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Thrilling Orchard draw with Cavan

CAVAN 2-14 ARMAGH 2-14

Richard Bullick reports

Armagh dug deep in coming from eight points down early in the second half to claim a share of the spoils with Cavan as the Ulster rivals served up a thrilling Lidl NFL Division Two draw at Templeport on Saturday.

The visitors actually took the lead briefly courtesy of an Aimee Mackin free after a goal from Lauren McConville had brought the sides level for the first of what would be four times in the last 10 minutes.

But it was the Orchard crew who would twice need equalising scores in the closing stages, the last of them a superb point from that woman Mackin who had been crowned Ulster GAA Writers Player of the Year the night before. 

The double All-Star from Shane O’Neills finished with a personal haul of eight points while her younger sibling Blaithin and Crossmaglen’s McConville each contributed 1-1 on an afternoon when the teams made light of difficult conditions.

This match had originally been advertised as the opening game of a double bill with a Cavan men’s NFL fixture and no doubt Breffni Park would have been a fitting venue for a fantastic contest which built to an exciting climax.

Even in advance this had looked like a fascinating fixture with these teams having recently been drawn to face each other in June’s Ulster Senior Championship semi-final and the Orchard county coming up against former manager James Daly in his new role as Breffni boss.

Those factors added extra edge going into this clash of two teams seen as strong contenders for the Division Two title and sole promotion play-off place on offer and few would bet against another meeting in the NFL’s knockout stages.

Armagh are determined to bounce back from their rather unluckly relegation last spring while Cavan have their sights set on promotion to top flight league football after knocking on the door for several seasons.

Cavan are desperate to go one better after finishing level with Westmeath at the top of the table last season and drawing with them in the Division Two final before being beaten in a replay.

In the last two of his four seasons at the Orchard helm, Daly steered Armagh to back-to-back promotions and taking fancied Cavan up to the elite level of the NFL is his first big goal as Breffni boss.

They won their opening game away to 2017 semi-finalists Laois while Armagh had lost a healthy lead at home to newly-promoted Tipperary in Lorraine McCaffrey and Fionnuala McAtamney’s first match as joint managers.

That frustrating result put pressure on Armagh to get something out of this Cavan clash even though it perhaps appeared on paper their most difficult fixture of this campaign and they duly did so. 

In spite of failing to take several goal chances, the orangewomen were well placed at the interval, turning round only two points behind to play with the wind at their backs after a fluctuating first half which saw Armagh keep in touch with their hosts.

Cavan had posted two points in the opening two minutes before former captain Caroline O’Hanlon got Armagh on the scoreboard and the visitors took the lead when Blaithin Mackin followed her elder sibling’s first score of the day by hitting the net in the 10th minute.

That made it 1-2 to 0-3 and although Cavan got the next six scores to lead by four, the Orchard rallied again as St Peter’s prospect Tiara Grimes, again partnering O’Hanlon in midfield, hit her first ever Armagh point followed by a free and point from Aimee Mackin.

There was still time for Bronagh Sheridan to post her fourth point of the half, one of them a free, to make it 0-10 to 1-5 at the break, All-Star nominee Aisling Doonan having hit half their tally, including four frees, and corner forward Andrea O’Reilly also getting on the scoresheet.

However both Doonan and Ashling Sheridan struck for goals in the opening seven minutes of the second period to leave Armagh staring a second defeat of 2018 in the face, although time and the wind were on their side.

Armagh’s response was swift, Aimee Mackin kicking a point and a free within a minute, quickly followed by a score from McConville.  Blaithin Mackin got Armagh’s fourth point in a row and although Aisling Doonan replied with a free, Aimee Mackin and Dromintee’s Aoife McCoy got scores in quick succession to leave just a goal between the teams.

That goal came on 52 minutes from McConville and when Aimee Mackin tagged on a free to put Armagh’s noses in front, the visitors had outscored their hosts by 1-7 to a single point since the second Cavan goal and now the momentum was with them.

To their credit, Cavan hit back as Ashling Sheridan got them on even terms with a point from play before Bronagh Sheridan threw down the gauntlet with a free as Daly’s ladies went ahead again.

The impressive O’Hanlon, another major award winner during the week, cancelled that out but, when Ashling Sheridan struck again, it needed that excellent effort from Aimee Mackin to leave the game all square at the final whistle.

Although Armagh are still searching for their first victory of 2018 and in spite of briefly being ahead with the wind at their tails, Saturday surely constitutes points gained rather than dropped and sets them up positively for this Sunday’s trip to Sligo.

There are no easy games in this exceptionally competitive division and Sligo have home advantage against Armagh but unlike Tipperary and Cavan wouldn’t be seen as realistic contenders for the title.