Armagh primed for silver lining
By Richard Bullick
Armagh meet Waterford in Sunday’s All Ireland Intermediate final at Croke Park (2pm) having already defeated the south eastern county in the course of this Championship campaign.
It will actually be the third meeting of the summer between James Daly’s ladies and this weekend’s opponents, starting with a drawn group game in Killeavy on an afternoon when Armagh were missing star player Caroline O’Hanlon.
Both teams subsequently beat Down and London to finish joint top of Group A, with Armagh having eight points to spare in the play-off for first place at a neutral venue in Dublin.
That 4-14 to 2-12 victory put the Orchard County crew into the semi-finals with the other two group winners while Waterford reached the last four by coming through a play-off series involving the three runners-up.
In last month’s semis, Armagh impressively saw off Longford in Birr before Waterford put paid to the prospect of an all-Ulster clash by beating Fermanagh a week later. These two teams know each other well but playing in Croke Park gives this latest encounter a different dimension.
Armagh have four survivors in their starting line-up from the team which came agonisingly close to a famous victory over Cork in the senior All Ireland final of 2006 and that extra experience could count in their favour.
In their first senior season having won the Junior All Ireland the previous year, the orange women went into that match as rank outsiders against a seemingly invincible Cork outfit but led in the first half and were ultimately unlucky to be beaten by a point.
The loss of several leading lights from that team has contributed to Armagh’s fortunes fading in recent seasons, culminating in a drop down to the intermediate ranks in 2012.
That was a bitter pill to swallow but at least held out the prospect of a silver lining in the form of a big day out at Croke Park at the end of the season and, albeit the All Ireland hurling final replay has made them wait an extra week, Armagh are where they want to be.
Their experience of the biggest stage should prove very valuable but Daly is also looking to the exuberance of his young guns who he hopes will play with freedom rather than fear in the biggest game of their lives so far.
Armagh have a good mix of fresh faces and old hands with three teenagers playing prominent roles in the starting line-up and 20-year-old Niamh Marley of Lissummon occupying the important position of centre half back.
No fewer than half Armagh’s match day panel of 30 come from South Armagh clubs with five each from Carrickcruppen and Dromintee, a pair apiece from Crossmaglen and Killeavy and Mairead Tennyson – a veteran of the 2006 All Ireland final – flying the flag for Silverbridge.
However, of the South Armagh contingent, only O’Hanlon, club mate Marian McGuinness and Killeavy’s Sharon Reel are set to start unless the manager’s 18-year-old daughter Katie Daly is again pressed into service in nets.
First choice goalkeeper Catherine McAlinden remains doubtful for Armagh with a shoulder injury with Dromintee’s Daly’s, a strapping six-footer, standing by to deputise as she did in the semi-final.
In O’Hanlon and McCleary, Armagh have a midfield pairing that would walk into most senior sides in the country and is among the reasons that McAlinden’s ladies will start favourites to lift the trophy.
Armagh’s men have sometimes struggled for natural scoring options in recent years but the likes of O’Hagan, McAlinden, Mallon, Ciara Lennon and O’Hanlon are not only well capable of taking points but know where the net is.
The wide open spaces of Croke Park should suit Armagh with the strong forward runs of O’Hanlon, McCleary, McKenna and wing backs Niamh Henderson and Sharon Reel creating headaches for Waterford.
Nothing can be taken for granted, especially in a final, but Armagh definitely know they are good enough to bring home the trophy. They should embrace being favourites and play positively with high work-rate in trying to make the extra experience and class count.
ARMAGH (probable): C McAlinden; C McCann, L Brown, S Marley, S Reel, N Marley, N Henderson; S McCleary, C O’Hanlon; M McGuinness, M McAlinden (capt), F McKenna, C Lennon, S O’Hagan, K Mallon.
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