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Brave Armagh go down fighting

August 12, 2019

MAYO 2-12 ARMAGH 1-12

Richard Bullick in Longford

It was a case of so near but yet so far for Armagh as they bowed out of the TG4 Senior Championship with broken hearts but heads held high after an absorbing battle with Mayo in Longford.

The All-Ireland dream is over for another year and Armagh joint managers Lorraine McCaffrey and Fionnuala McAtamney stepped down afterwards with heavy hearts, so 2020 will have to be another fresh start in that sense.

However, whoever takes over will be building from firm foundations given the hard work which has been done and the promise shown, and this is certainly a time for Orchard hope rather than despair.

Fresh from shocking Cork two weeks earlier, Armagh put their best foot forward again in Pearse Park and although it wasn’t quite enough for victory on the day, understandable disappointment shouldn’t be accompanied by bitter regrets.

Season-ending defeats are tough to take but this wasn’t a self-destruct case study like the Ulster final or a bewildering implosion like the subsequent All-Ireland group game defeat against Cavan.

What had in advance looked like an intriguing tussle predictably proved the closest and best of this season’s quarter-finals as two well-matched teams went at it with everything they had for 60 minutes.

The Orchard crew were well in this tie right until the end of an afternoon which had begun in ominous fashion as Mayo raced into a six points to one lead by only the ninth minute with six separate scorers raising white flags.

That early scoring spree stood to Mayo throughout by making Armagh generally chase the game, but the orangewomen went at that task with invention and determination.

Being denied the services of double All-Star forward Aimee Mackin, cruelly cut down with a torn cruciate in that famous win over Cork last time out, was a big blow for Armagh.

Their answer was to deploy midfield maestro Caroline O’Hanlon up front for most of the game and, two days after her 35th birthday, the former All-Ireland Player of the Year led the way with seven points in spite of injury issues.

The swirling wind also took a couple of her elevated efforts just off target at the very last moment and a high shot from Blaithin Mackin was so close it took lengthy consultation before a point wasn’t given.

It was a day when small margins, both literal and metaphorical, made all the difference and, in such close contests, whoever would lose will torment themselves reviewing many moments much like people can’t stop picking at scabs.

The orangewomen weren’t robbed by any means but likewise could have won without it being any injustice and have very little to beat themselves up about.

If Armagh had another game coming up, they would have taken plenty of positives from a proud performance full of hope against one of the country’s top teams but it is always tough when the season comes to a sudden end.

Scalping Cork was never going to guarantee Armagh anything but the right to play in this quarter-final, for another top performance was always going to be needed against formidable Mayo.

There were fears that Tullamore might become Armagh’s metaphorical All-Ireland final given how hard it is to scale the heights again so soon after achieving something special.

On the day though, McCaffrey and McAtamney’s team played well and fought hard, including coming to terms with that free-scoring Mayo full-forward division and scoring a magnificent goal of their own through Kelly Mallon.

There were also two excellent points from Catherine Marley, a previously peripheral figure who was finally given an overdue chance against Cork and now looks like she absolutely belongs.

Poster girl Sarah Rowe topped the charts with 1-3 for Mayo on an afternoon when the western women had an astonishing 10 different scorers in their relatively modest tally of 2-12.

The full-forward trio who had posted 1-20 in the victory over Ulster champions Donegal last day were restricted to a mere 1-6 this time with Grace Kelly scoring just two points and Rachel Kearns, who was taken off for a period, only one.

Mayo manager Peter Leahy paid tribute afterwards to Caoimhe Morgan and the Orchard defence for the way they held his side so well after what had felt like an ominous start.

The torrential rain which arrived right at the end of the game meant the vanquished didn’t stay strewn on the grass in those painfully familiar end-of-championship scenes but captain Morgan could barely drag herself from the field for practical reasons.

Injured in training on Tuesday evening, the evergreen veteran defiantly forced herself through a fitness test on match morning and played through the pain barrier for the full hour.

In agony at times, she still defended effectively, gave vocal leadership as always and bravely put her broken body on the line to deny Mayo a killer goal late on, leading to another prolonged period of treatment.

For various reasons this was the first time in five years that Morgan had been on the field for the final whistle of Armagh’s season and nothing was going to stop this proud captain leading her team to victory or going down with the ship.

Sadly it was the latter but this ship will float again and it is important Morgan, who long since owes Armagh nothing but has still so much to offer, remains as skipper under whatever new regime emerges.

Even at the age of 36 and after 19 seasons in the orange jersey the fire still burns brightly for Morgan and that other timeless Orchard hero O’Hanlon, who was also suffering from injury on the day but predictably refused to give in.

On Saturday, the entire team died with their boots on though vice-captain Mallon and another of Armagh’s metaphorical big beasts, Niamh Marley, were left watching helplessly at the end after being brought off.

Getting Niamh Murphy on as a target full-forward was worth a gamble but substituting these two warriors with proven pedigree were huge calls that it was hard to understand or agree with.

Towering Mullaghbawn captain Murphy almost won a ball inside which could have brought an equalising goal but Mayo survived and froze the Orchard out by keeping possession upfield for the remaining two minutes of injury-time.

The hooter confirmed 2017 All Ireland runners-up Mayo’s return to Croke Park on Sunday week when they will meet Connacht rivals Galway in the first set of ladies semi-finals ever to be played at headquarters.

Getting through was a real relief for Mayo who established scoreboard control in the early stages but briefly found themselves behind 10 minutes into the second half with captain Niamh Kelly in the sinbin when Mallon scored that great goal.

It was a short-lived lead, sub Fiona Doherty almost immediately levelling with a huge point and then Rowe delivered a delightful left-footed finish to Anna Carr’s net two minutes later.

Although Mallon had kicked a wide just 19 seconds into the game, Morgan’s foul on full-forward Rachel Kearns gave Rowe an equalising free and Grace Kelly put Mayo ahead from play before Sarah Marley and Colleen McKenna forced her to over-carry in the next attack.

O’Hanlon opened the Orchard account with a well-taken point from a Niamh Marley rumble but Sinead Cafferky replied and further points from Niamh Kelly, Kearns and midfielder Clodagh McManamon followed.

Clodagh McCambridge came out from the back on a storming run and O’Hanlon took the ball on but Reel’s shot was weak, though undaunted Armagh got two points in as many minutes to close the gap to a goal.

Aoife McCoy scored the first after good approach play by Mackin and O’Hanlon, who then fired over a nice shot on the turn but Mayo swiftly hit back with a Maria Reilly goal.

That put six between them but Armagh pulled back two of those points in less than two minutes, through a lovely left-footed point from O’Hanlon and a score she set up for the other nominated midfielder Tiarna Grimes.

A hard hit on Morgan in her own square left the Orchard captain needing attention and, after several enterprising Armagh attacks produced nothing, they were grateful for a brilliant save by Carr with her foot at the other end.

Rowe kicked another free which was cancelled out by one from Mallon after a very long stoppage for treatment to O’Hanlon, who didn’t get to her feet for a full three minutes.

She was soon back running hard though, only to see the wind take another of her high shots wide, but Catherine Marley drove over a superb point in injury-time to make it 0-7 to 1-7 at the break, when defender Rebecca O’Reilly replaced Reel for Armagh.

Rowe and Grace Kelly extended Mayo’s lead to five after O’Hanlon missed a free but she then kicked two by the sixth minute of the second half, the latter awarded when she was hauled down by Niamh Kelly, who chose a sinbinning over an Armagh goal.

Catherine Marley rounded off an attack featuring sibling Niamh, herself, Mallon and O’Hanlon with another superbly struck point and better was to follow for Armagh after a couple of Mayo wides.

McCambridge broke down Carr’s kickout, Niamh Marley went down the left and O’Hanlon played the ball across to Mallon who shrugged off a defender and delivered a wonderful finish from an acute angle on the right.

There was good noise now from the Armagh support but the Doherty point and Rowe goal restored the three-point gap which had applied at the interval and would be the eventual victory margin for Mayo.

Roaming full-back Danielle Caldwell, who got Player of the Match, and O’Hanlon traded points midway through the half and the latter kicked a wide just before Niamh Kelly returned.

With the game perfectly poised the Armagh management made a huge call with seven minutes remaining, replacing Mallon and Niamh Marley with the respective Mullaghbawn and Crossmaglen captains, Murphy and Aveen Donaldson.

Grace Kelly drew a blank with a free and O’Hanlon landed one after a lot of hard work from Armagh though their next attempt, by Blaithin Mackin from play, was finally adjudged to have gone just wide high up.

Just into injury-time, Mayo looked on for a conclusive goal but Morgan’s courageous challenge kept the scoreboard damage, whatever about the heavy knock to herself, to a free from sub Natasha Gaughan.

Sarah Marley, O’Hanlon, Megan Sheridan and Mackin combined before Donaldson looked for Murphy, but she couldn’t quite win possession and the Orchard’s chance had gone for Mayo came away and thereafter ran down the clock with great efficiency.

Armagh just couldn’t get their hands on the ball as time ran out on this campaign, Orchard hopes of a return to Croke Park for the first time in seven years and the dedicated tenure of McCaffrey and McAtamney.

ARMAGH: A Carr; S Marley, M Moriarty, C Morgan (capt); M Sheridan, C McCambridge, C McKenna; T Grimes (0-1), N Marley; K Mallon (1-1, 1f), B Mackin, C Marley (0-2); A McCoy (0-1), C O’Hanlon (0-7, 3f), N Reel.  Subs used: R O’Reilly for Reel (ht), A Donaldson for N Marley (53), N Murphy for Mallon (53).

MAYO: A Tarpey; N O’Malley, D Caldwell (0-1), E Roynane; K Sullivan, Ciara McManamon, C Whyte; Clodagh McManamon (0-1), E Needham; S Cafferky (0-1), M Reilly (1-0), N Kelly (capt; 0-1); S Rowe (1-3, 2f), R Kearns (0-1), G Kelly (0-2).  Subs used: F Doherty (0-1) for Reilly (ht), L Cafferky for Kearns (ht), A Gilroy for Needham (39), Kearns for G Kelly (56), N Gaughan (0-1, 1f) for Rowe (59).

Referee: Jonathan Murphy (Carlow).

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