Captain Caroline O’Hanlon hopes a good turnout of fans can help maximise Armagh’s advantage from playing their Ulster Championship quarter-final as an Athletic Grounds curtain-raiser this Sunday.
The mouth-watering clash with bitter rivals Tyrone will take place ahead of the corresponding men’s match against Cavan and the ladies have launched a ‘Get There Early’ campaign encouraging Armagh supporters to take in both games.
It is being backed by Armagh greats past and present including Oisin McConville, Paul McGrane, Ger Houlahan, Jarlath Burns and Aaron Kernan, with their support greatly appreciated by ladies legend O’Hanlon.
“The girls are grateful for these endorsements from such icons of Armagh football and we’ll certainly appreciate the support of every fan of the men’s team who can get there in time for our game on Sunday,” says the double All Star, a player undoubtedly worthy of this special stage to showcase her talents.
“A lot of our team grew up watching the epic encounters between the Armagh men and Tyrone and the rivalry between the counties has become just as intense in ladies football during my career.
“For a few years there we weren’t competitive enough, dropping down the divisions in the National League and falling out of the Senior Championship, but now we’re on the up again and this should be a cracking contest.
“They’ve kept their place in Division One this spring but we’ve finally secured promotion from Division Three at the third attempt and there’s a positive vibe in the camp.
“We played Tyrone in the Ulster semi-final last year and only lost by a point even though with hindsight the absolute belief maybe wasn’t there then. We’d chances near the end but couldn’t take them.
“After that we took All Ireland champions Cork right to the wire in the qualifiers and although another one-pointer was hard to take, the recent NFL final suggests we’ve cracked how to close out tight games which was a problem last year.
“Naturally this will be a significant step-up from playing Division Three and we’re well aware that Tyrone have quality players but there’s no way we’ll fear them or have an inferiority complex.
“Playing in the Athletic Grounds is a big boost for us and we’re determined to do people proud. The last time we reached an Ulster final we beat Tyrone in a curtain-raiser along the way so that has good memories.
“We can’t count on the Athletic Grounds doing it for us but it can undoubtedly become a significant factor in our favour provided we get everything else right in terms of our preparation and performance.
“Unlike the claustrophobic pressure on us as overwhelming favourites in the league final, this time Tyrone will carry the burden of expectation and for us it’s all about opportunity. We’re determined to grasp it,” she insists.
In O’Hanlon and vice-captain Caoimhe Morgan, who skippered the team to that last Ulster final, Armagh have heavyweight leaders at the heart of an experienced core supplemented by a new generation of outstanding young talent headed by the influential Fionnuala McKenna.
There was certainly no love lost between the teams back in the mid to late noughties with several bad-tempered battles being the stuff of legend but there appears to be less animosity now.
Quite a few players from both the current teams have worked well together for Queen’s under Armagh manager James Daly and Neamh Woods was part of O’Hanlon’s Larkfield netball team which won the NI Premier League and Senior Cup double this spring.
Along with the leading Armagh girls, the great Gemma Begley and Woods were key members of the Ulster team who retained their interpro title the weekend before last, though interestingly there were six Orchard representatives in the panel compared to just those two from Tyrone.
Ulster skipper Begley scored 2-3 in the final but the ferociously combative Morgan earned special plaudits from provincial manager Paula Cunningham for her exceptional performances at the back.
The battle between her and Begley should be worth the admission money alone, with the men’s match a mere bonus, and will be a key component of the contest along with the extent to which the imperious O’Hanlon and fit-again Sinead McCleary can command midfield.
Article by Richard Bullick