Armagh primed for derby decider against Down
Table toppers Armagh will start slight favourites against Down in Saturday’s Tesco National League Division Three derby decider at Parnell Park (live on TG4, 12.15pm).
On their last trip to Dublin for a final, James Daly’s side beat Waterford in last October’s All Ireland Intermediate Championship showpiece and more Orchard celebrations should be on the cards if Armagh play to their full potential.
The likely line-up would show four personnel changes from the Croke Park permutation, three of them enforced, with Shauna O’Hagan having retired, the woman who lifted the Mary Quinn Cup that day, Mags McAlinden, sidelined by injury and her goalkeeper sister, Catherine, taking a break from inter-county football.
The manager’s daughter Katie Daly has taken over in nets and Carrickcruppen’s Caitlin Malone come into midfield with Sinead McCleary moving to the full forward role vacated by her Clann Eireann clubmate O’Hagan.
Albeit it isn’t a like-for-like switch, Mags McAlinden’s place has indirectly been taken by an equally experienced campaigner, Caoimhe Marley, who missed last season’s success due to maternity leave.
Marley has slotted in at right corner back with Clodagh McCann moving to left wing back which in turn has pushed Niamh Henderson forward one place to fill the vacancy created by Fionnuala McKenna switching inside to take the absent skipper’s No 11 jersey.
The final alteration sees another of the golden generation of the mid-noughties, Mairead Tennyson, displace St Peter’s teenager Ciara Lennon at corner forward, though her chance will undoubtedly come again soon when she is completely injury-free.
Every winter inevitably brings changes to a county panel but Armagh have also made one interesting switch since the draw with Down in February’s National League opener, with the imaginative move of McCleary to full forward.
A schoolgirl centre back on the only previous occasion Armagh reached a National League final back in 2005, the versatile McCleary top-scored with six points three months ago in Hilltown on her first time taking the right-footed frees in McAlinden’s absence.
She was alongside O’Hanlon in midfield that day with Malone at full forward but the pair have subsequently switched places and McCleary registered a tally of 1-7 on her first outing up front in the easy home win over lowly Wexford.
But, if nothing else, the new permutation significantly changes Armagh’s attacking game so Down will have a different threat to counter than in the last meeting, when O’Hanlon was double marked after switching to full forward for the final quarter.
Down have been bullish on the back of sharing the spoils against Armagh that day, particularly given that the new All Ireland Intermediate champions needed three late points to avoid defeat.
However, that encounter could leave the Mourne outfit with a false sense of security, for they had been training together for much longer than their visitors in preparation for the new season given that Armagh’s winter break had been delayed by their Championship run.
It is also worth noting that Armagh scored 13 points that day to four from a Down team whose account was boosted by three goals, so Daly’s ladies will be every bit as keen for a rematch as their opponents.
Leaking goals nearly proved costly for Armagh again in the semi-finals against Tipperary, though fellow favourites Down made life even harder for themselves in the other tie before hitting the net twice late on to snatch victory over Longford.
So both teams will come into the final feeling they have passed recent tests of character but similarly mindful that they are not the finished article. Armagh are unbeaten now in over a year and on a current run of seven straight victories whereas Down were thrashed at Tipperary.
Armagh have extra experience and their absolute need to win may be greater – this is by far their most realistic chance of silverware this season and promotion now is an essential next step in their masterplan.
By contrast Down, rebuilding under new management, are at least a year behind in their development cycle and, although a Division Three title would be a bonus, their top target for 2013 is presumably to emulate Armagh’s achievement last year in winning the Ulster and All Ireland Intermediate Championship double.
However, with local bragging rights at stake on top of everything else, it should be a fiercely-contested final and Armagh must assert themselves from the start to crush the uprising of what Sir Alex Ferguson might refer to as ‘the noisy neighbours’.
Up until this season, Down have been the poor relation in recent years with Armagh registering two convincing victories in 2012, in the league game and then an All Ireland qualifier in Downpatrick.
They appear revitalised under new boss Benji Ward and their high turnover of players will have shed some baggage from past beatings by Armagh, but with the likes of O’Hanlon calling the shots, the favourites should have the belief as well as the tools to get the job done.
The team would appreciate the support of all Armagh gaels who can make the relatively short trip to Parnell Park for Finals Day, which also features Galway versus Kerry in the Division Two decider (2pm) before the top tier battle between Cork and Mayo (3.45pm). Under 16s will be admitted free.
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