O’Kane starts reign against old team

Thursday, 26 January 2017

NEW Armagh manager Sean O'Kane is set to launch his stint at the Orchard helm this Sunday by taking his present team to face his previous side Donegal at Convoy near Raphoe (2pm).

The much-travelled Tyrone native, who has replaced former Armagh great Ronan Clarke in the hotseat, was in the Donegal dugout with Davy McLaughlin for the last big game between these teams, an epic encounter in the 2015 All Ireland quarter-finals.

Armagh won that thrilling game by two points, showing fantastic character to come through in spite of being behind for most of the tie and then having to see out an absorbing battle without iconic captain Caroline O'Hanlon, harshly sin-binned after edging her team ahead for the first time late on.

Niamh Marley had also seen yellow earlier but all came good in the end for the Orangewomen who won 2-13 to 2-11 in Clones, Aoife Lennon leading the way with 1-3 supported by O'Hanlon's 1-2, three points apiece from Aimee Mackin and Kelly Mallon and one each courtesy of Fionnuala McKenna and Lauren McConville.

That was the season Donegal won the first Ulster Senior title in their history but their only two defeats of the entire year were at the hands of Armagh, the first coming in a high-scoring NFL Division Two decider.

James Daly's ladies emerged victorious in Parnell Park on an impressive scoreline of 4-18 to 4-6, full forward duo Mackin and McKenna netting twice each in the course of an accomplished performance.

Donegal had edged the regular league game by a single point with home advantage against a depleted Armagh that February and topped the table but after losing the final they had to wait 12 more months before following their Ulster rivals into the NFL's top flight.

Last season, first division newcomers Armagh hit the ground running, winning their first three fixtures, and freshly promoted Donegal will be hoping to follow their lead.

For their part, the Orchard crew will want to get the O'Kane era off to a flying start and, ahead of his first fixture in charge, the new Armagh manager has received a ringing endorsement from former supremo Daly.

“Sean O'Kane is a fabulous manager and I think he's a great appointment for Armagh.

“He's an experienced ladies football man who knows the landscape very well, will develop players and find a system which suits the team," enthuses James.

“There's a lot of character and quality in the team, girls who know what it takes to win, and no doubt Sean will get the best out of them including developing perceived fringe players. When things go well he'll keep feet on the ground and in tougher times he won't panic."

Apart from O'Kane's inside knowledge of the opposition, these teams are familiar foes having also met in the 2014 Ulster Championship when Armagh came from behind to win the Lisnaskea semi-final en route to lifting the trophy for the first time in seven seasons.

Assuming Mallon is fit again after reportedly sitting out the warm-up matches due to injury, the identity of up to 14 of the players in Armagh's starting team to face Donegal this weekend would appear predictable.

With Katie Daly opting out this year, Anna Carr is now the automatic choice as goalkeeper with last season's skipper Mairead Tennyson, siblings Caoimhe Morgan and Sarah Marley, and last season's joint Armagh Players of the Year Sharon Reel and Clodagh McCambridge all looking likely choices in defence.

Former All Ireland Player of the Year O'Hanlon will occupy one midfield berth with the forward division set to include Mallon, returning dynamos Aoife McCoy and McConville and the two Mackin sisters, Aimee and Blaithin though the latter did pick up an injury playing for Ulster Schools at the weekend.

Two of the possible captaincy contenders, Niamh Marley and McKenna, are also sure starters though whichever one of them is deployed in midfield will determine who gets the last place in the initial line-up.

First choice centre half back for most of her early Orchard career, Marley moved to midfield last season and could continue there, leaving a wing back berth free for one of Marian McGuinness, Shauna Grey or Megan Sheridan.

Clarke's conversion of McKenna to centre half back last year was a reasonable success but she may well return to her more accustomed centre half forward berth with Mallon moving back up front.

However O'Kane has an embarrassment of forward riches at his disposal so if he wished to be bold and include an extra attacker he could pair McKenna with O'Hanlon in midfield in order to accommodate Amy Mulholland, Sinead Finnegan or conceivably Catherine Marley up front.

Experienced Carrickcruppen player Finnegan wore the number 14 jersey in every Armagh match last season and debutant Mulholland scored or set up all but one point of her team's tally in the disastrous Ulster semi against Monaghan.

She missed the subsequent shock exit to Waterford in the All Ireland qualifiers due to the death of her brother, which opened the door for the youngest of the four Marley sisters to start so Catherine is the player in notional possession of the jersey and O'Kane has worked with her at Ulster University.

McCambridge was the big bolter last season having got her chance at full back due to Morgan's maternity break but both her and Armagh's longest-serving player - starting the 17th season since her debut - should feature from the off in this NFL campaign.

Either of them might be best at full back at this stage of their respective careers, student McCambridge being inexperienced for the No 6 jersey and 33-year-old Morgan maybe not as mobile as she used to be.

But utilising one of them at corner back and thus pushing Tennyson to wing back wouldn't be ideal either so having Niamh Marley in midfield with Morgan at full back and McCambridge centre half seems the obvious option.

A full back line of Tennyson, Morgan and Sarah Marley would be hugely experienced behind stalwart Reel, ever-improving McCambridge and either seasoned campaigner McGuinness, the in-form Grey or young Sheridan.

McCoy, McKenna and Blaithin Mackin would be a half forward division the envy of most teams with Mallon flanked by McConville and Aimee Mackin in the frontline and O'Hanlon providing additional firepower from midfield.

That leaves a potential back up full forward line of Mulholland, Finnegan and Catherine Marley with Clann Eireann teenagers Aoibhinn Henderson and Niamh Coleman as half forward reserves and the recalled Dearbhail Campbell of Sarsfields also in the matchday squad.

O'Kane has midfield cover in Crossmaglen's Aveen Donaldson and Lauren Sheridan of Forkhill, while although the squad arguably lacks real defensive depth, at least two useful half backs will lose out on a starting spot plus Grange corner back Colleen McKenna.

At time of writing there has been no official captaincy announcement but with Sinead McCleary and Louise Kenny not in the panel there would appear to be a maximum of five realistic contenders including last season's unexpected choice by Clarke, Tennyson.

Her predecessor O'Hanlon has the complication of being committed to playing 18 British SuperLeague netball matches in Britain between February and the start of June so O'Kane may look elsewhere.

Former Armagh Under 21 skipper Niamh Marley or last season's vice-captain McKenna would represent generational change of official leadership but a straw poll of pundits favours the squad's spiritual leader Morgan, assuming she expects to be available for the full year.

The alternative perspective is that Morgan and O'Hanlon will instinctively lead anyway and now is the chance for an apprentice captain to learn the trade with the old guard's support still there to call upon.


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