ARMAGH 2-9 CORK 0-16
Richard Bullick in Birr
Armagh ladies left Birr on Saturday evening feeling closer to their All Ireland dream than at any time in recent years in spite of having just been knocked out of this year’s TG4 Senior Championship.
A magnificent second half fightback against champions Cork wasn’t quite enough for what would have been Armagh’s most famous victory but certainly sufficient to fuel fresh hopes of a serious Orchard challenge in the coming seasons.
Seven years after being beaten by a point by champions Cork in the All Ireland final, Armagh are back as a ladies footballing force and, with the panel pledging ‘no retirements’ straight after this latest loss by the same margin, the future looks bright.
Having gone over a year unbeaten either side of last autumn’s All Ireland Intermediate title triumph, Armagh have suffered a heartbreaking hat-trick of single point defeats in their last three matches, losing their three biggest games of the year by the minimum margin.
But unlike the disastrous defeat by Down in May’s NFL Division Three final or to a lesser extent the failure to finish off Tyrone in June’s Ulster Championship semi-final, Saturday’s season ending defeat had many more positives than negatives.
Few would fancy the chances of a third division side trailing by seven points at half-time against the team that has won the All Ireland title in seven of the past eight years.
But the only opinions which mattered were in the Armagh changing room and neither James Daly nor his players were prepared to let many months of hard work be lost without throwing everything, almost more than they even knew they had, at this last chance of salvation in 2013.
In spite of their lowly league status and lack of recent Championship pedigree, Daly’s ladies had approached the daunting Cork challenge with impressive positivity and, having boldly talked the talk, they backed up by walking the walk with passion and purpose.
Unused to playing at this level, rusty from not having had a competitive match in seven weeks, facing into what wind there was and sold short by a Kerry referee who should have sinbinned two of his neighbours, Armagh had to hang on by their fingertips in a first half which hardly hinted at the stunning transformation which was to come.
Armagh didn’t do badly in that opening half hour, with several encouraging aspects to their play, but Cork kept the scoreboard relentlessly ticking and by the break had put ominous daylight between themselves and the underdogs in this qualifier.
But if it felt like game over to the pundits, the Orchard crew begged to differ and crucially they had more than hurt, hunger and desperation to draw upon in their quest to turn the tide.
Those emotions may have driven them but they were backed by belief, fitness and footballing ability as, rather than run out of steam and ideas after a defiant flourish, Armagh grew relentlessly in stature and confidence throughout that uplifting second half.
It was fitting that the TG4 television cameras captured this immensely spirited and accomplished Orchard display as it epitomised pride, passion and every quality which any Armagh football fan could wish for in their team.
On a day for Armagh heroes, young goalkeeper Katie Daly came of age in keeping a clean sheet with her best performance ever and the three Marley sisters were immense in an Orchard defence which in the second half featured regular forward Mairead Tennyson.
For someone who was only emergency cover in a decimated Armagh rearguard, Tennyson was superb and especially so considering she briefly passed out at half-time after taking a heavy hit just before the break.
It was Tennyson who scored the Armagh goal in the only previous Championship match between these counties, that 2006 All Ireland final, and the Silverbridge player epitomised the compelling parallels in the warrior spirit shown by the outsiders.
No-one gave Armagh a chance on either occasion but both times Cork were left fighting for their lives against increasingly bullish upstarts who resolutely refused to accept their fate albeit that the pattern of the corresponding games was very different.
On that occasion, Armagh made the running early on and this time they came from behind but the common denominator was sheer heart and a team really raising its game against the best in the business.
The survivors of 2006 gloriously rolled back the years to reach those heights again and the young guns can now feel part of their own new chapter in footballing folklore, albeit still searching for that happy ending.
At the start of the evening, Armagh had tried to settle in by keeping the ball well for more than the opening minute before Caroline O’Hanlon hit wide and Cork drew a blank of their own before teenage keeper Daly pulled off the first of several valuable saves.
Valerie Mulcahy opened Cork’s account in the fifth minute but Armagh responded perfectly with typically inspirational play by O’Hanlon, who produced a lovely clean catch, sent Carrickcruppen clubmate Marian McGuinness on a good run and from the return ball fed Fionnuala McKenna.
The Harps prospect raised the white flag but was slightly harshly blown for over-carrying as she surged forward seeking an instant reply to Mulcahy’s second free. By contrast, two minutes later there was no whistle when Sinead McCleary was taken round the neck.
Eventual Player of the Match Geraldine O’Flynn put a free wide but Cork ominously scored seven points in a row as the gap grew alarmingly, though more good work by goalkeeper Daly at least meant Armagh’s net remained intact.
Leaking goals has hurt Armagh in previous matches but not this time and the women in orange finally got the board ticking again when both O’Hanlon and Kelly Mallon pointed in quick succession in the second quarter.
Cork responded with the final two points of the half but it took a brilliant block by the fearless Sarah Marley to deny Nollaig Cleary a goal late on, just before Daly took off debutant Louise Kenny.
Regular full back Laura Brown’s ill-timed departure from the panel compounded by Clodagh McCann being out of the country with work commitments and injury to Sinead McCoy had meant the Shane O’Neills youngster being thrown in at the deep end.
Cork regularly capitalised on Armagh attacks breaking down in the first period but it was role reversal in the second as the Orchard defence effectively snuffed out most threats and launched confident counters.
Back out on the field well before their opponents, Armagh were eager to get on with it and, although they needed Katie Daly to prevent an immediate disaster, two well-worked goals quickly came at the other end.
Full forward Mallon got the first and O’Hanlon the second after good work by Killeavy wing back Sinead Reel, who was another strong performer for Armagh in spite of playing through the pain barrier with her damaged arm.
Cork had got their 11th score in between the Armagh goals and although McCleary – now at wing forward with Caitlin Malone moving to midfield – was wide with a free, electric sub Siobhan Mackle kicked an uplifting point from an attack that began with Caoimhe Morgan, Malone and McKenna combining in deep defence.
The favourites responded instantly but the pattern had been established and Armagh’s next point, from McGuinness out on the right after a long cross-field ball by initially subdued skipper Mags McAlinden, followed a great intervention by Niamh Marley.
A McKenna shot dropped short and Cork doubled their lead but McCleary converted the longish free awarded for a high tackle on her and O’Hanlon levelled the scores off an upright midway through the half.
It got even better entering the final 10 minutes on the stop-clock as Armagh deservedly went in front through McKenna following another trademark waltz by Mackle in those white boots which must feature in defenders’ nightmares.
Of course champions never know when they’re beaten and Cork reasserted themselves with three unanswered points, two from the forceful O’Flynn, before Armagh hit another purple patch which however didn’t bring the scoreboard reward it merited.
Like Manchester United in soccer and the New Zealand All Blacks in rugby, the team with the bigger reputation seemed to get most of the disputed decisions going in their favour but Armagh heroically continued to pour forward in waves with lung-busting runs from Reel and Niamh Marley.
O’Hanlon and Cork captain Anne-Marie Walsh exchanged wides as the tension increased but ther former finally closed the gap to a point with an excellent effort following a good link with McKenna.
However the great woman was soon to turn inadvertent villian in an episode which will puzzle as much as haunt her, though the time taken for the board to click over Armagh’s ninth point might have been to blame.
When Armagh were awarded a free with less than half a minute left on the clock, it was an opportunity to tie up the scores and send the contest into extra-time and the Orchard faithful held their breath as O’Hanlon stepped up. Fittingly in the 60th minute, the script pointed to a cometh-the-hour moment for one of the game’s greats.
It was a now or never kick but, rather than the ball going over or wide, there was gasps as O’Hanlon simply played it into the middle and the hooter went 10 seconds later. Somehow she had it in her head that Armagh were still two down and needed a goal.
Armagh’s most famous footballer was both bewildered and distraught to discover her elementary mistake and understandably blamed it for costing her team the match but everyone rightly ralled round her.
Over many years no-one has given more or done more to make Armagh a force in ladies football than the Daisy Hill Hospital doctor and she was typically immense on the evening, emptying everything she had in the Orchard cause.
Although Armagh would have fancied themselves in extra-time, the O’Hanlon free was for a lifeline rather than victory. It was far from easy, the ultimate pressure kick and from long range out on the right but she’ll be tormented by believing it would definitely have gone over.
Hitting it wide would have been infinitely easier to live with than always wondering, but she and Armagh can come back next year with well-placed conviction that they can reach the promised land of All Ireland glory.
Relentlessly looking forward rather than dwelling on what has gone has always served O’Hanlon well and focusing on the potential for a bright future will help her lift her head again now. Armagh are right back in the big time and looking like they mean business.
ARMAGH: K Daly; L Kenny, C Morgan, S Marley; S Reel, N Marley, N Henderson; S McCleary (0-1, 1f), C O’Hanlon (1-3); M McGuinness (0-1), F McKenna (0-2), M Tennyson; C Malone, K Mallon (1-1), M McAlinden. Subs – S Mackle (0-1) for Kenny (28 mins), C O’Hare for Mallon (57), A Hughes for McGuinness (61).
*Meanwhile, there was double disappointment for Orchard county fans in Birr on Saturday as Armagh Under 16s were well beaten by their Meath counterparts in an astonishing goal-fest in the semi-final of their age-group All Ireland B Championship, a curtain-raiser to the Senior Championship matches. It finished 13-17 to 8-7.