Glorious year for Armagh ladies
It ultimately may not have delivered the holy grail but Armagh’s second most successful season ever has generated fresh hope that All-Ireland glory may not be beyond James Daly’s Ulster champions.
Captain Caroline O’Hanlon being crowned All-Ireland Player of the Year at the All-Stars banquet simply put the icing on the Orchard cake at the end of a hugely encouraging campaign following last year’s series of agonising near misses.
Before being beaten by perpetual champions Cork in September’s All-Ireland semi, the orangewomen won 13 matches out of 13 in 2014 with O’Hanlon lifting two trophies in her first season as official county captain.
Armagh finally secured the National League Division Three title, trophy and all-important promotion place with a 100 percent record, culminating in a nine-point triumph over Waterford in the televised decider.
They followed up by ending seven lean years at provincial level with a stunning Ulster Championship success based on a hat-trick on impressive victories over three teams who had spent the spring playing two NFL levels above them.
After thrashing bitter rivals Tyrone by 15 points in front of a five-figure curtain-raiser crowd in the Athletic Grounds, the Orchard crew came from behind to defeat Donegal by six in the semi and then memorably dethroned champions Monaghan in a packed Clones.
Sadly, little more than a week after that glorious occasion came the untimely passing, following a brave battle with cancer, of Ann Daly, wife of Armagh manager James, mother of county team goalkeeper Katie, and former Ladies County Board Secretary.
There was a poignant minute’s silence before August’s All-Ireland quarter-final in Tullamore and the team she had supported so faithfully did Ann’s memory proud by demolishing Laois en route to a remarkable 23-point victory.
Armagh were on the receiving end of an exceptional performance from seemingly invincible champions Cork next day out, dashing hopes of a trip to Croke Park, but Daly’s side had already claimed title of surprise packages for 2014.
The high point was that superb performance in the Ulster final against a formidable Monaghan side managed by John Morrison who were hot favourites for a fifth title on the trot but had no answer to Armagh’s magnificence.
The team taking the trophy on a delirious lap of honour in front of over 20,000 people at St Tiernach’s Park will live long in the memory but, because the top priority this season was clinching that overdue promotion, the NFL final victory in Dublin two months earlier was also a landmark day.
It was frustrating for Armagh to be back in Division Three for another season but they approached the task professionally under Daly and newly-recruited coach Aileen Matthews, with two more former Orchard heroes, Patricia McAvoy and Fionnuala McAtamney, joining the backroom team as the season progressed.
Armagh had to show character in the opening league game, coming from behind at half-time away to the much-heralded Tipperary to claim victory in spite of facing into the wind in the second period with a player in the sinbin and being without new captain O’Hanlon. Fionnuala McKenna kicked seven frees in her nine-point tally.
An easy away win at lowly Wexford was followed by home victories over Longford and awful Offaly on the plastic pitch at Newry’s Abbey Grammar before Armagh tore Leitrim to shreds in Silverbridge.
They won by 30 points but next time out had to dig deep on the same field against Sligo in battling back from eight points down, with 13 minutes left, to edge home 4-9 to 3-10.
Five second half goals including a Siobhan Mackle hat-trick gave Armagh a comprehensive victory away to Waterford as the table’s top two met in the last regular league game, with the visitors triumphing 6-12 to 1-5.
In a facile semi-final, Armagh demolished a Tipperary team with reported problems, leading 6-8 to no score at the interval and going on to win 9-15 to 0-2 with former captain Mags McAlinden helping herself to a hat-trick of goals.
After last year’s disastrous slip-up against neighbours Down, there was claustrophobic pressure on Armagh to get the job done this time and after taking time to settle they came through to win the final by a comfortable, if flattering, nine point margin in spite of full-forward Kelly Mallon being red carded.
Crossmaglen’s Lauren McConville and Player of the Match McKenna top-scored with 1-2 apiece in a 1-14 to 1-5 victory garnished by three points from supersub Mackle.
McKenna just pipped veteran vice-captain Caoimhe Morgan for the individual award on an afternoon favourites Armagh led by seven at the break and never really looked like being overhauled at Parnell Park.
Without first choice corner back Sarah Marley due to a broken ankle but backed by a big curtain-raiser crowd who had turned out in response to the Get There Early campaign, Armagh gave a dream display in thrashing bitter rivals Tyrone in the Athletic Grounds in the Ulster quarter-final.
Leading at half-time, the Orchard crew added 1-11 in the second half to a solitary goal by the visitors to record a comprehensive victory by 2-17 to 1-5 ahead of the Armagh men’s Ulster Championship clash with Cavan. O’Hanlon landed six points and McKenna five.
In the semi-final against Donegal in Lisnaskea, Armagh had to battle back from four down after 10 minutes to win by six thanks to an O’Hanlon goal early in the second half and an eight-point haul from McKenna.
The Ulster final was switched from Omagh to Clones on a double bill with the men’s semi-final replay against Monaghan and Armagh really rose to the occasion against a team that had won the last Championship clash between these counties by 24 points in 2011.
In a hugely impressive performance, Armagh led by two at half-time and, in spite of a controversial Monaghan goal, held their nerve and then pulled away, with O’Hanlon nailing a late penalty before lifting the trophy to a great Orchard roar.
Armagh really began to be talked about as serious All-Ireland contenders after handing outclassed Laois an astonishing 23-point pasting in August’s quarter-final, O’Hanlon leading the way with 2-6.
But that commanding display from the season’s surprise packages got champions Cork on red alert and the Rebelettes produced one of their most complete performances ever in the semi-final in Longford, winning by the comfortable margin of 14 points.
A disappointed Daly indicated afterwards that he was standing down as manager but thankfully player persuasion proved effective and his recent reappointment for a fourth season in charge is a big boost to Orchard hopes of building on the impressive progress made this term.
After their heroic campaign finally ended, Armagh ladies were honoured at a joint civic reception courtesy of the three local Councils and a Stormont reception hosted by Sports Minister Caral Ni Chuilin.
Skipper O’Hanlon, who won a series of awards, topped the Orchard scoring charts with an impressive personal tally of 15-38 from midfield, hitting the net in all but two of her Armagh matches, one point ahead of McKenna who contributed 4-70.
Mairead Tennyson’s spectacularly successful conversion to corner-back was rightly rewarded with an All-Star while the nominations for the formidable McKenna and Sinead McCleary were the least that duo deserved.
Morgan was unlucky not to be shortlisted but it wasn’t just a season in which experienced players excelled in the orange jersey – newcomers McConville and Dromintee’s Aoife McCoy had excellent first seasons, the former joining the vice-captain and McKenna as one of three ever-presents in the starting side.
With the remodelled management team having had less than a full season together, this is still a fresh set-up which has plenty of positive energy and untapped potential to take into next spring’s NFL Division Two campaign when Armagh have high hopes of securing a second successive promotion.