Beating champions Cork for the first time ever would be the perfect present for birthday girl Caroline O’Hanlon seven years on from Armagh’s magnificent near miss in the 2006 All Ireland final.
Armagh’s greatest ever ladies footballer turns 29 on Thursday but will really have something special to celebrate if her team can secure a place in the quarter-finals of the TG4 senior Championship.
Winning this weekend wouldn’t bring back that missed medal from the mid-noughties but would be a serious statement of intent and a massive sign that the Orchard dream still can come true before the iconic O’Hanlon hangs up her boots.
James Daly’s side are rank outsiders for Saturday’s televised tie in Birr (TG4, 6pm) but Armagh will hope to rekindle the spirit of 2006 when they were considered no-hopers ahead of the Croke Park showpiece, the only previous Championship meeting of these counties.
Back then there was a real aura of invincibility about a Cork side which had put together a run of 24 straight victories before facing an Armagh team in its first senior season, but on the day they were greatly relieved to squeeze home by the minimum margin.
A stunning goal by Mairead Tennyson put Armagh five points ahead midway through the first half but the harsh sinbinning of Orchard corner back Caoimhe Marley facilitated Cork’s comeback with a four point swing during her absence.
The former All Star defender along with Tennyson, O’Hanlon, captain Mags McAlinden and Sinead McCleary are the five Armagh players hoping to scratch that seven-year itch this weekend, when there are compelling parallels with the only previous Championship clash between these counties but also distinct differences.
Cork are again All Ireland champions, having won seven of the last eight titles, and this time too Armagh are a newly promoted team having lifted the Intermediate title last autumn.
However, on this occasion Cork come into the match having lost twice to Kerry in the round robin stage and subsequent final of the 2013 Munster Championship, so although Armagh can expect a backlash they also sense some vulnerability.
In response to what, in relative terms, is all-conquering Cork’s current crisis, the woman who captained them to four All Ireland titles, Juliet Murphy, has reportedly reversed her high profile recent retirement announcement and will be back to face Armagh.
O’Hanlon is surprised to be renewing rivalry with her fellow All Star midfielder from 2006 but says she’d rather be facing a wounded Cork team with a point to prove than the seemingly invincible version.
“Cork will want to lay down a marker that they’re still the team to beat but I’d rather get them now when confidence levels might not be as high as usual and before they can regain momentum,” reasons the Carrickcruppen captain.
“Getting Cork has been a daunting draw for most teams in recent years but there’s been an exceptionally positive vibe around training these past two weeks.
“We’re an ambitious side and, rather than hoping to dodge the top teams, know we must become comfortable with the prospect of facing Cork if ever want to win the All Ireland.
“In spite of their recent results, I doubt they’ll lose much sleep about playing a third division side but this has been a summer of upsets and we must make sure we’re in the right frame of mind to make the most of our opportunity.
“We wouldn’t have expected to face Cork at this stage as they always win their provincial championship but they’re in the qualifiers like ourselves after already being beaten this summer and must be treated like any other team. Our respect for what they’ve achieved can’t extend to putting them on a pedestal.
“They’ll be smarting from losing to Kerry but we’re hurting too after losing both the Division Three final and Ulster semi by one point margins. After all the work we’ve put in, we must salvage something from the season and this is our last chance.
“One of our objectives was a place in the All Ireland quarter-finals and we aren’t prepared to give up on that just because Cork are the side standing in our way,” she vows.
Article by Richard Bullick