Armagh relishing showdown with Dublin
Armagh will face Cork in a repeat of their only previous All Ireland final if they can defeat Dublin in Saturday’s semi at Parnell Park (5pm).
The champions, going for their fifth title on the trot, avenged their Munster final defeat by Kerry with an emphatic 4-14 to 0-13 victory at the Gaelic Grounds in Limerick at the weekend.
They have won a remarkable nine out of the last 10 titles, though only edged surprise package Armagh by a point in 2006 and had to come back from 10 down to pip the Dubs in last September’s showpiece.
Dublin will want another crack at Eamonn Ryan’s Rebelettes while Armagh are aiming to go one better than last season when they fell at the penultimate hurdle after a superb summer which brought a first Ulster title in seven seasons.
Cork have knocked Armagh out in each of the past two years, an agonising one point defeat in the 2013 qualifiers on the Orchard outfit’s return to Senior football after lifting the All-Ireland Intermediate title, and then by an emphatic 14 points in last season’s semi.
They will have to be beaten eventually if Armagh are to claim the sport’s top prize but James Daly’s ladies are content to be taking a different route this time and would happily face Cork in Croke Park.
That said, Leinster champions Dublin will be formidable opponents this weekend having come so close last term and been the only team, in 2010, to punctuate Cork’s astonishing decade of dominance.
Having previously come close with Monaghan and now his present team, Dublin boss Gregory McGonigle is more determined than ever to win an All-Ireland although there is a school of thought that his side are less well equipped than last season.
Although Cork claimed the Brendan Martin Cup, Dublin were regarded as last season’s outstanding side which was reflected in them leading the All Stars shortlist with 11 nominees to Cork’s 10.
However five of those have since hung up their Dublin boots including one of their four recipients, forward Sinead Aherne, along with goalkeeper Cliodhna O’Connor, defenders Siobhan McGrath and Leah Caffrey and another attacker, Lindsay Peat. The experienced Denise Masterson has also gone.
That still leaves a significant nucleus of top players led by one of the sport’s poster girls Sinead Goldrick, her successor as skipper Lyndsey Davey and their fellow 2014 All Star Noelle Healy.
Full back Sorcha Furlong and top prospect Carla Rowe were nominated for All Stars last season while shortlisted defender Rachel Ruddy isn’t guaranteed a place in Dublin’s starting team along with talented midfielder Molly Lamb.
The Dubs have been bolstered by an influx from their All-Ireland Under 21 team of 2014 and the promising newcomers include goalkeeper Ciara Trant, Olwen Carey, Nicole Owens and Amy Connolly with Fiona Hudson and Kim Flood returning to the ranks and domicilled Londoner Hannah Noonan a useful addition.
Centre half back Sinead Finnegan is a significant figure, flanked by Goldrick and Niamh Collins, while Sarah McCaffrey has stepped up to take responsibility in midfield this weekend she will be up against the All-Ireland Player of the Year in Orchard captain Caroline O’Hanlon.
So, like their men’s side, Dublin ladies hardly lack talent or depth but aren’t as strong relatively as the boys in blue and haven’t fully fired this season in spite of winning what is presently the weakest provincial championship.
Although they upset Cork in the last round of NFL Division One fixtures, Dublin finished fourth in the table and were well beaten by Galway in the subsequent semi-final before predictably coming through the Leinster Championship culminating in an unimpressive victory over Westmeath.
Dublin beat Westmeath – who were reduced to 14 players for 10 minutes – by seven, only a point less than Armagh’s margin in the qualifiers and that wasn’t regarded as a particularly distinguished display by Daly’s ladies.
Apart from that NFL semi against Galway it could be argued that Dublin have largely done what they’ve had to this season so far and they saw off formidable Monaghan in the recent quarter-final by 1-13 to 0-13.
Monaghan beat Armagh by 12 in the Ulster semi-final but then lost the decider to Donegal who the Orchard crew duly accounted for last time out in a thrilling last eight tie after negotiating the back door route to the quarter-finals with wins over Laois and Westmeath.
This Saturday’s is an intriguing tussle not least because these counties haven’t met in a competitive match since an NFL fixture in 2009 when, ironically, Ulsterman McGonigle was the Armagh manager.
Armagh were relegated that year having just lost the O’Donnell twins to premature retirement, though the pair may be useful to the Orchard cause this time by being able to offer detailed insight on the opposition’s top players having spent the last four seasons playing club football in the capital for Na Fianna.
The only woman to have captained Armagh to victory in an All-Ireland semi-final, Bronagh O’Donnell remains an avid follower of the county team and has expressed delight at their resurgence under Daly.
Armagh have suffered only nine defeats in Daly’s 54 matches as manager and, having played only one All-Ireland semi-final in her first 12 seasons in the orange jersey, skipper O’Hanlon is now looking forward to a second in 12 months.
She is among the experienced core who played for Armagh under McGonigle, who has also managed some of the present team for Clann Eireann, UUJ and Ulster, but the Orchard hope has subsequently been rekindled by the emergence of so many fresh faces.
Not only did Daly bring in a wave of his Armagh Minor team who won the All-Ireland B title in 2011 – the likes of Fionnuala McKenna and his daughter, goalkeeper Katie – he has since added significant fresh faces each campaign.
It was a blonde forward from Crossmaglen, Sharon Duncan, who famously scored Armagh’s winning point in that 2006 All-Ireland semi-final victory over Galway and now the mantle has passed to Lauren McConville.
McConville and fellow wing woman Aoife McCoy, who is doubtful for Saturday after spraining her ankle badly in injury-time against Donegal, were fantastic finds last season with Aimee Mackin and Aoife Lennon invaluable additions this year.
Teenage scoring machine Mackin currently tops the Orchard charts with 15-53 from 11 matches in her first senior season and returning soccer star Lennon led the way on the scoreboard in the Donegal game.
Like Dublin, Armagh haven’t been as impressive as last summer but, apart from the Monaghan match, have so far done what they’ve had to and showed fantastic character to get over the line against Ulster champions Donegal last time out.
Armagh have a good balance between youth and experience and a highly-regarded management team led by Daly and head coach Aileen Matthews who have a good track record in coming up with the right gameplan.
Dublin are a physical side who defend in numbers but also attack well when the opportunity presents itself and Daly asserts that they have few weaknesses but Armagh have the wherewithal to hurt teams too and the Orchard defence can contain prolific forwards.
The heart and fitness shown against Donegal proved the Orchard crew won’t be beaten easily and, aside from the respect the opposition and occasion demand, there is unlikely to be a particular fear factor facing the Dubs.
If Armagh’s hardened defenders can contain the likes of Davey and Healy, their young fearless forwards can do damage at the other end, particularly if O’Hanlon and her helpers win the midfield battle.
It remains to be seen whether regular full forward McKenna continues in midfield where she started the Donegal game or Daly reverts to the captain’s Carrickcruppen clubmate Caitlin Malone to partner her there.
Even with two first choice players Louise Kenny and Niamh Henderson sidelined by knee injuries along with frontline subs Moya Feehan and Sinead McCoy, Daly has still had options and been able to field horses for courses in spite of having a much smaller player pool in the Orchard county than there is in Dublin.
But the old adage about the fight in the dog rather than the dog in the fight comes to mind and the ferocious competitors in the Armagh ranks like vice-captain Caoimhe Morgan, Mairead Tennyson, Sharon Reel, Sinead McCleary and the rest won’t be found wanting this weekend.
The two most prominent players from the missing generation of the wilderness years between the halcyon era of the mid-noughties and this second coming, Niamh Marley and Kelly Mallon, are really relishing contributing to a successful side.
The four Marley sisters, including the unsung Sarah, have been buoyed by Lissummon’s Armagh Intermediate Championship success last week, while Shane O’Neill’s skipper Mackin will want to bounce back from that disappointment.
Incidentally the last time Lissummon won a club championship was the only other occasion Armagh reached Croke Park so that will hopefully prove a good omen this Saturday.
Armagh have happy memories of winning successive NFL finals in Parnell Park and don’t appear bothered by having to play this televised semi in Dublin’s backyard so there is no obvious unease about the opposition technically having home advantage.
The venue is easily accessible for Orchard supporters and this is the perfect chance for fans to flock to Dublin and get behind our Armagh heroes who are doing the county exceptionally proud.