LUCKY champions, maybe, but certainly not undeserving winners.
It took character most of all, and a fighting second-half display in which several individuals made huge contributions, to earn Cork their second consecutive TG4 All-Ireland Ladies Football senior title in Croke Park yesterday.
Armagh made the giant leap from junior winners 12 months ago to put in a supreme effort in the first half, only to lose their way after having a defender sin-binned. Cruelly, after missing several chances to draw level, they were denied what seemed a legitimate free in the dying seconds.
Played in front of an attendance which was 5,000 higher than for the combined camogie and U21 hurling finals, the first championship meeting of the counties produced a marvellous contest which throbbed with excitement in the closing stages.
Armagh shocked the favourites with the power and skill of their play at the beginning, going 1-3 to 0-1 clear after 17 minutes and staying in front until ‘player-of-the-game’ Nollaig Cleary produced Cork’s goal 13 minutes after the resumption.
After that, it was a case of them calling on their considerable experience — and renewed confidence — to hold out in the face of mounting pressure.
To give Armagh credit, they played splendidly for most of the opening half (which lasted 34 minutes). They could have had the ball in the net after a mere 25 seconds but for a vital tackle by Cork full-back Angela Walsh, and for a while, after Nollaig Cleary gave them the lead in the second minute, Cork’s defending was impressive.
But that changed once the northerners got on top at midfield and started to win ball at half-back. They were level by the 11th minute and in another six they were five points up after Mairéad Tennyson finished off a good move created by a quickly-taken ‘45.
And, they were to increase their grip on the game through admirable combination play, with team captain Bronagh O’Donnell prominent at centre-back, Caroline O’Hanlon dominant at midfield, Sharon Duncan very forceful at centre-forward and Mags McAlinden to the forefront inside.
In contrast, Cork struggled with their game. Team captain Juliet Murphy was anonymous and scores were hard to come by, despite the efforts of Cleary and the full-forward trio of Valerie Mulcahy (well-marked), Mary O’Connor and Caoimhe Creedon.
In the circumstances, they were fortunate that Brid Stack and Angela Walsh cleared a lot of ball in defence. That blunted the threat from the Armagh forwards, all the more so when corner-backs Briege Corkery and Rena Buckley began to find their form.
There were signs of an overall improvement in the 10 minutes before the break as Mary O’Connor pointed when a Corkery shot at goal had been blocked, and Cleary pointed when she had the chance to try for goal.
After that, Amanda Murphy was denied by ‘keeper Fionnuala McAtamney’s outstanding save. At the break it was 1-4 to 0-3. That improvement was maintained early in the second half following early scores from Juliet Murphy and one from Caoimhe Creedon.
Briege Corkery thundered into the game, making some inspiring runs down the left flank and Rena Buckley also got on top. With Geraldine O’Flynn also showing up well at half-back, Cork were able to win an increasing amount of possession.
This coincided with the sin-binning of Armagh defender Caoimhe Marley, which seemed harsh, but worryingly for the Cork management, a succession of scores (five) were wasted before Cleary goaled in the 43rd minute at the second attempt.
Psychologically, it was invaluable to the holders; apart from the fact that it put them back in the lead (by a point) before Caroline O’Hanlon kicked over an equalising point. Cork played with much more self-assurance, soaking up pressure in defence and combined very effectively to create some good attacking moves. In this respect, Nollaig Cleary’s performed a vital linking role in the half-forward line.
Cork went back in front in the 48th minute through the improved Amanda Murphy before Armagh were restored to full strength. However, the damage had been done. Geraldine O’Flynn put Cork two points clear with just over eight minutes remaining before Tennyson pointed for Armagh in the 55th minute. After that, anything looked possible as the excitement mounted.
Sharon Duncan missed a good chance of an equaliser before a re-energised Juliet Murphy won possession from a throw-in about 40 yards out from the Cork goal and earned a free. The Cork captain was to make two more crucial tackles in the last half-minute of the game, the second of which might very well have earned the Ulster champions the chance of equalising. But it wasn’t to be their day.
Scorers: Cork: N. Cleary 1-2; M. O’Connor, J. Murphy, C. Creedon, A. Murphy and G. O’Flynn 0-1 each. Armagh: M. Tennyson 1-1; M. McAlinden and C. O’Hanlon 0-2 each; A. Matthews 0-1.
CORK: E. Harte; R. Buckley, A. Walsh, B. Corkery; G. O’Flynn, B. Stack, S. O’Reilly; J. Murphy (c), N. Kelly; N. Cleary, D. O’Reilly, A. Murphy; V. Mulcahy, M. O’Connor, C. Creedon. Subs: M. Kelly for Mulcahy (44th minute); C. Walsh for A. Murphy (48th); A. Murphy for Creedon (52nd).
ARMAGH: F. McAtamney; C. Marley, F. Quinn, A. Murphy; R. O’Mahony, B. O’Donnell (c), S. McCleary; A. O’Donnell, C. O’Hanlon; M. Tennyson, S. Duncan, S. O’Hagan; M. McAlinden, M. O’Donnell, A. Matthews.
Subs: P. McAvoy for Matthews (42nd minute); O. Murtagh for Murphy (45th); D. Toal for M. O’Donnell (54th); M. Moriarty for Duncan (58th).
Referee: D. Corcoran (Mayo).
*Attendance: 25,665 (last year 23,358).
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