Malone strike sets up historic success
A last gasp goal from Carrickcruppen’s Caitlin Malone in injury-time of the semi-final against holders UCC paved the way for an historic O’Connor Cup triumph for Queen’s University.
The medical student’s strike deep in injury-time took the semi into extra time and the Belfast-based side went on to achieve victory before romping home against DCU in the televised decider.
It was the first time ever that Queen’s had lifted the trophy and this sweet success had a distinctly orange flavour with Armagh manager James Daly at the helm and skipper Sinead McCleary one of six current county panelists in the starting side.
As well as the vastly experienced McCleary, Daly’s daughter Katie, semi-final hero Malone, rising star Fionnuala McKenna, the seasoned Sarah Marley and Danielle Morgan added up to a strong Orchard core in the team.
To put the icing on the cake, captain McCleary, medical student Malone and young goal-keeper Daly all picked up Colleges All Stars with McKenna unlucky not to join them in receiving that accolade.
In spite of having had many talented players in their ranks down through the years, including Orchard legends like Bronagh O’Donnell and Caroline O’Hanlon, Queen’s had never before claimed the ultimate prize in colleges football.
Well led by the mature McCleary of Clann Eireann and drawing on the positive energy of fearless freshers like McKenna, Queen’s began finals weekend by upsetting holders and pre-tournament favourites University College Cork in a pulsating semi-final.
The defending champions featured no fewer than three current All Stars, including Cork forward Valerie Mulcahy, but, to Daly’s delight, Queen’s showed scant regard for the reputation of their opponents and ultimately came out on top.
“The girls were fearless the first day against a strong side and reacted well in what was an exceptionally tense situation towards the end,” reflected Daly, whose team needed that goal deep in injury-time to force extra-time in Waterford.
Queen’s hit the net again in extra-time and held on to win by a point against UCC, setting up a clash with another fancied outfit, Dublin City University, in the following day’s final – which for the first time ever was shown live on TG4.
And the Belfast side put on a superb show for the cameras, leading by three points at the break thanks to three first half goals and then impressively pulling clear to have 10 points to spare by the end against DCU, who can boast a hat-trick of O’Connor Cup triumphs from 2009-11.
“We were three up but the message at half-time was that we needed to push on rather than sit on our lead and the girls really responded. As an attack-minded team, we knew DCU could do damage but it also meant our players had scope to express themselves,” reflects Daly.
“I’d say Fionnuala McKenna was the best player on the field in the second half of the final, carrying strongly, scoring three points from play and being typically cool under pressure,” he enthused.
“Caitlin Malone was probably player of the match in the semi, with her crucial goal just being the icing on the cake. She’d sat out the last Armagh match with a shoulder problem but, in spite of taking a couple of heavy hits, she did very well.
“Our captain Sinead McCleary was just incredible – she’s a quality player who is really maturing into a leader that others listen to. With seven freshers in the team, having her enormous experience was a massive boost.
“I’m particularly pleased for Sinead as this was her last crack at it, but for all the girls after the hard work which has gone in. It was a super weekend and although nobody gave us much chance, the belief was there within the group,” he said.
Much is said regarding the perceived need for experience of finals and the notion of having to lose one to win one, but Queen’s hadn’t even been to the semis since 2009 and Daly reckons that lack of baggage might actually have worked in his side’s favour.
At the opposite side of that coin, Jordanstown were beaten in the final three years running, with McCleary herself having shared in that heartache during her previous life as an University of Ulster undergraduate.
Queen’s had beaten DCU in the league and also won the All Ireland for Freshers and Daly had faith not only in the ability but temperament of his players, not least the Armagh girls who proved they could handle the big occasion when winning in Croke Park last October.
As an Armagh man and the current county manager, the Orchard crew’s contribution to the Queen’s success was the icing on the cake for Daly and augurs well for the future but, far from being parochial, he warmly acknowledged the contribution of several outstanding Tyrone players and Westmeath’s Ruth Kearney, who scored 2-3 in the final.
Daly’s focus has now returned to ensuring Armagh go one better this time round, though McCleary’s absence due to a midwifery placement in Malta is a blow considering her red hot form, including being the county team’s top scorer in three of the first four league games.
Added to the Minor B and Intermediate All Ireland triumphs with Armagh in the past couple of years, guiding Queen’s to this O’Connor Cup success has added to Daly’s impressive managerial record but the genial giant admits he had been a little reluctant to get involved initially.
With Armagh’s inter-county season stretching to the start of October last year, he’d been looking forward to a bit of a break but was cajoled into taking the QUB role by his fellow Dromintee man Aidan O’Rourke, who now runs the Gaelic football academy at the university.
The fact Daly’s daughter is in her first year at Queen’s might have been seen as an added interest factor but, having managed her at minor and adult level in inter-county football, James says he’d have been as happy to let Katie hear an alternative voice.
Having filled in for last season’s All Ireland Intermediate semi-final, the strapping six-footer has taken over as the Orchard outfit’s first choice ‘keeper this season, with the previous custodian Catherine McAlinden unavailable due to career commitments and, although still a teenager, Daly is establishing herself well in the orange No 1 jersey.
As well as providing valuable experience, winning the O’Connor Cup with Queen’s – who scored all but one point of their 4-10 tally in the final from play – should be a real confidence boost for Daly and her Armagh colleagues.
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