Armagh ladies aim for happy homecoming
By Richard Bullick
All Ireland Intermediate champions Armagh ladies are back on home soil for the first time since their Croke Park triumph when they face lowly Wicklow at Culloville this Sunday (2pm).
The match will also be expected to produce the team’s first victory of 2013 after last weekend’s dramatic draw with Down in Clonduff, where midfield dynamo Sinead McCleary came to Armagh’s rescue with two crucial scores in injury-time.
After being blatantly fouled by an increasingly cynical Down defence, the experienced campaigner picked herself up to land the free and then quickly brought the teams level for the last time with a well-struck point from play. It finished 3-4 to 0-13.
Had the game gone on another minute, the smart money would have been on Armagh getting a winning score as the momentum was with them but in the end both teams can take positives from sharing the spoils without either feeling fully satisfied.
On the day, Down will consider that this was a win which got away while for their part Armagh would have come to Hilltown expecting to get their National League campaign off to a victorious start against a side they comfortably beat twice last season.
Although Gaelic Life had actually tipped Down to come out on top, with Armagh missing a few experienced players and coming off the back of a shorter pre-season, much is expected of the Orchard outfit on the back of last season’s success.
But the visitors hardly helped their cause in Clonduff by gifting goals to Down at one end while wasting a plethora of opportunities at the other, including drawing blanks with their first four frees – albeit that an effort apiece from McCleary and captain Caroline O’Hanlon hit the uprights.
Rising star Fionnuala McKenna also struck a post in the first half but Armagh still went into the interval a point to the good thanks to a late free from midfielder McCleary, who was to prove the Orchard hero with a haul of six points.
Entrusted with the right-footed frees in the absence of injured captain Mags McAlinden, the Clann Eireann star registered five of Armagh’s last six scores with the other coming from eye-catching sub Mairead Tennyson, another veteran of the 2006 All Ireland final.
Dromintee youngster Sinead McCoy scored Armagh’s first competitive point of 2013 and Marian McGuinness of Carrickcruppen also raised the white flag but by the time Killeavy’s Sharon Reel registered her team’s third in the 14th minute, there had been five wides.
Kelly Mallon became the Orchard outfit’s fourth scoreboard contributor but the misses meant that a Kyla Trainor goal on 21 minutes brought the hosts back to within a point just after Siobhan Mackle replaced an injured Ciara Lennon.
McKenna kicked a point to reward a flowing Armagh attack started by fullback Laura Brown and carried on by McGuinness and Reel but Trainor replied and Grainne McClean leveled matters with a free late in the half.
There was still just time for McCleary to become her team’s sixth scorer before the break and after Sinead Fegan opened the second half scoring for Down, young full forward Caitlin Malone made it seven points from seven different players for James Daly’s side.
That list didn’t include captain Caroline O’Hanlon, who unusually failed to get on the board all afternoon though the All Star was her robust self in general play and was assigned two markers after being moved to full forward.
That emergency measure was taken midway through the second half after Armagh were hit with a double whammy of two goals in four minutes that turned the contest on its head and raised the real possibility of a first defeat since last April.
O’Hanlon had missed from a free after another foul on her but McCleary confidently landed a towering point from play to put her team two points up and young Malone of Carrickcruppen kicked two wides in the space of a minute either side of O’Hanlon soaring to claim the Down keeper’s kick-out.
However an Armagh mix-up at the back resulted in Trainor eventually netting her side’s second goal and, although McCleary leveled with a free and O’Hanlon nearly found the net with a speculative effort after a sharp intercept, Down swiftly struck again.
This time, disastrous defending allowed Lauren Cunningham right in on goal and she sent the ball past exposed keeper Katie Daly. When Orla Fegan tacked on a point, Armagh were four in arrears.
O’Hanlon was proving a handful for the Down defence supported by club-mate Malone but the visitors couldn’t convert territory into scores with a few disputed decisions by the referee undermining their comeback chances.
After a free from McCleary, the orange women went scoreless for eight long minutes before the direct and feisty Tennyson closed the gap to two points. Crucially, Down didn’t get a shot in after a good counter-attack and Armagh made the most of that reprieve.
An agonising scramble in the Down goalmouth as the match moved into injury-time didn’t yield anything but there was still time for McCleary to achieve her heroics and save the day for a team that hasn’t lost since last season’s Division Three semi-final defeat to Westmeath.
Goals cost Armagh that day too but leaking them this time made life particularly tough given the absence of free-taker McAlinden and recently retired full forward Shauna O’Hagan.
However, in spite of a dozen wides to go with the tally of 21 at Croke Park last October, Armagh registered almost twice as many scores as Down and, with this outing under their belt, they should be capable of making it a long afternoon for Wicklow.
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