Young Orchard crop blossoms
Armagh are the Ulster Under 21 champions after a stirring victory over bitter rivals Tyrone in their own Cookstown backyard.
Rising star Fionnuala McKenna showed she has the hunger and durability to go with her exciting talent as the emerging Orchard crop booked their place in the All Ireland semi-finals with a 1-12 to 1-11 win.
After making her debut for Ulster in the senior interpro tournament at Kinnegad the previous day, when the northern province retained their title, the remarkable McKenna returned to deliver an exceptional performance against Tyrone in the Sunday morning showdown.
McKenna’s Harps club-mate Siobhan Feeney top-scored with six points while Ciara Lennon, who started last autumn’s All Ireland Intermediate final, was the goal-scorer for Armagh.
Senior Armagh manager James Daly is also in charge of the Under 21s and the Dromintee man was naturally delighted with the result and tenacity shown by the girls in orange.
“It was a super win for us, against the odds in Tyrone’s backyard, and the girls gave a very gutsy performance. They put in a great effort and this was a deserved victory which has given everyone a big boost.
“The semi-final against the Munster champions will be very tough, but we’re looking forward to it and although the timing of the competition isn’t great so close to the Senior Championship, a run in this is good for Armagh ladies football.
“It’s a bridge between Minor and senior level and a good outlet for fringe members of the senior panel to push themselves forward but we’ve also established leaders like our captain Niamh Marley and Fionnuala McKenna who will always step up and drive everything.
“Niamh is a real rock and Fionnuala absolutely stands out at this level – she showed her class last Sunday morning in spite of having been away playing for Ulster the day before. She has a great attitude, a hunger to keep playing and progressing, and never complains about workload.”
The youngest of three sisters who line out in the Armagh defence at senior level, Marley is very much the old pro in this team and a hugely important player. Although something of a cult figure due to her fearless, bruising style, the combative Marley is actually a well rounded footballer.
Armagh will be up against it in Sunday’s semi-final against Munster champions Cork but Lissummon’s Marley says her team won’t be taking a backward step.
“We grew up watching a great Armagh senior side including my sister Caoimhe putting it up to the fashionable counties at a time when we weren’t really rated and that’s the spirit we must show against Cork,” she insists.
“There’s plenty of talent and experience in our squad, we’ve a proven management team and can take confidence from winning a tight game against Tyrone to get here. This is an exciting opportunity and we want to grasp it.”
The bulk of the Under 21 starting side are members of Daly’s senior panel with Marley and McKenna joined by the likes of Lennon, Feeney, Siobhan Mackle, Danielle Morgan, Cailin Duffy, Shauna Grey, and Katie Daly.
In spite of being a regular starter for the county’s senior side, Armagh’s other great prospect Niamh Henderson is ineligible for the Under 21s due to still being a Minor, but Daly still has plenty of talent to work with.
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