Orchard challenge runs out of steam.

Thursday, 17 August 2017

Armagh's hopes of a third All Ireland semi-final appearance in four seasons evaporated as the Orchard outfit frustratingly fell away in the second half against Kerry for a second time this season.

ARMAGH ...2-11
KERRY ...3-14

When these teams met in the National League in Duagh back in March, visitors Armagh led at the interval but registered only two scores in the second half and were beaten by 0-11 to 0-9.

Saturday's TG4 Senior Championship clash at the magnificent Nowlan Park in Kilkenny had a very different feel to it as the two sides served up an exhilirating exhibition of flowing football in perfect conditions during a wonderful first half.

The women in orange bounced back from an ominous start which had echoes of the Armagh men being blitzed by Tyrone in Croke Park exactly a week earlier, with Aimee Mackin's two goals in a minute at the heart of a superb purple patch.Kerry responded to draw level but Armagh got the last two scores of the half to lead 2-9 to 2-7 at the break, which came with one of the most entertaining games seen in any code this season seemingly perfectly poised.

However history repeated itself as Armagh again got only two points in the last half hour against Kerry while the Kingdom girls looked increasingly slick and full of running as they notched 1-7 at the other end to win by six.

Acting captain Caroline O'Hanlon didn't get many presents from the referee in the week of her 33rd birthday as he tended to let reasonably robust challenges go while Armagh might have been further ahead at the break but for several outstanding saves from Kerry goalkeeper Laura Fitzgerald.

The second half sinbinning of Niamh Marley made Armagh's job more difficult and, given their badly depleted panel, there was little to offer from the bench but the tactics will also rightly raise eyebrows, especially keeping so many players behind the ball when trailing badly late on.

Armagh have shown this season they can compete as equals with all the top teams in the country but they have finished with eight defeats from 11 matches in 2017 so Sean O'K ane's first campaign at the Orchard helm has not proved very successful.

That most of the losses have been by narrow margins has simply added to the sense of frustration while the fact that this All Ireland is seen as the most open in years given previously invincible Cork's relative decline adds to a sense of what might have been.

The Orchard county's playing pool wouldn't be as big as some of the other top teams to begin with and for various reasons they have had to do without too many notable names for most or all of this season.

Sinead McCleary, Niamh Henderson and Louise Kenny along with one of several recognised goalkeepers would have started on Saturday if available - as would a fully fit Kelly Mallon up front rather than as fill-in net-minder - with Aoife Lennon, Siobhan Mackle, Caitlin Malone and maybe Aoibhinn Henderson offering impact off the bench.

Armagh had suffered a significant setback ahead of the game with captain Caoimhe Morgan unable to take the field due to a severe stomach bug picked up overnight from one of her children, horribly bad luck for a player who has worked so hard this summer to get back from a significant knee injury.

In a straight swap at right corner back the stricken skipper's place was taken by her sister Sarah Marley, a surprise omission from the starting team for the qualifier win over Westmeath, in one of two late changes to Armagh's published line-up.

The programme showed Armagh with the same starting team that began the Westmeath match but that day's debutant goalkeeper Ellen McVerry from Mullaghbawn was actually replaced in nets by Mallon.Mallon is a long-standing regular in the Orchard forward division but missed the entire NFL campaign due to tendon trouble before featuring off the bench in June's Ulster semi-final loss to Donegal and then being ruled out of facing Westmeath by a recurrence of her injury.

However she was pressed into service between the posts that day as emergency goalkeeper when McVerry was sinbinned for hauling down an opposition player and Mallon played the full game in nets at Nowlan Park.

McVerry had got her first Orchard appearance two weeks ago as the other converted keeper in the Armagh panel, Caroline O'Hare, and last season's specialist first choice No 1 Anna Carr were both injured. Armagh manager O'Kane also made several positional switches from the Westmeath match with Niamh Marley moving to her old home of central half back from wing forward where she surprisingly lined out last day. She was replaced there by Forkhill's Megan Sheridan with Silverbridge veteran Mairead Tennyson reverting to her 2014 All Star role of corner back.

The Kerry side also showed a late change with one of their All Ireland U16 winners from last season, Hannah O'Donoghue, handed a debut and it took the youngster a mere 13 seconds to register her first score.

The Munster champions attacked straight from the throw-in and O'Donoghue got away from full back Clodagh McCambridge with relative ease to score while her illustrious Beaufort club colleague Sarah Houlihan pointed in the second minute.

O'Hanlon was dispossessed after her first trademark run and a good ball from Niamh Marley led to a long-range wide from Aimee Mackin, who was also off target with a free and then a skimming shot after Lauren McConville had done well.

Fitzgerald made a great save low down from Aimee Mackin who had been fed by O'Hanlon and the midfield maestro herself kicked a wide as Armagh missed several chances to open their account before O'Donoghue netted on nine minutes to put the opposition six up.

Fionnuala McKenna converted a free from fairly long range won by O'Hanlon and then the impressive Sharon Reel played a great ball which unfortunately Aimee Mackin, lining out in spite of a broken finger, just couldn't control. Mallon made a good sharp save at the other end and then the eye-catching Aoife McCoy pointed before Aimee Mackin netted twice within a minute, including an absolutely stunning strike on the turn to the top corner to put Armagh in front for the first time.

It was even being talked about in the media centre at the women's rugby World Cup the next day and the precision service laid on for Mackin by O'Hanlon is also worthy of the highest praise.

The 20-year-old added two points to one from McKenna, taking Armagh's scoring spree to an astonishing 2-4 in a period of only three minutes to completely change the complexion of the contest.

From being six down at one stage, Armagh suddenly led by five at the end of the first quarter though O'Donoghue quickly pulled one back for Kerry and McConville drew a blank following a good run from McCoy.Tennyson intercepted in her own goalmouth and McCoy won a free for McKenna to convert after a raid featuring her and and O'Hanlon, though that score was cancelled out by a good long-range point for midfielder Lorraine Scanlon.

O'Hanlon made another good run but Blaithin Mackin landed the ball in the keeper's arms and Louise Ni Mhuircheartaigh's first score of the evening narrowed the gap to a single goal.Niamh Coleman made a good intercept in defence and Kerry kicked two wides either side of the renowned Ni Mhuircheartaigh's second score in three minutes.

Fitzgerald did brilliantly to tip over a stinging shot by Aimee Mackin, set up by a perfect ball from sibling Blaithin, for just a point and Anna Galvin got an equalising goal off the post for Kerry a minute later.

Armagh responded with the ever excellent McCoy making a long run down the middle and popping over a point and McConville rounded off the scoring for a fantastic first half by rewarding good approach play featuring both Mackins.

The orangewomen were well placed at the break but Ni Mhuircheartaigh hit their net a mere 20 seconds after the resumption, Houlihan landed a free a minute later and O'Donoghue followed up with a good point to put Kerry three ahead.

McCoy replied with a very well-taken point under pressure but Houlihan cancelled that one out with a free just before Tiarna Grimes of St Peter's replaced Sheridan.

Ni Mhuircheartaigh responded to Aimee Mackin's next point with a successful free and the Orchard defence had plenty to do with Coleman and Tennyson producing timely intercepts and the latter one excellent textbook tackle to turn over possession.

The tremendous McCoy made two great runs but Aimee Mackin kicked a long wide and also dropped one just short onto the keeper so they went unrewarded, while Kerry also failed to hit the target twice before, and once after, another point from midfielder Scanlon.

Tennyson and Marian McGuinness attacked from deep but nothing came of it and McKenna kicked a wide and then disaster struck when Niamh Marley, a surprisingly peripheral figure who hadn't a particularly productive evening, was binned for her instinctive attempt to stop a Kerry break-out. Kerry kicked another wide but they were working hard and the typically battling McConville was robbed by two defenders before Fitzgerald produced another crucial save, low down at her near post from O'Hanlon.

Houlihan put the Kingdom girls five up, sub Eilish O'Leary added another point and although Ni Mhuircheartaigh kicked a long wide, Kerry were well and truly in the box seat at this stage. Crossmaglen's Aveen Donaldson and Silverbridge schoolgirl Niamh Reel were late introductions for Blaithin Mackin and McGuinness respectively but the Orchard challenge had run out of steam and neither team scored again.

Mallon had to make a couple of useful saves in injury-time either side of a missed free from Ni Mhuircheartaigh as increasingly impressive Kerry, bolstered by an influx of fresh legs, actually finished stronger as the Orchard campaign petered out.

Armagh's last score of the match came way back in the 38th minute in the final game of a season in which six of their eight defeats have come after leading at half-time, perhaps an indictment of the real lack of depth in the present panel with so many notable names missing.

There will be fears that Morgan and the trio of 33-year-olds - Reel, Tennyson and O'Hanlon - m ay now consider their inter-county futures but it is crucial Caoimhe continues as captain while the other trio remain among Armagh's fittest and most important players.The jury is out on the management team with O'Kane reportedly telling RTE afterwards that they would be discussing their future with the county board but, whoever is in charge for 2018, will hopefully have at least some of the current absentees back on board.In spite of results, Armagh haven't been bad this season and this was an improved performance from the Westmeath match but Kerry are a very useful side who will rightly see themselves as contenders now for the top prize.

Their semi-final will be against Dublin, who beat Waterford 2-15 to 1-7 in the first game of Saturday's double-header in Kilkenny, with skipper Sinead Aherne leading the way with an impressive personal haul of 1-9.

ARMAGH: K Mallon; S Marley, C McCambridge, M Tennyson; M McGuinness, N Marley, S Reel; N Coleman, C O'Hanlon (capt); A Mackin (2-4), A McCoy (0-3), M Sheridan; F McKenna (0-3, 2f), B Mackin, L McConville (0-1). Subs: T Grimes for Sheridan (36 mins), A Donaldson for B Mackin (59), N Reel for McGuinness (30).

KERRY: L Fitzgerald; E Lynch, A Desmond, A Leonard; C Kelly (capt), C Murphy, H O'Donoghue (1-4); L Scanlon (0-2), E Sherwood; S Murphy, A Galvin (1-0), D Hallissey; S Houlihan (0-4, 2f), L Ni Mhuircheartaigh (1-3, 1f), L Rogers. Subs: A O'Connell for S Murphy (38), F Tangney for Rogers (47), E O'Leary (0-1) for Galvin (55), J Lucey for O'Donoghue (60).

Referee: Jonathan Murphy (Carlow).


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