Daly developing depth in Orchard ranks
Three wins from their first four NFL fixtures leaves Armagh ladies well placed to push for a second successive promotion but it isn’t the only significant statistic which points to a positive start to the season for the Orchard outfit.
Already no fewer than 28 players have had at least one start for Armagh this year with a further four having got game-time off the bench and Marian McGuinness still to feature due to injury so manager James Daly is proactively developing depth without sacrificing results.
The one-point defeat at Donegal, their first reversal in a regular League game for three years, means Daly’s ladies trail the north west women and free-scoring table toppers Cavan but that result can reasonably be attributed to difficult circumstances.
Both their Ulster rivals have 100 percent records at this stage but must still play each other and Armagh have yet to face Cavan, this Sunday, followed by two home matches so their hopes of a home semi-final remain within their own hands.
Although only up from the third division, Armagh have lived up to their advance billing as serious contenders for the Division Two title with three impressive victories at their Silverbridge base including what became the opening game against old bogey team Westmeath.
Because their scheduled first fixture fell foul of the wintry weather at the start of last month, Armagh have had to play four matches in as many weekends and were consequently quite understrength for that rearranged Donegal game.
In-form Cavan have emerged as a real threat in this division so Sunday’s should be a cracking contest but in advance Donegal away looked like Armagh’s toughest fixture on paper this spring so to only lose it by the minimum margin was far from a poor result.
It is encouraging that Armagh have been winning games at this higher League level in the past fortnight without big guns Caroline O’Hanlon and Fionnuala McKenna, last season’s top two scorers, in the starting team.
Neither featured at all against Kildare and All-Ireland Player of the Year O’Hanlon only came on as a second half substitute in the Clare clash with McKenna still sidelined by an ankle injury sustained in training.
Captain O’Hanlon’s midfield partner from last summer, Niamh Henderson, didn’t appear in either game while her Carrickcruppen clubmate McGuinness hasn’t lined out at all yet.
O’Hanlon hit 15-38 in 12 Armagh matches last season but this time her scoreboard contribution has been a mere 1-6 from three appearances, young sensation Aimee Mackin leading the way with 5-18.
The 17-year-old Camlough girl has topped the Orchard charts on each of her first three starts for the Armagh senior side while Kelly Mallon has relished responsibility for the right-footed free-taking in McKenna’s absence and also moved back from full forward to fill that No 11 jersey.
When Mallon came off at half-time in the Clare fixture, regular right-footed free-taker of 2013 Sinead McCleary resumed dead-ball duties and former captain Mags McAlinden remains another option for that task.
There were nine names on the scoresheet against Clare and the list of 28 starters this term doesn’t include stalwart Sharon Reel who has been eased back via the bench after missing the full pre-season.
The 32 players who have seen some action in the orange jersey include eight entirely fresh faces and two others who weren’t in the panel in 2014 plus Mackin who had one brief run off the bench last spring but is fully involved now.
Mackin, her Shane O’Neill’s clubmate Moya Feehan, Grange schoolgirl Colleen McKenna, Armagh Harps skipper Tanya McCoy, Lissummon’s Sarah Gamble and Forkhill’s Lauren Sheridan have all made their full debuts in the past few weeks.
Sheridan’s sister Megan, Ballyhegan’s Brenda McCormack and Colleen McElherron of Mullaghbawn have each come off the bench for the first time.
Two thirds of the present panel of 33 were on duty for last September’s All-Ireland semi-final against Cork, representing a healthy turnover of players particularly as this has been a settled squad under the same management team and no leading lights have retired.
Last season’s supersub Siobhan Mackle has been lost to a student placement in the United States while the experienced Catherine McAlinden and Caoimhe Murray aren’t there this time along with second string defenders Danielle Morgan, Rebecca O’Reilly and Megan Burns plus Aisling Hughes and Eve Lavery.
The fresh faces are the nine newcomers including Mackin along with two Sineads who have had injury-ravaged careers, Carrickcruppen’s Finnegan and Dromintee’s McCoy. They have had a start apiece on their return to the county colours.
Injury and unavailability have been contributory factors but, like in his first season in 2012, Daly has mixed and matched during the League campaign with multiple personnel changes from week to week augmented by a plethora of positional switches.
In spite of Armagh moving to a higher division and back-to-back promotions being an important objective, the Dromintee man has had the confidence to experiment without worrying about results suffering.
This weekend’s will be an interesting selection with this Cavan clash crucial and hopefully most of his squad available but, up until now, Armagh have had latitude to try things.
Against Kildare and Clare, rather than going for facile routs like Cavan against Down last time out, Daly prioritised developing depth, fielding experimental permutations and bolstering squad spirit by spreading game-time around the panel.
Armagh have enough options now that they may be able to select horses for courses, and possess sufficiently sophisticated coaching to adopt specific plans for any given game while developing strong systems which reduce over-reliance on high-profile players.
Just five players have started all of the first four games with All Star corner back Mairead Tennyson the only one to have worn the same jersey each time. The others – Sarah Marley, McCleary, McConville and Mallon – have played in more than one position.
There has been a good spread of 13 clubs represented rather than Armagh relying heavily on the big two of Clann Eireann and Carrickcruppen, with a quirk of fate actually resulting in the Division One title holders not having a single player taking the field against Kildare.