Being drawn against Cork in the TG4 Senior Championship has stirred many Armagh memories – and there’s no name more synonymous with that thrilling All Ireland final of 2006 than Mairead Tennyson.
Scoring the Armagh goal that day in Croke Park will live with Tennyson forever, but the 29-year-old isn’t wallowing in nostalgia as the women in orange prepare to face Cork in a Championship match for the first time since their agonising near miss seven years ago.
This Saturday, there’s no silverware up for grabs but the Silverbridge forward wants to make fresh history with a resurgent Orchard outfit by beating Cork for the first time ever (Birr, TG4 6pm).
Armagh, in their first season in the senior ranks, went into that 2006 decider as rank outsiders against seemingly invincible champions Cork, but gave the odds-on favourites an almighty scare before losing by the minimum margin.
The devastation of being pipped at the post set against the team’s superb performance and the thrill of scoring a stunning goal at headquarters means Mairead’s memories of that previous Cork clash are bitter-sweet.
“In many ways we did brilliantly but knowing we could have achieved the ultimate made defeat tough to take. The team back then had incredible belief and I really feel that we’re rekindling that attitude of fearless positivity at the minute,” she insists.
“Seeing Cork coming out of the hat would be enough to send most county footballers to their knees but there’s been no negavity whatever in the camp since the draw was made. There was a big buzz at training the next morning and everyone’s relishing the challenge. To become the best, you must beat the best.”
Although her focus is on the present, Mairead indulges the interviewer by talking through her famous strike, which came following a pass from current captain Mags McAlinden.
“Mags gave me the ball and I remember my defender left me and space opened up. There was a big red jersey coming at me, so I side-stepped. I just hit it without looking up and it went in the net. It was a magical moment, but the memories would be much more special if we’d won.”
Armagh have five survivors from that line-up, including the trio who scored all but one point of the Orchard outfit’s tally of 1-6 on the day. McAlinden and Caroline O’Hanlon kicked two points each while Tennyson also raised the white flag.
Her goal had put the underdogs five points up by the end of the first quarter after a storming start but the dream died thanks to a predictable Cork comeback and Bronagh O’Donnell’s side not getting the breaks their heroic display deserved.
The other common denominators between the two matches are combative corner back Caoimhe Marley, harshly sinbinned in Croke Park, and the then teenager Sinead McCleary who is now a very influential figure in the team.
The talented Tennyson subsequently missed several seasons thanks to studying in England before working in Wales and only returned to South Armagh this time last year after a spell in America.
She’d managed to play a reasonable standard of gaelic football here and there through the years but ultimately gave up her physio job in Cardiff to come home and give it another crack in county colours.
Her hope was to get back into the county panel for 2013 but things happened far faster than Tennyson could have envisaged, culminating in a cameo appearance on the hallowed turf of Croke Park last October as Armagh were crowned All Ireland Intermediate champions!
“It was an unbelievable bonus and I’m so grateful to (manager) James Daly for giving me a run. I was originally reluctant to rejoin the panel mid-season when girls had worked all year but thought it would be a good stepping stone to help prepare me for this season after so long out.”
This season’s she’s been back starting regularly and, although there’s sufficient competition for places that the versatile Tennyson can’t count any selection chickens ahead of the Cork clash, her experience and determination are among the assets at Daly’s disposal.
“Cork will be a step-up, but we’ve the capacity to raise our game against bigger teams and so much will depend on attitude, work-rate and belief,” asserts a player steeped in the winning mentality which helped Armagh make their big breakthrough in the middle of last decade.
“We’ve a good mix of experienced players who want this second chance at Cork and fearless young girls who have the hunger, ambition and confidence to take on anyone and back themselves.
“There are many memories from the old days to cherish but we don’t want to be left looking back on that as THE golden era of Armagh football. It’s time to show we mean business again and prove we can compete with the top teams – including Cork,” she insists.
“Like last time, it’s our first season in the senior ranks so there’ll be very little expectations placed upon us considering Cork’s pedigree but after losing narrowly last time to them we won’t be satisfied with anything less than victory.”
Article by Richard Bullick