Armagh will be back in the Tesco National League’s top tier for the first time in seven seasons next spring thanks to their impressive 4-18 to 4-6 victory over Donegal in Saturday’s Division Two final at Dublin’s Parnell Park.
James Daly’s ladies marked their manager’s 50th competitive match at the Orchard helm by securing silverware on NFL finals day for the second season running.
Last year the Orchard outfit finally escaped from the third division at the third attempt by overcoming Waterford and this second successive promotion keeps Armagh on their sustained upward curve.
Although they lost their regular league games against Cavan and Donegal this term, Armagh comfortably beat both when it mattered in the knockout stages.
They won this Dublin decider by the commanding margin of 12 points in spite of having to take the field without one of their most important players, Sinead McCleary, who hadn’t recovered from the ankle injury sustained in the semi-final.
The Lurgan girl had selflessly sacrificed herself for the Orchard cause that day in risking additional damage by refusing to come off until the win was in the bag but she should be back for Armagh’s Ulster title defence, which doesn’t start until early July.
McCleary’s absence meant current captain Caroline O’Hanlon was Armagh’s only surviving starter from the corresponding game a decade ago when the Orchard County panel edged Donegal by a point in the 2005 NFL Division Two final.
Armagh had much more to spare this time thanks in no small measure to teenage newcomer Aimee Mackin, who won Player of the Match after top-scoring for the sixth time in her eight Armagh matches so far. Mackin kicked 2-5 and full forward Fionnuala McKenna also weighed in with a brace of goals before giving way to former Orchard captain Mags McAlinden, who was brought on by Daly to fight for ball and hold up play.
The newly-married McAlinden, another veteran of that 2005 final, may have lost her starting spot to new wonder girl Mackin this season but remains an important part of Daly’s plans in a squad which has increasingly fierce competition for places.
The fact Armagh could bring in the talented Niamh Henderson, who has been away with academic commitments before returning to take up a bench berth for the semi-final, to replace clubmate McCleary speaks volumes for the developing depth in the Orchard ranks,
In spite of being hit with a Donegal goal inside the first 40 seconds, Armagh bounced back well and were 10 points up by the break thanks to Mackin netting for the second time shortly before the hooter.
The Orchard defence withstood an opposition surge to finish with a flourish of four unanswered points in injury-time, condemning Donegal to a first defeat of the season and ending hopes of bouncing back from relegation.
Mackin and McKenna had both missed February’s rearranged league game against Donegal but made their presence count this time, while it was also a good day for Kelly Mallon who scored six points to banish memories of her red card in last season’s third division decider.