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'We’ve beaten Dublin before and have no fear of them' - Orchard eye another Gaelic games upset

Armagh face the three-in-a-row All-Ireland champions in today’s semi-final – and the underdog tag suits them just fine.

Armagh duo Caroline O'Hanlon and Niamh Coleman embrace following their sides victory over Mayo.
Armagh duo Caroline O'Hanlon and Niamh Coleman embrace following their sides victory over Mayo.
Image: Sam Barnes/SPORTSFILE

MANY IN IRISH sporting circles will have taken inspiration from last weekend’s GAA provincial final shocks.

TVs across the length and breadth of the country were lit up by jubilant scenes from Páirc Uí Chaoimh and the Athletics Grounds, as Tipperary and Cavan lifted the silverware in Munster and Ulster respectively.

Tipp held off Cork to taste provincial glory for the first time in 85 years, while Cavan produced a monumental upset against raging-hot favourites Donegal to lift the Anglo Celt Cup, having last done so in 1997.

The Armagh ladies football team surely watched the outpour of emotion from their own county ground closely, dreaming of repeating a true underdog story this weekend.

There’s no doubt about it, they’re up against it as they face four-in-a-row chasing Dublin in the TG4 All-Ireland senior championship semi-final at Cavan’s Kingspan Breffni Park [throw-in 4.30pm], but they won’t buy into the outside noise.

Having beaten Mayo for the first time ever to reach their first last four battle since 2015 — their opposition on that occasion also the Sky Blues — Ronan Murphy’s side are relishing the battle that lies ahead.

And the prize ahead? A first All-Ireland final appearance since 2006, while Dublin eye their seventh in-a-row; the winners facing either Cork or Galway. 

“We know all about Dublin and what they’ve achieved over recent years but there’s a refreshing fearlessness about our younger girls,” says captain Kelly Mallon.

“We’re going into this semi-final with some momentum and a sense of opportunity which we want to embrace positively. That’s not about being gung-ho, but believing in our own ability, backing ourselves to do our own jobs but also absolutely believing in each other, not being overawed by our opponents and just giving everything we have for the jersey.

“To have a chance of winning, we must be prepared to fight hard from start to finish, but be disciplined and smart, keep playing with intensity and concentration for the full hour, communicate constantly, take good options under pressure and make our chances count.

“There will be times when we have to weather the storm against a strong team but the important thing is not to panic when the pressure comes on, or drop our heads if they get on a run. Mayo got seven scores in-a-row at one stage but we bounced back.

“We respect Dublin but can’t be fearful of their reputation. There will also be times when we must show killer instinct, strike ruthlessly and show what damage we can do and the cutting edge Armagh have.”

They certainly have that through Mallon at full-forward, and a host of others combining to rack up 10-28 in their two group game wins over the Green and Red and Tyrone.

There’s no doubt that the sensational Aimee Mackin is their big name this year, having clocked an excellent 2-7 last time out (3-13 across both Player of the Match-winning displays), but then there’s her sister Blaithin and the evergreen Caroline O’Hanlon, among many, many more.

They’ve struck a perfect balance of youth and experience, and they love scoring goals — which could cause Dublin problems.

“We’ve earned ourselves the right to play for a place in the All-Ireland final and that’s hugely exciting,” Mallon adds — that ’06 decider appearance their only, with O’Hanlon, 2015 Footballer of the Year, the sole survivor from that team.

“Nothing special comes easily and we’re under no illusions about the task ahead against Dublin, but this is where we want to be, we’re getting great support right across the county and want to keep doing people proud.

“By beating Cork last summer and Mayo this month, Armagh have shown we can really raise our game against top teams. We really relish the challenge of facing the best sides and going into this semi-final as underdogs suits us fine.”

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O’Hanlon, a well-documented dual star at this stage playing SuperLeague netball across the water with Manchester Thunder and balancing all her sporting endeavours with life as a doctor, firmly agrees.

aimee-mackin Armagh star Aimee Mackin. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

This new-look Armagh team have made the breakthrough to the last four after three consecutive All-Ireland quarter-final defeats, and they also have an Ulster final to look forward to after seriously upping the ante since the restart.

“All through the years, we’ve had a confidence can beat any team on our day,” Carrickcruppen ace O’Hanlon notes.

“In the past year or so we’ve scored four goals in each of the victories over Cork and Mayo. We’ve beaten Dublin before [in the league in 2017 and 2018] and have no fear of them.

“We won’t be focusing too much on the opposition. It’s about us backing up a good performance against Mayo because at times we have lacked consistency. We still have plenty to work on and think we can play better again in terms of strategy and execution.

“Beating Galway in 2006 was unforgettable, but I’m the only player left from that team and a lot of this squad don’t even remember Armagh winning an All Ireland semi-final never being involved so there’s a real hunger for fresh success.”

O’Hanlon has been carrying a hamstring injury, though her presence alone has been a huge boost while operating in a different position to her usual number nine, up-and-down midfielder role. She’s playing more as an inside forward, and is happy to do so, full of praise for her team-mates who have really come of age this autumn.

One in particular is Blaithin Mackin, who, in fact, has a 2-0 record against Dublin. “She’s now a force to be reckoned with and has achieved a new level of maturity. She’s one of the best players in the country at this stage, has plenty of experience and is still young.”

While heaping praise on each and every one of her team-mates, whose contributions often go under the radar, O’Hanlon kept the spotlight away from herself and Aimee Mackin, who have been rightly lauded as the Orchard’s key duo over the past few years.

“If teams are too reliant on one or two players, that won’t be enough against the best sides. Aimee dominated the scoring in the Mayo match and was brilliant, but all six forwards scored against Tyrone in the first group game and having that threat makes us harder to stop.

“Obviously Aimee is deadly if we can get her the ball in space. For whatever reason, Mayo didn’t seem to play a sweeper and, if she has opportunities to go one-to-one, she’s so hard to contain and will get scores.”

She’ll certainly take some watching this weekend, that’s for sure. And if Armagh are to follow in the footsteps of their male counterparts in Cavan and Tipperary, Mackin will be sure to be leading the charge.

- with reporting from Richard Bullick. 

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