By Niall Gartland
ARMAGH couldn’t have wished for a better start to life in Division One. Three games, three wins and the Orchard ladies currently sit joint top of the league table with Meath, their upcoming opponents in round four, and Kerry.
After seven years away from the topflight, Armagh finally gained their place among the big hitters once again when they captured the Division Two league title last season and so far, this year, they’ve proven that this is where they belong.
But the goalposts haven’t changed. It’s all about the next game for Greg McGonigle and the next game has the potential to be their toughest of the year to date, and according to the Armagh boss, they have plenty to work on.
Armagh saw off Galway in last Sunday’s clash, winning 0-8 to 0-6 after keeping their visitors scoreless for the entire first half. McGonigle is always looking for improvements however and was disappointed by their second-half showing.
“If you’d have said at the start of the year that the first three games in Division One, you’d get three wins then we’d be happy enough,” said McGonigle, now in his second stint in charge of Armagh.
“There’s plenty for us to work on. There were a lot of good performances as well (against Galway) and in the first half I thought we were very good.
“The girls had to dig in and the wind, it changed a bit in the second half and went in a different direction, so it was hard to judge, and I didn’t think we controlled the game the way we wanted but it’s something to go away and work on.
“It’s game four, Meath, that’s it. In fairness, any team I normally take, there’s no point in ever looking further down the line because you get a kick in the backside, so we’ll just prepare for Meath now.
“We’ll do what we’ve done for all the games, we’ll analyse the opposition and prepare ourselves for the game. We’ll try and work on some of our game play and our mistakes or whatever else and see how we go from there.”
There’s an appetite to win within the squad and they have demonstrated on many occasions down the last few years that they’re one of the top teams in the country. It’s just about getting over the line at the business end of the season.
They collected three Ulster titles in a row, but lost their crown to Donegal in 2023, and have been battling at the latter end of the championship regularly. And chasing that big prize is where they are at the minute.
Sunday’s victory over Galway followed Saturday evening’s men’s game as Kieran McGeeney’s Armagh extended their own winning streak with a convincing performance over old nemesis Meath.
But the eagerness to tidy up the BOX-IT Athletic Grounds before hosting the ladies game the following day illustrates something special happening with ladies football in the Orchard County.
“Before the game we were saying to the squad that there’s two young girls and maybe more young girls here last night, Paudi McKeever’s young girl and Paul McGrane’s young girl, with the men’s game, they were helping to get the stand cleaned for today.
“Young McGrane is playing u-16 county football and Paudi’s daughter is playing for the u-14s and when you see those young girls coming out to clean the stadium for your senior players, we were saying that playing for Armagh, you have an awesome responsibility.
“You have a responsibility to set the standards for future generations so it’s not just about us winning but it’s about getting the youngsters to look up to the girls in the same way they’re looking up to the men’s team.
“Thankfully, being in Division One helps and that’s where the girls want to be and so far, so good for us,” added the Derry native.
Armagh were the first ladies team to have their own training facilities and McGonigle points to chairperson Sinead Reel and the county board for powering in behind the team. “I think in fairness a lot of that credit goes down to one person in Sinead Reel.
“Sometimes Sinead’s bark can be worse than her bite, but she’s put in phenomenal work and obviously now she’s got a very active county board and they’re pushing it on the whole time.
“A lot of them were there on Saturday night for the clean-up so we have a good county board, the players are going in the right direction, we’re hopefully going in the right direction as a management team. If you can get those three groups of people aligned, then you never know where you can end up.”
There’s lots of work that goes on behind the scenes, but you’ll not hear the former Monaghan and Dublin manager complaining. “The girls are giving a real serious effort, but it is tough, it’s hard work. The inter-county game in say the seven years I’ve been away (has changed).
“The time commitment, the preparation, it’s a lot more now. You’re nearly up into 25 or 30 hours a week of preparation work and meeting players, trying to come up with tactics and meeting with your management team and everything else that goes with it. But I put my name forward for the job so there’s no point complaining about it.”
McGonigle guided Clann Éireann to a first ever Ulster Club title last winter and he’s ingrained that Lurgan stamp on his Armagh team. Clodagh McCambridge is now the captain while he also gave debuts to Roisin Mulligan and Niamh Murray.
They aren’t the only newbies in the squad as Clonmore’s Sarah Quigley has also started all three of their league outings. “There are a few others there as well,” explained McGonigle.
“Young Laura Kavanagh from Killeavy has come on in the last two games. We had an in-house game on Thursday night, and she was giving Aimee Mackin her fill of it.
“We asked her was she scared of picking up Aimee and she said no, she belongs here.
“From my point of view, when players start doing that, it’s a good sign and there are a few more players in that group that will get better as the year goes on.
“You have Moya Sheridan there, she’s coming through, we’re experimenting a wee bit with Louise (Kenny) up front, but we have a couple of others there that are also out injured.
“The likes of young Caitlin McCormack from Ballyhegan and then you have Rachal McCabe, Millie Lavery, Corinna Doyle, Ciara Garvey, all those girls are pushing hard. I could nearly name the full squad.
“They’re all going for it and with all those players pushing hard, our job is to try and get them all competing for places so the likes of our senior players who have years of experience, don’t get a jersey easy.”