyrone and Monaghan either side of having home advantage against Kerry.
With Mayo already in an impregnable position and Dublin also hot tips to make the semi-finals, Armagh appear to be in a four-way fight with last season’s league finalists Cork and Galway plus Kerry for two slots. Galway lost 2-15 to 2-8 away to Kerry yesterday.
The Galway game is an important target for Armagh ahead of the league’s four-week break – for the O’Connor Cup weekend and All-Stars tour – before finishing with tough fixtures against Dublin and away to Cork.
The pressure is off Clarke’s side in the sense that Armagh have already achieved their basic objective for the first phase of the season, namely securing top flight football for next season, and now opportunity presents itself.
Mackin’s injury is unfortunate for she had hit 3-12 in the vital victories over Kerry and Monaghan and the presence of 10-time All-Star Staunton in the opposing side simply served to rub salt in the Orchard wounds last Sunday.
The revered veteran had hit 2-23 of Mayo’s 6-25 in their first three games of what is her 22nd inter-county season and teenager Mackin is one of the few forwards in the country who can remotely match her impressive scoring stats.
Armagh haven’t played this Sunday’s opponents Galway since snatching the thrilling victory which put them through to their only All-Ireland final appearance to date a decade ago.
Crossmaglen’s Sharon Duncan was the Orchard hero, giving her team the win when dramatically converting a decisive free with the last kick of a truly unforgettable game at Roscommon’s Hyde Park.
It was Armagh’s first Senior Championship campaign having won the second tier title the previous season and they went on to only lose the showpiece by a single point to champions Cork in Croke Park.
With the then Caoimhe Marley, now Morgan, currently on a maternity break, Armagh have only three survivors from the starting team from that last Galway game in Mairead Tennyson, Caroline O’Hanlon and Sinead McCleary.
The side for that semi-final also included three of James Daly’s Armagh management team who stepped down at the end of last season, namely full forward line duo Aileen Matthews and Patricia McAvoy plus goalkeeper Fionnuala McAtamney.
Matthews had kicked six points, four from frees, but was sinbinned before that crucial chance at the end, which came with a mere five seconds left on the countdown clock, and centre-half-forward Duncan nervelessly stepped up to take her place in Orchard history.
A bouncing ball from Duncan had also created the Armagh goal which was scored by her Crossmaglen clubmate Maria O’Donnell, the third member of the full-forward division, who lined out alongside her illustrious twin cousins, iconic Orchard captain Bronagh and Alma.
Alma’s midfield partner O’Hanlon – who is still wearing the No 9 jersey – almost had a second Armagh goal but her stinging shot was pushed over for her only score of the game while current captain Tennyson, back then a wing forward, registered three points from play.
McAvoy was the other scorer with one point before being replaced by Mags McAlinden midway through the second half while Lissummon’s Orla Murtagh took over from the only scoreless forward Shauna O’Hagan late on.
Galway led by two points at several stages but battling Armagh repeatedly pulled back to level terms and eventually got over the line thanks to the Duncan strike and in spite of post-match controversy surrounding an opposition point which hadn’t been given.
The teams haven’t faced each other since as although Armagh were in Division One for the following three seasons those were in the days of 12 teams being split into two sections and chance kept them apart.
The counties weren’t drawn together in the Championship either but almost a decade on, Galway will be coming to the Athletic Grounds with two win points towards their top-four play-off push being more meaningful motivation than delayed revenge.
Things have changed too for Armagh since their last league game in the Athletic Grounds in the miserable season of 2011, when they were unsuccessfully fighting against relegation to NFL Division Three.