Newspaper for Crossmaglen, South Armagh, Newry and Down.

Armagh ready for formidable Donegal

Richard Bullick

Armagh are well equipped to fight fire with fire when they take on Ulster champions Donegal in Saturday’s All-Ireland quarter-final in Clones (TG4, 12.30pm).

Much has been made of the threat posed by Donegal dangerwoman Geraldine McLaughlin and her fellow front player Yvonne McMonagle but Armagh have prolific forwards of their own, with teenager Aimee Mackin regularly hitting the headlines for her exceptional exploits.

The young sensation has piled up a highly impressive 15-50 from her first 11 Armagh matches, top-scoring in all but two of them, and she notched 2-5 when Armagh defeated Donegal in May’s NFL Division Two final.

Armagh registered an imposing 4-18 that afternoon in Parnell Park and restricted Donegal to scoring only 10 times, albeit four of them were goals, so can take confidence from that most recent meeting.

Since then these two teams have experienced contrasting campaigns in the provincial championship, holders Armagh being beaten in the semi-final by their predecessors Monaghan and Donegal lifting their first ever Ulster title.

Those erratic results with Armagh beating Donegal by 12 and then losing to Monaghan by the same margin followed by the unforeseen Farney loss in the Ulster showpiece makes Saturday’s tussle all the more intriguing.

The implication is that the three Ulster sides are all well capable of beating each other so it will very much come down to who gets it right on the day.  The trio are on one side of the draw along with last season’s All-Ireland runners-up, Dublin, who haven’t been fully firing this season so it really is all to play for.

McLaughlin fired her club Termon to their All-Ireland Senior Championship success at the tail end of last season and was typically prolific in the Monaghan match last month as her county made history.

But Armagh’s veteran All Star defenders Mairead Tennyson and Caoimhe Morgan have effectively curtailed her in last season’s Ulster Championship semi-final and that NFL final in Dublin a few months ago.

Tennyson was switched onto her to good effect last summer in Lisnaskea while Morgan restricted her to a goal and a point at Parnell Park.  McMonagle got a hat-trick that day but the Armagh management will doubtless have a plan for her too.

Armagh’s approach in an All-Ireland quarter-final will hardly be akin to the Newcastle United philosophy in the Kevin Keegan era of not worrying what the opposition scored but backing themselves to get one more.

However the Orchard crew can clearly do damage too and, although her tally in her first senior season is extraordinary, aren’t even over-reliant on Mackin as a source of scores.

Armagh have five fantastic forwards supplemented by captain Caroline O’Hanlon from midfield who was last season’s leading scorer and has accumulated a useful 6-29 this term which only places her fourth in the Orchard charts.

Kelly Mallon, who got the crucial goal in the recent qualifier against Westmeath, has scored 4-40 with 7-28 from full forward Fionnuala McKenna, her Harps clubmate who has swapped jerseys with her this year.

The under-rated Aoife McCoy has matched her eight points with the same number of goals while Crossmaglen’s Lauren McConville’s contribution is 3-15.  That pair’s pace on the flanks and appetite for work makes them important players for Daly.

The last Donegal game highlighted what an effective combination Armagh have in attack with Mallon in her revised role, McKenna dove-tailing well with Mackin, the diminutive duo pressing forward out wide with good effect and of course O’Hanlon’s trademark runs.

The Westmeath match offered a reminder of how imposing McKenna can be powering forward with the ball from deeper so Daly and head coach Aileen Matthews have options in and during games to keep Donegal guessing.

It could be argued that Armagh haven’t played particularly well this summer with a series of fairly patchy performances since that League final but it was striking after the Westmeath match how relaxed Daly and O’Hanlon were about their side’s state of health.

They didn’t appear particularly bothered by having had to get into a dogfight with Westmeath in difficult conditions at Breffni Park and the skipper even noted that having to show character in getting through a tight game was an arguable bonus which should stand to them.

Getting it tighter than expected against the losing Leinster finalists doesn’t seem to have knocked Orchard confidence at all though there’s no self-delusion either with both the experienced pair accepting Armagh will need to be much closer to peak performance from now on.

Armagh are now where they wanted to be a few months ago, in the All-Ireland quarter-final featuring the Ulster champions, and although that actual label is owned by Donegal, it is now all about who can get in the frame for this sport’s top prize.

As well as that 4-18 against Donegal, Armagh hit an impressive 3-22 in the first qualifier against a Laois side still in NFL Division One this spring and if they can keep the scoreboard rattling themselves that will help pile pressure on those revered Donegal forwards.

The Orchard defenders have an important part to play, supplemented by the physical presence of midfielder Caitlin Malone and the willingness of the attackers to track back, while behind them the ever developing goalkeeper Katie Daly has shown her worth.

Donegal won the regular League game against Armagh in February by a single point but little can be read into that rearranged fixture for Daly was without a host of frontliners including vice-captain Morgan who was laid low by a stomach bug the morning of the game.

They were also missing Mackin, McKenna, Niamh Marley and Marian McGuinness while O’Hanlon had played an international netball match that morning and Sharon Reel didn’t start having only recently returned to the panel.

Along with Tennyson and Morgan, fellow veteran Reel has shown how effective she is in a direct marking role while Sarah Marley’s value as a sweeper was emphatically proved by the three goals scored by Laois after she came off in Clones last month.

The second Marley sister was substituted for Sinead McCoy at Parnell Park after getting a fairly torrid time from McMonagle but Armagh adjusted well that day and now crucially know what Donegal’s precise strengths are.

The injured Louise Kenny remains a loss since the NFL final in which she underscored her rising stock, but there is some hope Niamh Henderson may be fit to play a part for the first time since her own knee injury.

Daly will want to have Sinead McCleary available after an ankle injury forced her off against Westmeath because the All Star nominee is such an important player and general leader for this team.

However in the worst case scenario Armagh must take confidence from knowing they managed without the Clann Eireann star in the previous Donegal game which she sat out after failing to recover from the same ankle injury sustained two weeks earlier against Cavan.

On that occasion, McCleary had courageously returned to the field after treatment in a selfless sacrifce which presumably made matters worse but this time she didn’t reappear against Westmeath after being helped off.

In Niamh Marley, Armagh have a proven performer in the No 6 jersey while experienced campaigner Marian McGuinness, who has had a frustratingly stop-start season with injury and suspension, is properly back in the frame for selection after featuring for 15 minutes last day.

If McCleary is fit, her return for clubmate Henderson – her NFL final deputy – and McGuinness for fellow Camlough girl Kenny could be the only Armagh changes from the Parnell line-up while Donegal are expected to be along familiar lines too.

Like Daly, whose formidable record as Armagh manager includes only nine defeats in 53 matches, Davy McLaughlin has had a transformative effect on Donegal’s fortunes and both these teams have overcome Monaghan in recent Ulster finals at this weekend’s iconic venue so will relish returning there.

Donegal will by buoyed by their historic triumph at St Tiernach’s Park a few weeks back but Armagh have some momentum again after successfully negotiating the back door route to the last eight and the opposition will carry no fear factor for them after that NFL final.

This high stakes showdown will come down to who not only holds their nerve in such a big game but which side can have the confidence to express themselves most fluently.

This will be a much closer contest than Armagh’s hammering of Laois at the same stage last August but Daly’s side should be backing themselves to reach the All-Ireland semi-finals for a second sucessive season and only the third time ever.

Clones holds happy memories for both teams and is a suitably inspiring stage for this tantalising tussle which has the prize of an All Ireland semi-final against either Monaghan or Dublin, who meet straight afterwards in the second game of a televised double-header.

All-Ireland champions Cork and Kerry, who upset them in this summer’s Munster final, have already booked a rematch in the last four of the TG4 Championship after weekend wins in Limerick over a much fancied Galway and Mayo respectively.