McKenna blitzes Leitrim as Armagh go top
Armagh ladies clinched a place in the Division Three semi-finals with a memorable away win against previous Tesco Homegrown National League leaders Leitrim that took James Daly’s side to the top of the table.
The Orchard outfit passed their toughest test of the season so far with flying colours thanks to a sensational haul of 1-7 from teenage centre half forward Fionnuala McKenna, including a cracking goal.
Harps prospect McKenna struck five frees after being entrusted with the responsibility in the absence of Sinead McCleary and scored all but two of her team’s points on an afternoon which bodes well for Armagh’s future.
Her fellow young guns Caitlin Malone, goalkeeper Katie Daly, Danielle Morgan and Shauna Grey also impressed as the visitors showed scant regard for the reputation of opponents who had won four from four before this top of the table encounter.
Having drawn with Down in the opening game, Armagh have now won four on the bounce and, with their Ulster rivals going down to Tipperary at the weekend, Daly’s ladies are now the only unbeaten team in this section.
Although semi-final qualification is now guaranteed, getting a home match in the promotion play-offs is an obvious incentive to keep winning and captain Caroline O’Hanlon has set the target of Armagh going through the league unbeaten.
With this team wanting to be tested as much as possible ahead of this summer’s return to the Ulster Senior Championship, O’Hanlon welcomed the fact that Armagh’s remaining opponents in the league, Tipperary and Longford, both have everything to play for.
Too often in recent years, Armagh have been over-reliant on All Star O’Hanlon’s inspirational personal performances but this time the skipper played a modest support role as rising star McKenna stole the show.
McCleary’s unavailability due to a midwifery placement in Malta was expected to place an even bigger burden than usual on O’Hanlon but the impressively mature McKenna stepped up to take responsibility for the right-footed frees and proved a real revelation.
Compared to last year’s corresponding game in the Athletic Grounds when Armagh, in spite of home advantage, had only two points to spare against Leitrim, Daly was without three hugely experienced performers in Clann Eireann trio McCleary, Mags McAlinden and Shauna O’Hagan.
On their own patch, Leitrim would have been confident of overcoming the All Ireland Intermediate champions, but on a bitterly cold day Armagh and McKenna in particular proved too hot to handle as they took a three point lead by half-time against a strong wind and didn’t look back.
McCleary lined out in the unaccustomed role of full forward against Wexford last time out in the absence of Malone, who was resting a sore shoulder that day, but although the latter returned it was in the former’s regular midfield berth rather than the No 14 jersey.
With Malone, who played alongside McCleary in midfield in QUB’s victorious O’Connor Cup team, partnering her Carrickcruppen club mate O’Hanlon here, Kelly Mallon moved in to full forward from her customary role in the corner.
That facilitated a deserved first start of the season for Caroline O’Hare of Dromintee, who had made a prolific contribution coming off the bench in earlier matches but been made to wait for a go from the off.
Out of the country at the start of the campaign and reintroduced gradually, the experienced Clodagh McCann was drafted in at wing back with the player who wore No 5 in the first four matches, Sharon Reel, moving up to wing forward.
English-based student Niamh Marley returned at centre back having missed the Wexford fixture, with the versatile Sinead McCoy of Dromintee coming in on the left of a completely changed half back line in place of Silverbridge’s Roisin Murphy.
Marley’s oldest sister Caoimhe Morgan reverted to right corner back at the expense of Cailin Duffy, with the familiar figures of fullback Laura Brown and Sarah Marley retaining their places in front of Daly.
That trio along with O’Hanlon and veteran corner forward Mairead Tennyson were the only players listed in the same position as last day, manager Daly making five personnel changes and as many positional switches after the three week break.
Danielle Morgan was meant to drop out of the starting side but came back in when Marian McGuinness withdrew due to a family bereavement and was deployed in a sweeper role to good effect.
Using Malone in midfield meant McKenna could revert to the centre half forward role she has filled so effectively in McAlinden’s injury-enforced absence, with Ciara Lennon dropping out, though the St Peter’s teenager did come on for Mallon.
Understandably, Daly made less substitutions than usual given the close contest, with the only three players removed during this game being the trio who started in the full forward line.
With the eye-catching Grey replacing O’Hare after 20 minutes, schoolgirl Niamh Henderson – who has been struggling with shin splints this season – taking over from Tennyson and the defensive-minded Morgan and Reel listed in the half forward line, Armagh were well off for defenders.
Young McCoy coped well with trying to mark relative giants as Leitrim replaced one tall half forward with another while the experience of Caoimhe Morgan and Brown proved valuable at the back.
In front of them, Niamh Marley was solid while McCann marked her first start of the season with a point – an O’Hanlon free accounted for the only other score not from McKenna – and Reel typically covered plenty of ground.
But it was an afternoon on which four local heroes of that historic O’Connor Cup success for Queen’s under Daly translated their form from the previous weekend into impressive performances in county colours.
As well as the on-fire McKenna, young goal-keeper Katie Daly maintained her upward curve with strong kick-outs and one excellent save, Danielle Morgan did well as sweeper and Malone was outstanding in midfield alongside O’Hanlon.
Next up for Armagh is a visit from Tipperary, who will be buoyant following their thumping of Down, though the suggestion that the Easter Sunday match may not now take place in the Athletic Grounds as scheduled would disappoint the team.
However if the Orchard crew go on to secure a home semi, it would be difficult to deny them the use of headquarters for what would be the first time since winning last season’s Ulster Intermediate Championship final.
LEITRIM 1-5 ARMAGH 1-9
ARMAGH: K Daly; C Morgan, L Brown, S Marley; C McCann (0-1), N Marley, S McCoy; C Malone, C O’Hanlon (capt, 0-1); S Reel, F McKenna (1-7), D Morgan; M Tennyson, K Mallon, C O’Hare. Subs: S Grey for O’Hare, N Henderson for Tennyson, C Lennon for Mallon.
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