​Armagh ready for historic league final clash at Croker

LIDL Ladies National Football League Division 1 Final. Sunday April 7 (3pm). At Croke Park: Armagh v Kerry
Armagh's Aimee Mackin fires a second half goal past Kerry goalkeeper Ciara Butler on Sunday at the Athletic Grounds Pictures: Brendan MonaghanArmagh's Aimee Mackin fires a second half goal past Kerry goalkeeper Ciara Butler on Sunday at the Athletic Grounds Pictures: Brendan Monaghan
Armagh's Aimee Mackin fires a second half goal past Kerry goalkeeper Ciara Butler on Sunday at the Athletic Grounds Pictures: Brendan Monaghan

Armagh can draw inspiration from the last two title winners along with provincial club champions Clann Eireann when they take to the Croke Park pitch for the first ladies National League final in Orchard history this weekend.

​Gregory McGonigle’s Orchard crew will tackle Kerry in Sunday’s NFL Division One showpiece (3pm, TG4) after topping the table on their return to the top flight following a six-season absence.

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Remarkably, if Armagh triumph in this Dublin decider, it will complete a hat-trick of counties coming up from the second division and claiming the top title at the first attempt following in the footsteps of Meath and this weekend’s opponents the past two years.

Sunday’s showdown is a repeat of the 2022 Division Two final in which Kerry narrowly defeated Armagh before going on to lift the first division silverware at headquarters just 12 months later.

The Orchard outfit finally secured promotion by beating Laois last April and have made an immediate impact in Division One, starting with six consecutive victories before fielding an experimental line-up in a heavy home defeat to All Ireland champions Dublin.

Under new manager McGonigle, Armagh got their season underway with a first ever away win against Cork between victories over Waterford and Galway and then hit fresh heights in their next three matches.

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They thumped recent All-Ireland champions Meath, who had also come that match with a 100 percent record this season, by a double-digit margin in their own Ashbourne backyard before showing real character in inflicting Kerry’s first defeat of the current campaign.

Although Armagh relinquished a five-point interval lead, they came from behind in the second half to record an impressive 3-14 to 1-13 victory against the National League title holders at the Athletic Grounds.

The orangewomen then secured their ticket to Croke Park by digging deep for a first away win against Mayo on St Patrick’s Day courtesy of a wonderful late free from Aimee Mackin on Crossmaglen legend Lauren McConville’s 100th Orchard appearance.

Armagh had led by nine points after playing with the wind behind them in the opening period in Ballina but were pegged back by a fantastic comeback by Mayo and also had to cope with Caroline O’Hanlon being in the sinbin for most of the final quarter.

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The iconic O’Hanlon faces a race against time to be fit for Sunday’s NFL final having had to sit out a second consecutive British SuperLeague netball match at the weekend when her Leeds Rhinos side defeated Surrey Storm 64-60 in a Sheffield thriller.

Along with the injured O’Hanlon, McGonigle didn’t risk star forwards Mackin and Aoife McCoy in the last regular league game against Dublin and also left a host of frontliners out of his starting side on an afternoon when Armagh took a 24-point pasting.

By contrast, the All Ireland champions had seven 2023 All Stars in their starting line-up at the Athletic Grounds for a match they needed to win to stay in contention for a place in the final, though those hopes were dashed when Kerry saw off Galway the following day.

McGonigle’s selection was criticised by RTE pundit Nadine Doherty but her words will have been like water off a duck to the experienced campaigner, who has been such an influential factor in the Orchard blossoming this season.

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Under McGonigle’s management, Clann Eireann became the first Orchard outfit to reach the ladies Ulster Senior Club Championship final last autumn and that team in orange went on to win the big game.

Now Dungiven native McGonigle has steered the Orchard county team into uncharted territory with this ground-breaking NFL final appearance and the hope will be that they can follow Clann Eireann’s lead by coming away with the silverware.

Orchard captain Clodagh McCambridge may have as many as five Clann Eireann clubmates behind her in the pre-match parade on what will be her 99th Armagh appearance, plus previous skipper Kelly Mallon, who lifted the Division Two trophy last spring.

Armagh have managed to reach their first ever National League showpiece while giving game-time to no fewer than 33 members of their panel, which suggests that developing players and getting results don’t need to be mutually exclusive objectives.

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There have been seven Orchard debutants so far this season, five of whom are among nine players to get their first start for Armagh in 2024, and a total of 27 players have been in the run-on line-up at least once.

There were concerns coming into this campaign that, whatever about the healthy overall numbers, Armagh had a very constricted core group of proven performers but that base has been broadened over the past couple of months.

As a complete newcomer, young Roisin Mulligan has been the find of this season so far, but her clubmate Dearbhla Coleman has also made impressive progress along with Granemore dual player Corinna Doyle and Clonmore’s Sarah Quigley.

Some others remain worthwhile works in progress for the future, Clann Eireann club captain Niamh Henderson’s Orchard return after a nine-year absence is a big bonus in the here and now, and it is hoped Blaithin Mackin will be back in the orange jersey soon.

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Armagh ended a seven-match losing streak against Kerry when these teams met in the regular league game a few weeks ago, though 2023 All Ireland Player of the Year Louise Ni Mhuircheartaigh just came off the bench for the Kingdom on that occasion.

As All Ireland finalists the past two seasons along with back-to-back triumphs in National League divisional deciders, Kerry have more experience playing in Croke Park than Armagh but this should be a fascinating clash between well-matched teams.

Armagh and Kerry tend to produce attractive contests, though there are suggestions that the Kingdom outfit are becoming more defensive as well as being pretty physical so the tactical approach of both teams will be interesting.

If Armagh can mark this historic occasion with a trophy triumph, it would be the perfect celebration for inspirational Orchard county Chairperson Sinead Reel as Sunday’s NFL final falls on her 45th birthday!