By Richard Bullick
Captain Caroline O’Hanlon admits ambitious Armagh have been waiting impatiently for this weekend’s chance to draw a line under 12 months of hurt with a redemptive victory in Dublin.
Armagh can finally clinch promotion from the third division at the third attempt with they meet Waterford in the Tesco HomeGrown National League final at Parnell Park on Saturday (12.15pm, TG4).
Before the season started, James Daly’s side were regarded as firm favourites for the Division Three title and eight wins from eight games, including thrashing troubled Tipp in last month’s semi-final, have done nothing to lower those expectations.
O’Hanlon candidly accepts that Armagh’s best should be good enough but the hugely experienced double All Star is far from complacent with the nightmare memories of two decider defeats still painfully fresh.
The late lapses in the corresponding game against Down a year ago which set Armagh’s development plan back by 12 months proved a costly lesson and many of the same players were part of the hotly-tipped Queen’s side which spectacularly collapsed in the second half of this spring’s O’Connor Cup final after establishing a healthy lead.
That is the only defeat any of O’Hanlon’s gaelic teams have suffered so far in 2014 in 16 matches so she is well aware how quickly the hoped-for return on months of hard work can be snatched away at the end.
“As soon as the final whistle went last year, we just wanted to play the match all over again. We really left it behind us so everyone’s determined that’s not going to happen this time after having to wait another 12 months for the chance to make amends,” says the Carrickcruppen player.
“It was a wasted opportunity to get playing at a higher league level this spring but we were determined not to let it wreck the rest of last season and it was a positive summer in terms of our two Championship performances, albeit in narrow defeats.
“But it’s imperative we secure promotion now and, in terms of the team’s progression, going up is more important to us than the title or trophy even though the silverware would be nice icing on the cake.”
This second Dublin decider between these teams inside two years is a repeat of the 2012 All Ireland Intermediate final which Armagh won in spite of kicking an astonishing 21 wides in Croke Park.
Armagh have triumphed in the last three encounters with Waterford, including a 6-12 to 1-5 landslide in the recent league game though O’Hanlon refuses to read too much into that one.
“It was first against second and they could have edged us out of top place in the table by winning but both teams had already qualified for the play-offs so the match hadn’t huge significance and we did score five goals after a close enough first half.”
There’s the old adage about teams learning more from defeats than victories and Waterford will be desperate to finally get one over Armagh, but they have also seen close up just how formidable Daly’s side is at this level.
Even without the facile 40-point pasting of troubled Tipperary in a surreal semi-final, Armagh have scored more heavily than any team in the third division this season with O’Hanlon herself netting at least once in each match she has played.
She leads the way with 10 goals while the other 25 have come from a good spread of 10 players. Siobhan Mackle and Mags McAlinden have hit hat-tricks in the last two games. The influential Fionnuala McKenna tops the overall scoring charts with 4-41.
Armagh have also the tightest defence in this section, leaking less points than anyone else during the league phase, and centre half back Niamh Marley again dealt effectively with danger woman Michelle Ryan last month just as she had done in Croke Park.
Daly’s selection for the semi-final will have kept Armagh guessing for fleet-footed attacker Mackle, who scored three goals at Waterford in the previous game, was surprisingly left on the bench with stalwart wing back Sharon Reel rested initially too that day.
Mags McAlinden, who captained Armagh in that All Ireland Intermediate final win, only came on as a sub against Waterford on her return from injury before in turn hitting a hat-trick of goals against Tipperary.
The relatively experienced Caitlin Malone came in to partner Carrickcruppen clubmate O’Hanlon in midfield for the semi while it would be difficult to leave out diminutive Dromintee newcomer Aoife McCoy, who like Lauren McConville is having a good rookie season.
The developing depth in the Orchard ranks means the Armagh manager has selection headaches of the positive type and he has also an impressive mix of youth and experience at his disposal.
What looked like his first choice line-up prior to the semi had five players around the age of 30, five yet to turn 21 and the other five well distributed in between.
As O’Hanlon notes, most of the younger girls have considerable experience, including of finals.
“There are a few fresh faces who have added to the squad this season so we’re confident with what we have and that if we play well we’ll come out on top, so our focus has been on getting ourselves right rather than previous clashes with Waterford.
“We know they’re a strong side who can’t be given an inch but if we impose our own game we’ll be very hard to beat, particularly with having learned a costly lesson last year about not just sitting on a lead,” she reflects.
Sign Up To Our Newsletter
Sign up to our newsletter for major breaking news stories as they happen – right to your inbox.