Sports

Monaghan edge out Orchard in relegation play-off

Thursday, 13 April 2017

MONAGHAN goals in injury-time at the end of either half proved vital as Armagh agonisingly lost their place in the elite level of National League football after a pulsating game in the Athletic Grounds.

ARMAGH ...2-11
MONAGHAN ...3-11

In spite of a superb performance from an injured Caroline O'Hanlon, the Orchard outfit fell to a soul-destroying defeat in Sunday's Division One relegation play-off, with the controversial sinbinning of Niamh Marley leaving a sour taste.

A late Monaghan goal guaranteed the Farney women top flight football for a 27th consecutive season, though for much of what became an afternoon of frustration it had looked like their remarkable run would be brought to an end by their neighbours.

The Orangewomen were five up at one stage but Monaghan's goal just before the interval was perfectly timed from their perspective and that harsh yellow for Marley made life difficult for Armagh in a tense second half.

Monaghan may have had a proud record to defend but Armagh were desperate to win too to avoid dropping out of the first division again after only two seasons, a big blow for this ambitious side who have proved they can compete with the top teams in the country.

They have beaten both All Ireland finalists of the past three years, champions Cork and Dublin, this spring, and four of their six defeats have been by three points or less with Armagh holding an interval lead on three of those occasions.

Wasteful finishing - 14 wides to five - was a significant factor in the Mayo match, which Sean O'Kane's side lost by five, leaving the opening day defeat to newly-promoted Donegal back in January as the only poor performance of the entire campaign.

Relegation is particularly tough to take for the Orchard crew after that famous first ever victory over Cork and historic triumph away to Dublin, but those two wins weren't enough for Caoimhe Morgan's girls to stay up.

This season's Division One was tipped to be the most competitive ever with all eight teams capable of beating each other and, after their heroic effort fell short, the Orangewomen will look back with regret at small margins and opportunities not taken.

Unlike last season when all the other teams knew that an inevitable victory over troubled Tyrone would be enough to keep them up, this time every match counted in the fight for survival never mind hopes of making the semi-final line-up via a top four finish.

The outstanding O'Hanlon didn't deserve to be on the losing side here after a superb personal performance including sublime balls which created goals for her fellow Camlough girls Aimee and Blaithin Mackin, who scored 2-6 between them.

Triple All Star O'Hanlon's wonderful display was all the more remarkable considering she had one leg heavily strapped after picking up an injury in the previous day's sensational victory by her Scottish Sirens netball team over British SuperLeague giants Surrey Storm in Glasgow.

Another hero to play through the pain barrier for the Orchard cause was Dromintee dynamo Aoife McCoy, who took a huge gamble by coming on for the last quarter and risking further damage to the knee she hurt in last month's match against Kerry.

In her effective, courageous cameo, McCoy showed why she has become such an important player to this team and it is hard to imagine Armagh would have lost both Monaghan matches had she been able to play a full part instead of just 15 minutes of the two hours of football.

Here the hosts had built up a healthy lead but Monaghan netted in the closing seconds of first half injury-time and drew level at the start of the second period before going on to win what was an absorbing game, albeit blighted by the whistle of Maggie Farrelly.

Two questionable sinbinnings by the Cavan official effectively cost Armagh last spring's Galway game at the same venue and this time her banishing of Niamh Marley proved very damaging to the Orchard cause.

This was a huge game for both teams and they gave everything in front of a very decent crowd but the tiresome interventions of the typically fussy Farrelly will hardly encourage the casual support to follow ladies football.

However what should draw them back is the combination of physical commitment and top-class skill witnessed in what was a cracking contest of fluctuating fortunes between neighbours with so much at stake.

The Orangewomen were condemned to this showdown with their neighbours as a result of losing their last regular league game against the same opponents in Clones seven days earlier and Monaghan made their second chance count.

Cathriona McConnell, who again top scored, put a straightforward free wide in the opening minute and it took great team defending from Armagh to deny an early Monaghan goal before Aimee Mackin opened the Orchard account with her second attempt after a superb ball by O'Hanlon.

With Armagh pushing up well, O'Hanlon hit a wide too before Mackin doubled their lead but Moanghan got on the board in the 11th minute through McConnell following a wayward pass from Niamh Marley upfield and Aoife McAnespie quickly levelled matters.

O'Hanlon's next perfect presentation gave Blaithin Mackin the chance to ripple the Monaghan net in the 13th minute, McConnell responding with a point for the visitors who then hit the post through Rosemary Courtney.

Aimee Mackin kicked a high wide and a thunderous Niamh Marley shot almost broke the crossbar but the referee came back for a free which a more confident Fionnuala McKenna, who had just made a surging run, converted.

Great build-up play from Armagh ended with O'Hanlon driving the ball at Ireland's best goalkeeper Linda Martin, who turned it behind for a 45, and Monaghan got the next point courtesy of corner back Rachel McKenna.

O'Hanlon laid on a goal for Aimee Mackin to put Armagh five up and then Martin had to save at the midfielder's feet on an afternoon when her kick-outs didn't match her shot-stopping. By contrast Caroline O'Hare's clearances successfully found O'Hanlon, who repeatedly plucked clean catches out of the air.

McConnell was wide with a free and, although McCarron pointed, Aimee Mackin cancelled it out after O'Hanlon delightfully dropped a long free right into her arms, but the half didn't end well for Armagh.

Either side of a poor shot from Blaithin Mackin, McConnell converted one of two tough frees awarded against Clodagh McCambridge and then full forward Caoimhe Mohan grabbed a last-gasp goal to close the gap to a single point.

McConnell levelled within a minute of the resumption and Niamh Coleman had to combine with Clann Eireann clubmate McCambridge to avert danger but Armagh went back on the attack, Martin pulling off a great save from Aimee Mackin running onto sibling Blaithin's ball. However from the resulting 45, Aimee fed Blaithin who landed a towering point.

Almost immediately Armagh were two up as Aimee Mackin converted a free won by O'Hanlon but the lead lasted less than a minute as McConnell made no mistake from the penalty spot after a Monaghan attacker was sandwiched.

O'Hanlon, Mackin, Sarah Marley, McKenna and McConville combined well before O'Hanlon eventually landed a good point from out on the left swiftly followed by one from Aimee Mackin low on the turn to put the hosts in front again.

McKenna was just wide with a difficult free won by Niamh Marley and Mohan equalised following a great run by Eimear McAnespie before captain Laura McEnaney pounced on a poor kickout to give Monaghan the lead again.

The immediate impression made by McCoy, on for Lauren McConville, enabled Marley to level matters for the fourth time in the half but then disaster struck when the Lissummon powerhouse was shown yellow after tussling on the ground with two opposing players who escaped sanction.

Ciara McAnespie pointed and Armagh missed two chances to equalise before Rosemary Courtney eased the visitors two clear and Aimee Mackin was wide with a free after a fairly frenetic period.

An annoyed O'Hanlon was whistled for over-carrying and a barely believable free out awarded against McCoy before McConnell struck for a killer goal a minute into injury-time.

McCarron was sin-binned for fouling O'Hanlon who drove a wide off her left foot before pointing and although Megan Sheridan got another to leave a goal in it after a brilliant save from O'Hare at the other end, Armagh ran out of time as the whistle signalled the end of their two-season stay in Division One.

ARMAGH: C O'Hare; C Morgan (capt), C McCambridge, S Marley; M Sheridan (0-1), M Tennyson, S Reel; N Coleman, C O'Hanlon (0-2); A Mackin (1-5, 1f), N Marley (0-1), F McKenna (0-1, 1f); S Grey, B Mackin (1-1), L McConville. Subs: A McCoy for McConville (45 mins), A Mulholland for Grey (60), C McKenna for Reel (60), T Grimes for B Mackin (67).

MONAGHAN: L Martin; Rachel McKenna (0-1), J Fitzpatrick, S Coyle; A McAnespie (0-1), S Courtney, G McNally; C Courtney, E McAnespie; L McEnaney (0-1), E McCarron (0-1), C McConnell (2-4, 1 pen, 2f); C McAnespie (0-1), C Mohan (1-1), R Courtney (0-1). Sub: L Jones for E McAnespie (67).

Referee: Maggie Farrelly (Cavan).

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