Sports

Armagh’s Ulster dream blown away

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Armagh’s Ulster dream blown away thumbnail AIMEE Mackin was Armagh’s top-scorer against Donegal in Saturday's Ulster Championship clash.

ARMAGH'S hopes of a surprise Ulster final appearance were blown away as they saw an 11-point interval lead overhauled by Donegal in an enthralling, hard-fought game in Greencastle.

DONEGAL 1-14
ARMAGH 1-10

Saturday evening's wind-affected affair was the ultimate game of two halves and Donegal got over the line in the end after making the most of their turn to exploit the elements.

Deadly Donegal captain Geraldine McLaughlin led the way with 1-7 of her team's tally on an evening their other seven scores came from seven different players while Aimee Mackin top-scored for Armagh with 1-3.

This was an often feisty, physically hard-hitting game as should be expected from a Championship match between two teams who had an Ulster showpiece place at stake and points to prove against each other.

Armagh have got the better of Donegal in big games over recent years but were well beaten in January's NFL fixture between these teams and Orchard boss Sean O'Kane facing his previous side also added extra spice as did the tricky conditions with heavy rain initially and strong wind throughout.

There had been high hopes at half-time that Armagh might have a sufficient cushion for facing into that breeze after an impressive performance in the opening period but Donegal got too much momentum and eventually edged ahead for the first time in the 55th minute.

Most teams would have been dead and buried by the break but this strong, confident, experienced Donegal side has superb belief following their excellent National League campaign.

Seeing a double-digit lead evaporate inevitably feels like a lost opportunity and Armagh will wonder what might have been, but they can take positives from this spirited display against a much-fancied Donegal side.

Although outscored 1-14 to 0-2 in the last half hour, this showing was nothing like the abject capitulation against Monaghan in the corresponding game last year when the then favourites Armagh got only one point in the second half until injury-time and did themselves no justice.

It was also a superior Orchard display to their disappointing performance in Convoy back at the start of this year when losing to newly-promoted Donegal by 11 points in their opening game of the National League.

The Orangewomen went into this Championship clash as obvious underdogs against high-flying Division One table toppers Donegal but really rose to the occasion in spite of fielding a badly depleted team.

Fans feared that the Orchard outfit facing Donegal's famed forward duo of McLaughlin and Yvonne McMonagle without hugely experienced All Star defenders Caoimhe Morgan and Mairead Tennyson would prove a crippling psychological hurdle never mind the tough practical challenge.

But youngsters Clodagh McCambridge and Megan Sheridan both secured confidence-boosting triumphs against their illustrious opponents in the first five minutes as each earned relieving frees and Armagh also reaped rewards for some enterprising play at the other end.

Aimee Mackin netted in the fourth minute and a series of points kept the scoreboard ticking over as Armagh made a much more promising start than their supporters could have hoped, doing well both in attack and defence.

Recently relegated from the top flight of the National League and coming into the Ulster Championship campaign on the back of eight defeats in their last 10 competitive matches, the Orchard cause wasn't helped here by the absence of far too many notable names.

Any Armagh followers who arrived early enough to get a programme or hear the initial announcement over the tannoy must have been dismayed that the names of Tennyson, Niamh Marley and Sharon Reel were missing from the listed starting line-up along with injured captain Morgan.

Tennyson and Niamh Marley had both pulled out of the Ulster squad for last month's interpros while Reel was carried off in a club game three weeks ago, leading to speculation as to what role if any they would play against Donegal.

As it transpired, thankfully Niamh Marley and Reel did take the field for the throw-in as two of three late changes to Armagh's published line-up, coming in for Crossmaglen's Aveen Donaldson and St Peter's rookie Tiarna Grimes respectively.

That pair's inclusion from off the off was a source of great relief for the Orchard faithful but the third alteration dashed hopes that Kelly Mallon was ready to start on what would be her first Armagh appearance of the season after missing the entire NFL campaign with tendon trouble.

Her absence meant a relatively rare start for Catherine Marley who gave perhaps her most productive display in the orange jersey to date, albeit blighted by an unnecessary yellow card which saw Armagh reduced to 14 players for 10 minutes of the first half.

Seasoned campaigners Tennyson and Mallon were brought on in the second half when the Orchard crew were desperate to turn the tide but, lacking match fitness, neither had the sort of significant impact which would normally be expected while Amy Mulholland wasn't fit to take her place on the bench.

The team which finally took the field in Greencastle showed just two personnel changes to the initial line-up for April's relegation play-off defeat to Monaghan at the Athletic Grounds, though there were also a number of positional switches.

Inspirational leader Morgan, who sustained a significant knee injury in a club match later that month, was replaced in a reshuffled defence by experienced Carrickcruppen player Marian McGuinness who for various reasons has had little Armagh game-time since the last Ulster title triumph in 2014 but played the full hour here and didn't let the team down.

The Orchard captain's youngest sister Catherine Marley took over from Dromintee's Shauna Grey, who was deployed as a somewhat ill-suited sweeper last time out against Monaghan but no longer appears to be part of the panel.

Considering Donegal topped the first division table this spring, in contrast to Armagh's relegation, before hammering Galway in the semi and only losing the NFL decider by a single point against Cork - who they thumped away from home in the regular league game - few would have given much for the Orchard's chances coming into this tie.

However having first use of the strong breeze was just what Armagh needed and they quickly cashed in with a well-taken fourth minute goal from Aimee Mackin following a good run by Lauren McConville.

It was the perfect start for Armagh who had doubled their lead by the 11th minute thanks to two long-range frees from Fionnuala McKenna, who had missed her first from even further out, either side of a great point by the diminutive McConville.

The first successful free was won by McKenna herself and the second by Catherine Marley, who was combining well down the left with sibling Sarah who was on the ball more in the early exchanges than the experienced corner back would normally be in a whole Armagh match.

The Orchard had enjoyed a real let-off at the other end when McLaughlin got through and went for goal but put the ball wide and an excellent long-range effort from Mackin after McCoy and McConville attacked from turnover ball put Armagh seven up in spite of Catherine Marley's sinbinning midway through the half.

Older sibling Niamh was a typically powerful presence who had also intercepted a couple of Donegal attacks in the first quarter but Catherine's high hit, which left her opponent requiring prolonged treatment, gave the referee little choice but to brandish yellow.

Irate Donegal manager Michael Naughton was sensibly banished to the stand by Down whistler Gavin Corrigan for his over the top protestations and it will be interesting to see if the Ulster Council hands their President a touchline ban! McConville and McCoy, from an impossible angle on the right, both pointed in the space of 60 seconds and although her younger sibling Blaithin kicked a wide from distance, Aimee Mackin added two long left-footers from either side of the field to ensure Armagh led 1-8 to no score at the break.

Armagh had kicked a few wides in that first half and McCoy hit the crossbar during nearly eight minutes of injury-time legitimately added on for all those stoppages but 11 points was still a substantial lead for turning into the wind with.

Coleman charged down McMonagle early in the second period but Donegal got a slightly lucky goal through McLaughlin six minutes after the resumption when the ball deflected to her and goalkeeper Caroline O'Hare managed to get a strong hand to the shot but couldn't keep it out.

With Armagh not innovating enough from their own kickouts and consequently pinned deep in their own territory facing waves of attack, the opposing skipper followed up by kicking a long point and two frees in a purple patch which brought Donegal 1-3 in a three-minute purple patch.

McCoy chipped a point for Armagh to break the scoring sequence but both Donegal midfielders had raised white flags at the other end within a minute and some madness in the Orchard defence led to another free for McLaughlin to close the gap to three points midway through the half.

Tennyson replaced Catherine Marley at the start of the last quarter as O'Kane tried to shore up the Orchard defence but corner back Treasa Doherty came up to take a score just as she had done for Ulster in the interpro final.

Mallon was sent on up front for Blaithin Mackin but another opposition point meant McLaughlin's sixth score brought favourites Donegal level in the 53rd minute just before an injured Niamh Marley had to be replaced by Grange's Colleen McKenna.

Although it just looked like cramp, presumably Marley's hamstring must have been giving her trouble again or O'Kane would hardly have taken off such an important player.

A huge point from Eilish Ward put Donegal ahead for the first time with just over five minutes left, though the increasingly involved O'Hanlon levelled with a free into the wind which she herself had won.

However that woman McLaughlin gave Donegal the lead again a minute later and then nudged them two clear after schoolgirl Niamh Reel from Silverbridge was surprisingly introduced in place of an arguably fading McKenna for her first senior appearance in the orange jersey.

Wing back Therese McCafferty struck a towering point to put Donegal three ahead just before the hour was up and then a poor pass from Tennyson for McGuinness saw the latter foul an opponent but the free went wide from long range.

However McMonagle, set up by a soccer-style pass from McLaughlin, did give Donegal that coveted two-score cushion on 62 minutes with what was, uncharacteristically, her only point of the evening and, although injury-time went on for an eternity, Armagh couldn't close the gap.

Defender Nicole McLaughlin was sinbinned for a horrible high tackle which left McCoy requiring lengthy treatment and the second half had run for more than 41 minutes when Corrigan called for the ball.

The Down whistler was arguably too hot on penalising players in possession for minor infringements but Armagh could have few complaints about the officiating or the very generous amount of time added on as they tried to chase the game.

The wind was still a difficulty for Armagh in the closing stages and even stand-in skipper O'Hanlon lost her head a little late on in a game that she finished strongly but couldn't dominate in the manner to which we have become accustomed over many years.

She had barely been on the ball in the opening 10 minutes during which Armagh went six up and it was also an encouraging reflection of how others stepped up that, apart from the early goal, the Orchard's other big star Aimee Mackin wasn't particularly prominent in that period either.

It was great to see McKenna, Armagh's hero last time these teams met in an Ulster Championship semi-final in 2014, more like her old self after appearing to lack confidence during the NFL campaign.

McConville and McCoy showed what Armagh missed while they were in America for last summer's Championship campaign and there was plenty of hunger and purpose in the Orchard display as they built that first half lead on an evening when early rain later gave way to bright sunshine.

McCambridge and Sheridan tackled their daunting task with relish with support from the likes of Niamh Coleman, Reel, McGuinness, the generally prominent Marleys and various forwards who came back to help out and ensure Donegal didn't get too many clear chances to test O'Hare in nets.

In the end Donegal got the expected victory and are likely to meet champions Monaghan - who face Cavan in this Saturday's second semi - in the final on July 2 while Armagh must regroup for the qualifiers next month.

ARMAGH: C O'Hare; M Sheridan, C McCambridge, S Marley; M McGuinness, N Coleman, S Reel; C O'Hanlon (capt; 0-1, 1f), N Marley; F McKenna (0-2, 2f), A McCoy (0-2), A Mackin (1-3); L Mc-Conville (0-2), B Mackin, C Marley.

Subs: M Tennyson for C Marley (47 mins), K Mallon for B Mackin (49), C McKenna for N Marley (53), N Reel for F McKenna (58).

DONEGAL : L Gallagher; T Doherty (0-1), E Gallagher, N McLaughlin; T McCafferty (0-1), C Hegarty, A McDonnell; K Herron (0-1), K Guthrie (0-1, 1f); G Houston, N Hegarty, E Ward (0-1); R Friel, G McLaughlin (capt; 1-7, 4f), Y McMonagle (0-1).

Subs: P McGrory (0-1) for Houston (44 mins), C Gallagher for Friel (65).

Referee : Gavin Corrigan (Down).

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