Armagh Ladies looking forward as new season starts
By Richard Bullick
Carrickcruppen captain Caroline O’Hanlon will lead Armagh ladies into Sunday’s National League opener away to Down with her sights set firmly on achieving new goals rather than basking in last season’s success.
Memories of October’s All Ireland Intermediate final victory over Waterford remain fairly fresh but the vastly experienced and incredibly driven O’Hanlon is well aware nothing stands still in sport and knows Armagh must hit the ground running.
With Ulster rivals Monaghan, Tyrone and Donegal all in Division One, it is imperative that Armagh break out of Division Three to ensure that their talented youngsters get more regular exposure to a higher level of football in the years ahead.
Although last season will always be remembered for the Ulster and All Ireland Intermediate Championship double, Armagh missed out on promotion thanks to double defeat at the hands of Westmeath.
Westmeath inflicted Armagh’s sole league loss and then produced a goal blitz either side of half-time in the subsequent semi-final to condemn James Daly’s side to another term at the lower level.
So the first objective of 2012 will be to go one better than 12 months ago though the manager accepts that teams are likely to raise their game against Armagh, none more so than derby rivals Down who will be keen to atone for resounding defeat in the corresponding fixture last year.
To rub salt in the wounds, Armagh then effectively ended Down’s Intermediate All Ireland hopes by beating them in a qualifying group game so the Mourne women are sure to be up with it under new management.
Although last season’s skipper Eliza Downey is currently travelling the world, boss Benji Ward has managed to tempt several other top players back into the county set-up and one of them, Sinead Fegan, has been appointed captain.
Armagh are also without their regular captain, Mags McAlinden, but her enormously experienced deputy O’Hanlon has always had an informal leadership role as a senior player so this youthful team won’t lack on-field direction.
The talismanic O’Hanlon skippered Armagh in the 2009 Championship and has captained Carrickcruppen for many years so that responsibility won’t worry her but the pressure placed upon her by the absence of key forwards arguably represents a bigger burden.
With McAlinden missing at least this weekend through injury and assertive full forward Shauna O’Hagan having retired from inter-county football, O’Hanlon not only has the job of stand-in skipper but must shoulder increased responsibility for keeping the scoreboard ticking.
Of course the 2012 All Ireland Intermediate Player of the Year relishes responsibility and Armagh’s regular left-footed free-taker is well capable of scoring goals and chipping in with points from play.
Although the 28-year-old can dominate most from midfield, Daly has other options there and O’Hanlon – who surprisingly was assigned the No. 10 jersey for much of last year’s league campaign – could do damage if deployed further forward in the absence of O’Hagan and McAlinden.
Reassuringly both herself and St Peter’s youngster Ciara Lennon notched personal tallies of 2-2 when these teams met in the league last term while the other corner forward from the Croke Park line-up, Kelly Mallon, should also pose problems for the Down defence.
Confident, talented teenagers Fionnuala McKenna and Niamh Henderson need little encouragement to attack forcefully from deep and, in Carrickcruppen’s Caitlin Malone, Daly has the option of fielding a particularly tall full forward.
At the other end, two thirds of the All Ireland Intermediate final fullback line are missing, with Croke Park Player of the Match Laura Brown not fully fit and corner back Clodagh McCann away on business.
But the Orchard defence is bolstered by the welcome return of 2006 All Star Caoimhe Morgan, who may slot straight in alongside sister Sarah Marley and behind a third sibling, Niamh Marley. Experienced campaigner Sharon Reel and young Henderson should fill the wing back berths.
Yet another young gun, Cailin Duffy of Armagh Harps, who was a regular during the early part of last season, may get an outing at corner back in McCann’s absence while fellow teenagers Aisling Hughes and Siobhan Mackle will also be pushing for starts.
Armagh are undoubtedly capable of winning every league game but, as well as taking confidence from last season’s success, the players must keep their feet firmly on the ground and be fully focused at all times.
“Our achievements last season were built upon hard work and respecting every opponent. That approach can’t change just because we’ve been to Croke Park and got a trophy to show for it. Like everyone else in the division we’re starting off on no points,” cautions Caroline O’Hanlon.
“But being away to our nearest neighbours first up perhaps helps concentrate minds as there’s no doubt Down will be targeting this game and can be expected to come at us hard. Everyone realises it will be a good battle but we’re up for that too.
“We want last year’s success to be a stepping stone and, with so many promising players stepping up to show what they can do, there’s a positive vibe of ambition, belief and genuine enthusiasm as we’ve been building up to the new season start.”
The fiercely competitive O’Hanlon is embarking upon her 13th season as an Armagh regular but continues to set the standards for everyone else in terms not only of a professional approach but sheer hunger for success and that undimmed underlying love of football for its own sake.
Daly reveals that the 2012 All Star has been buzzing in training and in spite of Armagh having to do without those four experienced players at least temporarily, the manager points out that the leading young guns should be better for having such a long and successful first season under their belts.
With McAlinden, McCann and probably Brown set to return in the coming weeks and Morgan back on board, Daly’s assertion that this year’s squad is stronger than the 2012 panel doesn’t lack credibility.
But, as always, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating and delivering an away win against Down without a few familiar faces would reinforce the sense of optimism that the future can be orange.
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