A decade of development has Armagh ladies one step away from All-Ireland final

Now those players face the all-conquering Dublin team gunning for four consecutive All-Ireland titles in Kingspan Breffni Park on Saturday
A decade of development has Armagh ladies one step away from All-Ireland final

Armagh players Blaithin Mackin and Tiarna Grimes celebrate their TG4 All-Ireland Senior Ladies Football Championship defeat of Mayo at Parnell Park, Dublin. Picture: Sam Barnes

As it’s a first All-Ireland semi-final for five years for the Armagh ladies, the label of surprise package has attached itself to the progress of the team.

But no other county has made the progress of this footballing entity during lockdown, when they opened McKeever Park — the first-ever training ground purpose-built solely for ladies’ football, and because of lockdown, the pitch has been allowed to mature and become one of the best surfaces in the county.

Now those players face the all-conquering Dublin team gunning for four consecutive All-Ireland titles in Kingspan Breffni Park on Saturday.

It’s all part of a huge ambition for ladies’ football in the county.

The talent, with the likes of captain Kelly Mallon, the experienced Caroline O’Hanlon, and younger players such as Mackin sisters Aimee and Blathin, and Aoife McCoy, has been harnessed by a serious management structure.

Ronan Murphy, of Edendork, first came to prominence in the Orchard County when winning a Junior Championship with Ballyhegan to go along with league titles in his native county with Killeeshil and Eglish.

He was appointed on a joint ticket with the renowned strength and conditioning coach Tommy Stevenson who has worked in several team environments over the last two decades, including Armagh senior men’s footballers and hurlers.

'It just hasn’t happened this year'

As ladies county board chairwoman Sinead Reel explains, performances this year — in beating Tyrone and Mayo and scoring 10 goals across the two games in the process — is only a result of the work over the past decade.

“This is due do with the work people have done over the last five, 10 years,” she said. “It just hasn’t happened this year.

“Yes, there are fresh faces this year and they are new, but the core of that team has been hanging about a while. Like this is Aimee’s [Mackin’s] fifth season. You have the likes of Caroline, Kelly Mallon, Sarah Marley who have been about a bit longer, but the development work has been going on behind the scenes.”

With the county and club season separated, and an increased level of coverage of ladies’ football, the eye-catching skills of Aimee Mackin are now part a watercooler conversation online, especially for that sumptuous curled point against Mayo in Parnell Park, just part of her 2-7 haul.

“Even though Covid has hit, it is one positive to come out of it, that our games are televised — and people who never watched our games before, not only from Armagh but beyond,” says Reel. “I was in work on the Monday [after the Mayo game] and the amount of people around Newry that stopped me and talked to me about ladies’ football, I was dumbfounded. But it was all because it got on TV.”

After delivering that performance, manager Ronan Murphy is rather blasé about the result, believing it was expected, rather than hoped for.

“It didn’t surprise me we played like that,” he says. 

And we have to go up another level if we want to beat Dublin.

“Mayo was a great result, but there is more in us and we have to reach those heights if we want to beat Dublin.” 

Superbly managed by the impressive Mick Bohan, Dublin ladies have also have built a culture of excellence around their environment.

“That’s the benchmark you have to get to,” said Murphy. “We haven’t the resources they have, but there is no point in complaining, you just have to get on with what you have.

“To be fair to the county board, they have been very supportive and anything we have asked for, we have been provided with. Given the circumstances we are in, the here and now, we have managed it fairly well, and the girls deserve great credit for it. Saturday is another step towards improving and reaching the All-Ireland final.”

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