Armagh ready for Ulster title defence
Armagh face a heavyweight showdown with the team they dethroned as provincial champions, Monaghan, when they get their Ulster title defence underway at Breffni Park on Sunday (3.15pm).
The open draw handed the 2014 finalists byes to the last four where the repeat of last year’s final should be another epic encounter.
Whoever wins this semi will be tipped to triumph in the decider against the team that emerges from the other side of the draw which saw four outfits facing off in quarter-finals on at Brewster Park.
As expected, there was a cracking contest between Cavan and Tyrone which the latter edged by 1-12 to 0-14 but the other tie was an embarrassing mismatch as Donegal humiliated Down 10-35 to 0-4.
Last season’s Clones showpiece saw the Orchard outfit famously upset the formidable Farney women, who were hot favourites going for their fifth Ulster title on the trot.
The potential passage to Ulster Championship glory in 2015 is very different to last year when the Monaghan match was the culmination of a magnificent campaign which made upstarts Armagh the talk of the country.
James Daly’s ladies delivered a stunning hat-trick of victories over teams which had spent the spring playing two National League levels above them to be crowned Ulster champions for the first time in seven seasons.
They began by thrashing traditional rivals Tyrone by an astonishing 15 points in an Athletic Grounds curtain-raiser to an Armagh men’s match with a five-figure crowd cheering them on by the end.
The orangewomen followed up by coming from behind to defeat Donegal by six points in the Lisnaskea semi-final a fortnight later to book their place in the Ulster showpiece for the first time in five years.
The final was supposed to take place in Omagh rather than the conventional venue of Clones but was switched to St Tiernach’s Park as the Armagh and Monaghan men were playing there in an Ulster semi-final replay.
Armagh ended seven years of hurt at provincial level with an incredible display which brought them victory by a commanding margin of nine points in a packed Clones with captain Caroline O’Hanlon lifting the trophy in front of over 20,000 spectators.
Daly’s side subsequently humiliated another first division side, Laois, by 23 points in August’s All-Ireland quarter-final before running into champions Cork at their absolute best in the semi.
They can take confidence from last summer’s exploits but 2014 giant-killers Armagh are no longer under the radar and, like the holders of any trophy, will be in the firing line this time as they put their provincial crown on the line.
Armagh have backed up their impressive progress of last season by clinching a second successive promotion in the National League but O’Hanlon has spoken of the team’s desire to prove they are no one-hit wonders when this Championship campaign comes around.
Orchard boss Daly has publicly branded a Monaghan side smarting for revenge as favourites based on their first division status and impressive pedigree in the provincial championship but this Armagh side will have no inferiority complex on Sunday week.
Monaghan have lost veteran Niamh Kindlon to recent retirement but dynamic young forward Caoimhe Mohan is back after missing last season’s Ulster Championship through injury.
However, Armagh have also strengthened their line-up compared to their last two winning appearances in finals as teenage sensation Aimee Mackin has undoubtedly bolstered the line-up which claimed the Ulster title a year ago and the invaluable Sinead McCleary returns after sitting out May’s NFL Division Two final due to an ankle injury.
There is now a bigger burden of expectation on them but Armagh can take confidence from last season’s success and not least that exceptional performance against renowned Monaghan this very weekend 12 months ago.
A few weeks ago in spite of optimistic predictions the Armagh men looked like rabbits in the headlights as Division Three winners taking on the standard-bearers of Ulster football in almost identical circumstances to the Orchard ladies taking on Monaghan in 2014.
By contrast, Armagh went to Monaghan not only with the right gameplan but absolutely believing and everybody did their jobs to great effect in implementing it with impressive efficiency especially considering the enormity of the occasion.
Daly’s side now have more big game experience and track record than 12 months ago and their attacking threat has significantly increased with Mackin the spearhead of a rejigged front five supplemented by O’Hanlon from midfield.
Apart from Mackin coming into the starting team at the expense of former captain Mags McAlinden, the other certain change in personnel from the Clones line-up is the return of consistent corner-back Sarah Marley who was sidelined last summer with a broken ankle.
Ironically her deputy then, Shane O’Neill’s skipper Louise Kenny, is now out for the season with a torn cruciate so Daly will have to make at least one alteration to his NFL final line-up but as well as a fit again McCleary coming back in, experienced campaigner Marian McGuinness is bursting to get back into the side after an injury-delayed start to the year.
The increased competition for places is pushing players to raise their games and developing depth in the panel is giving the Armagh management more options and the luxury of fielding horses for courses in particular contests.
There is no doubt Armagh will need to be at their best to win what should be another titanic tussle but after their triumph 12 months ago this side knows what they’re capable of and have shown they can perform when it matters most.