At the end of Round 7 of the Division Two ladies football league, Armagh knew the job wasn’t entirely over. After they comprehensively beat Tipperary and were treated to food by McCarthy’s pub of Fethard, the message from manager Shane McCormack was pretty much the same – unity, cohesion and controlling the controllables.
For any team, getting to a Division Two final undefeated means the world to them, and the chance to let their hair down would be grasped with both hands. But this isn’t Armagh’s first rodeo.
Last year, Armagh were tipped to win Division Two, thus sealing their promotion into the big leagues, a place that contained teams the county were used to meeting on All-Ireland paths that seemed to be always cut short due to a lack of experience or the inability to show up when the stakes were that much higher. But with Aimee Mackin, a former Players’ Player of the Year, and Blaithin Mackin, the young sister of Aimee and now AFLW Premiership winner in her first season with the Melbourne Demons, in their ranks and the experience of captain Kelly Mallon and midfielder Caroline O’Hanlon, on paper this team could and should beat everyone.
Last year, former manager Ronan Murphy stepped down after three seasons. Three seasons in which every player committed everything to that team, not just from a footballing perspective but also in terms of fundraising as well as trying to make the jersey better than when they first got it.
Up stepped Kildare man McCormack, a former goalkeeper during Kildare football’s glory days. McCormack got the news around the time of his wedding that he would be the new manager, news that was possibly concerning for his new wife, who would now have to share her now husband with over 30 girls every second or third night.
What McCormack has done with a team that was already gifted is bring in fresh blood to try to break the dependency on star players. Take O’Hanlon, an absolute giant of a figure in Armagh. The midfielder has made just two appearances in the Armagh team throughout this league campaign as McCormack shifted the attention from big-time players and brought on the likes of Blathnaid Hendron, Maeve Lennon, Maeve Ferguson and Caitríona O’Hagan.
The difference now with Armagh from last year is that they know what it’s like to be top dogs and have everything on the line and still miss out on getting promoted to Division One. That experience and that frustration are being channelled into something positive. McCormack was keen to stress that after Sunday’s victory over Tipperary. It’s just another win. We still have to go again.
They do that on April 15th in Croke Park against Laois, who are still on the high that comes with being intermediate champions and having their seat at the top table booked for this summer’s championship. The Laois hopes will be that they don’t yo-yo between intermediate and senior for the next few seasons like some teams have in the past.
So, where does that leave other Division Two hopefuls? For Tipperary, there’s very little time to leave the heads down. There are only four weeks until the Munster championship kicks off against Cork, who are also trying to find their place among the elite in a season that could be defined as a transition.
Tipperary and Peter Creedon must be thrilled to have superstar Aishling Moloney back after a couple of seasons’ hiatus for bizarre reasons. After widow spider bites to wisdom tooth extractions, the hope in Tipperary is that the worst is behind her.
That said, Tipperary’s concern might be the fact that they are pretty dependent on Moloney. Not only for a few scores but for leadership, assists, blocks and setting up the defence from the forward line. Armagh made Tipperary work incredibly hard for their scores, and once Tipperary felt brave enough to push up, Armagh were able to slice their defence open with one-touch moves that would impress tiki-taka fans.
The newly built town park in Fethard, which hosted Armagh and Tipperary, will see its fair share of stars come and go, with Munster rugby, Tipperary LGFA and Tipperary GAA among the benefactors from the ambitious plan. Ambition is also the keyword for the likes of Armagh, Laois and Tipperary, who hope to become the authors of their own fairy-tale story to win an All-Ireland title.