ARMAGH 6-18 LEITRIM 0-6
Richard Bullick in Silverbridge
Captain Caroline O’Hanlon warmed up for the All Stars tour to the Far East with a brace of goals as she led rampant Armagh into the Tesco HomeGrown National League play-offs with two rounds of fixtures to spare.
Armagh are guaranteed a top four finish and Waterford’s surprise defeat at Sligo means the Orchard outfit are now clear leaders of Division Three with five wins from five so far.
Leitrim came to Silverbridge occupying third place in the table, only one spot below Armagh, having won their first three games of the campaign but were breath-takingly torn to shreds by their ruthless hosts.
Not even nine substitutions and the worsening weather could disrupt the steady stream of Armagh scores as they impressively put the previous Sunday’s sloppy performance against bottom team Offaly behind them to win by a 30-point margin.
Having been uncharacteristically hauled off in Newry, the influential Fionnuala McKenna appeared determined to make Leitrim pay and drove through their defence to hit the net inside the opening 90 seconds. It was the perfect start and Armagh never looked back.
The 20-year-old finished joint top-scorer with O’Hanlon, her contribution of 1-6 including three right-footed frees in spite of the return to the team for a first start this year of experienced Clann Eireann star Sinead McCleary.
McCleary and O’Hanlon were reunited in what must be a nightmare midfield for teams at this level to face as James Daly selected his strongest side of the season so far and they delivered an impressive statement of intent.
There will be tougher tests ahead but Armagh looked genuinely good for most of the first half as they relentlessly took the game to Leitrim, teenager Lauren McConville catching the eye and combining well with experienced campaigner Marian McGuinness.
Armagh players often took the safety first option, popping over simple points after bursting through the overwhelmed Leitrim defence but O’Hanlon showed her special class by twice netting clinically from relatively narrow angles on the left.
She might have had a hat-trick of goals but was withdrawn towards the end along with a clutch of fellow regulars as Daly took the opportunity to empty his bench. Among those to get a run was Megan Burns on her home groud with proud dad Jarlath looking on.
His St Paul’s pupils were rested ahead of their All Ireland Schools Cup semi-final but 24 players still saw service for Armagh on the day, including a fit again Caitlin Malone off the bench, and Daly is excited by the developing depth which will start to give him selection headaches.
His Dromintee club colleague Aoife McCoy was omitted this time after starting the first four games but found herself in the action after only 18 minutes thanks to full forward Kelly Mallon twisting her ankle. She scored a second half goal and Armagh’s last point.
Grange’s Siobhan Mackle, left out last week, kicked two points on her return to the team and being taken off at the interval was no reflection on her performance. Her replacement Caoimhe Murray made her own mark with a goal.
Murray’s Carrickcruppen clubmate McGuinness scored 1-2, Crossmaglen’s McConville contributed a hat-trick of first half points and Armagh’s eighth scorer was sub Danielle Morgan from Ballyhegan.
The home side shone brightly on a murky afternoon and Daly was rightly happy with this much improved performance as well as the spectacular result. The influence of his assistant Aileen Matthews on the Orchard outfit’s forward play is starting to become apparent.
With an experienced defence built around the Marley sisters and stalwarts Sharon Reel and Mairead Tennyson, Armagh have firm foundations behind the commanding midfield duo of O’Hanlon and McCleary.
Although it would be wrong to read too much into this game given how early Armagh had it put to bed, the attacking threat has significantly increased in recent times even though young scoring sensation Aimee Mackin has still to feature regularly.
Along with the returning Murray, McConville and McCoy are very valuable additions this season, with the attack-minded Mackle likely to play a prominent part in 2014 after her exciting cameos last year.
McKenna’s second free put Armagh seven points up in the eighth minute and although Leitrim got on the board with a free, the hosts responded with a burst of 1-4 in a four-minute purple patch culminating in O’Hanlon’s first goal midway through the half.
Leitrim scored twice after Mallon left the field but McConville got Armagh going again with her third point and the Carrickcruppen pair of O’Hanlon and McGuinness goaled as the interval lead was stretched to 19.
As in the first half, McKenna opened the Orchard account in the second followed by a couple of points in as many minutes from the captain. Armagh’s goals came from McCoy and Murray and not even the steady drizzle could dampen the positive vibe.
ARMAGH: K Daly; M Tennyson, C Morgan, S Marley; S Reel, N Marley, N Henderson; S McCleary, C O’Hanlon (capt; 2-3), M McGuinness (1-2), F McKenna (1-6, 3f), S Mackle (0-2); M McAlinden, K Mallon, L McConville (0-3). Subs: A McCoy (1-1) for Mallon (18 mins), C Murray (1-0) for Mackle (h-t), R Murphy for Henderson (41), M Burns for C Morgan (43), C Malone for McGuinness (48), D Morgan for S Marley (48), C Marley for McAlinden (50), A Doran for McCleary (52), C Duffy for O’Hanlon (53)