Mackin magic makes Mayo melt
18 November 2020
Dazzling double All-Star Aimee Mackin led the way with 2-7 as simply magnificent Armagh stormed into the All-Ireland Senior Championship semi-finals for the first time in five years with a wonderful win over Mayo at Parnell Park on Saturday.
After a hat-trick of quarter-final defeats in the past three seasons, Armagh gloriously set up a last four clash with reigning All-Ireland champions Dublin at Semple Stadium on Saturday week in a repeat of their last semi in 2015.
Dethroning the Dubs will be a big ask, but skipper Kelly Mallon, who hit 1-3 at the weekend, deserves great credit for her team’s transformation from that humiliating double-digit defeat against Meath in the Athletic Grounds just before the coronavirus shutdown.
Mallon maturely accepted criticism and didn’t downplay what she acknowledged was a poor performance, and she has driven the culture change needed to transform the Orchard outfit’s fortunes since.
Whatever happens in Thurles, Armagh have an Ulster Senior Championship showpiece to look forward to next month against Monaghan or Cavan, with the opportunity to go one better than the provincial decider defeats of the past two seasons.
An All-Ireland semi will be a new experience for many of this largely young team, while evergreen veteran Caroline O’Hanlon, whose last match as official captain was that Dublin defeat, is the only survivor from Armagh’s sole All-Ireland final appearance 14 years ago.
Triple All-Star O’Hanlon has been a hugely influential figure for Armagh since the early noughties and remains an invaluable asset, but the fact the orangewomen were able to win this huge game without a scoreboard contribution from the 36-year-old is encouraging.
So too was the impressive performance of young Grace Ferguson, the Ballyhegan wing back who was prominent throughout, while another teenager, Tiarna McVeigh, was entrusted with the last five minutes of such an important match still in the balance.
Armagh’s only substitution saw the Harps prospect take over towards the end from Dromintee’s Shauna Grey, who hadn’t been listed to start but played well on her birthday and rounded off an incredible day by getting engaged.
Grey, who held her place after being brought on for Colleen McKenna at half-time against Tyrone in Breffni Park on Hallowe’en weekend, is only the fifth player in the present team to have reached the age of 27, but the emerging generation is stepping up boldly.
Armagh’s richly-deserved victory was underpinned by huge heart, determination and character on an unforgettable afternoon, but this outstanding Orchard display was about much more than underdog defiance and fighting spirit.
The lowest ranked of the 12 teams in this year’s TG4 Senior Championship played with fantastic creativity, confidence, flair and ambition against a Mayo side who had hammered Tyrone by an ominous 25 points seven days earlier.
There had been concerns about the Orchard’s concession of 3-13 in their opening group game against a Tyrone team that Mayo then restricted to four paltry points across the entire hour of football in Carrick-on-Shannon the following week.
But the Orchard rearguard did its job here in containing a potent Mayo attack, with Aussie Rules star Sarah Rowe, who hit 2-9 against Tyrone, being kept pretty quiet by Tiarna Grimes and managing only two points all afternoon.
Goalkeeper Anna Carr, full-back Clodagh McCambridge and vice-captain Sarah Marley all made crucial interventions to thwart threatening Mayo attacks and must surely now be in the frame for All-Star nominations.
So too will several of their attacking colleagues after Armagh took their aggregate tally this autumn to 14-42 in completing a resounding double over Tyrone and now overcoming formidable Mayo.
The Orchard heroes avenged their three-point loss to the Connacht county in the corresponding game last season with a superb performance full of fine football, garnished with great goals.
Captain Mallon lashed home the first to get Armagh going and Catherine Marley applied the coup de grace near the end after a delightful dink from Aimee Mackin, who had raised the two green flags in between.
Perhaps a cliched choice as Player of the Match ahead of hat-trick hero Aoife McCoy against Tyrone last day, the individual award was a formality this time for the gifted 23-year-old, who had missed last summer’s quarter-final against Mayo through injury.
She had torn her cruciate in the famous upset of ladies gaelic’s most successful county Cork two weeks earlier and was badly missed on an August afternoon when a shaky start in Longford’s Pearse Park proved very costly for Armagh.
On that occasion, the Orchard outfit fell five behind early on, but this time Mallon’s twelfth-minute goal gave them an advantage in the first quarter, though Mayo hit back with a steady stream of seven unanswered points in the next 12 minutes.
However, Armagh stemmed the tide with a free from Mallon, Aimee Mackin added a spectacular point with a superb curled effort and, although Grace Kelly replied for Mayo, the women in orange enjoyed the perfect finish to the half.
Converted centre half back Blaithin Mackin is a very effective force attacking from deep and, when her long ball in towards big sister Aimee broke loose, the latter showed her soccer skills by slotting it into the net.
Blaithin came pouring forward with real intent twice more in the final two minutes of the half, firstly kicking a fine point herself and then, on the next occasion, winning a free which Aimee converted to make it 2-7 to 0-11 at the interval.
Armagh’s purple patch of 1-2 inside those final three minutes suddenly put them back in charge of a compelling contest which had seemed to start slipping away from Ronan Murphy’s team, though there was still a long way to go.
Mayo tried to hit back quickly at the start of the second half, but Sarah Marley cut out one ball brilliantly and Carr made a stunning save at close-range from Ella Brennan to keep the western women at bay.
They did pick up a point, but Armagh soon struck for their third goal when captain Mallon ran onto a long ball, laid it off to Aimee Mackin inside and the ace markswoman showed her killer instinct with a clinical finish.
One Mayo sub, Mary McHale, scored her second point before another, Fiona Doherty, squeezed home the equalising goal from an acute angle on the right, but Mallon nudged Armagh’s noses back in front by the water break after an Aimee Mackin free had been cancelled out by a Rowe score.
McCoy doubled the Orchard advantage after pass from clubmate Grey and Mallon then edged her team a goal clear with another point, but Mayo were far from finished in this absorbing game.
Deirdre Doherty pulled back a point for Mayo, and things got tense as Peter Leahy’s side narrowed the gap to the minimum.
Both teams had their moments, but the next score went to Armagh, Aimee Mackin winning the ball inside and taking her point well, making it 3-12 to 1-16 with six minutes remaining on the clock.
Still the play ebbed and flowed, with the highlight being an incredible run by McCoy through the Mayo defence, though in the end she shot straight at the keeper when a goal might have killed the game, but a point would have given Armagh some security.
Getting nothing from that attack looked like it could be costly less than a minute later, but McCambridge did brilliantly against Rachel Kearns when a potentially match-winning goal looked on for Mayo.
From there, Armagh built patiently, keeping possession and running down the clock with time on their side, before engineering the opportunity to kill the game off with a conclusive fourth goal.
This time Aimee Mackin was the provider, her well-weighted chip finding Catherine Marley, who tucked the ball away with glee to complete a great afternoon for an Armagh team improved beyond recognition from earlier in the year.
The Orchard crew were languishing in sixth place in NFL Division 2 when the coronavirus shutdown came in early March just after a 10-point home humbling by newly-promoted Meath, who compete in the Intermediate Championship.
So much of what has happened since then in this strangest of years couldn’t have been predicted, including Armagh making the All-Ireland semis after those quarter-final defeats against Kerry, Donegal and Mayo respectively in the past three years.
The amended format meant that Armagh-Mayo at the weekend was a group game rather than an official quarter-final but, with each having won their other fixture against Tyrone, it amounted to the same thing.
With only the group winners progressing, to straight semi-finals, the LGFA controversially seeded the draw to keep the top teams apart but unfancied Armagh have upset the applecart and deserve their place in the last four.
Although Dublin are going for four All-Ireland titles in a row, Donegal and Waterford pushed them hard in their two group games and Armagh beat them the last two times the teams met, in National League games in 2016 and 2017.
The second semi-final will be between Cork, who beat former Armagh manager James Daly’s Cavan 7-9 to 2-6 on Sunday to progress at the expense of neighbours Kerry, and last year’s All Ireland runners-up Galway, who edged out Monaghan 2-13 to 3-9.To read more subscribe to our online Newspaper