CLANN Eireann’s Sinead McCleary was the hero as All-Ireland Intermediate champions Armagh ladies narrowly avoided an unexpected derby defeat at the hands of Down.
The formidable midfielder scored six points, including two in injury time, to salvage a 3-4 to 0-13 draw in the Orchard County’s opening National League game at Clonduff.
McCleary stepped up to take responsibility for right-footed frees in the absence of clubmate Mags McAlinden and, after taking time to find her range, came good with five of Armagh’s last six scores.
No other Armagh player scored more than once on an afternoon when the concession of three goals left James Daly’s side with a tougher task than had been envisaged against a team they comfortably beat twice last season.
But although it felt like Armagh had got out of jail, a Down win would also have been robbery of sorts not least because they were largely gifted two goals and also got the rub of the green in terms of refereeing decisions.
Armagh missed the McAlinden sisters, captain Mags and goalkeeper Catherine, along with their retired Clann Eireann clubmate Shauna O’Hagan who was very influential from full forward in last season’s success.
But full back Laura Brown, the Croke Park Player of the Match, lined out after making an unexpectedly early return from injury as did Ulster Schools skipper Niamh Henderson. St Peter’s teenager Ciara Lennon, the third Lurgan player in the regular line-up, went off injured in the first half. Armagh dominated the early exchanges but were wasteful with scoring chances and Down’s opening goal looked likely to have it all square at half-time only for McCleary to kick her first free in injury-time. She intervened again in second half stoppage-time to save the orangewomen from a first defeat since last April’s Division Three semi-final against Westmeath.