By Shaun Casey
LOSING a league final, or any final for that matter, in Croke Park is tough to take. Armagh suffered that exact experience this time last year when Kerry pipped them at the post to earn promotion to the top tier.
The hurt, the disappointment, Armagh don’t want to be feeling that way again and captain Kelly Mallon says they are determined to right those wrongs this season. They’ve certainly shown the form to back that up, winning all seven league games leading up to the decider against Laois on Saturday back at Croke Park.
“We’re delighted to get back, seven out of seven and that was the target from the start of the year. It’s ok to get there but you have to get the win when you are there and there’s nothing as lonely as losing in Croke Park, so we’ll be hoping to go one step further than last year.
“It’s a very competitive division, even in the men’s game, the top four in Division Two in the men’s and the ladies, they’re very competitive. We probably could compete with any Division One team as well but it’s just the nature of the league.
“You have to win it to get out of it, not like the men’s where the top two go up and the bottom two go down,” added the Orchard skipper. “With us, you actually have to win it outright to go up and the bottom team goes down.
“That’s probably something that could change and could be looked at, but we’ll be hoping now to get into Division One for next year and then really test ourselves and see where we’re at. The minute the final whistle went in the Kerry final last year, that was in our minds that we have to get back here, and we have to redeem ourselves.
“We feel like we could have got over the line against Kerry and then if you look at Kerry’s form, they’re sitting in a Division One final now. Obviously, they’re an extremely competitive team and an up-and-coming team and they’ll really push in the All-Ireland series this year too.
“But definitely as soon as the whistle went it was a target to get back to Croke Park and to get the win next time because there’s genuinely nothing worse than losing in Croke Park.
“The journey home and that real sore feeling, it’s not something we want to experience again, and we’ll use that experience, and we’ll bring it into the final. That’ll hopefully add a little bit more motivation and drive to try and push on and get over the line this time.”
That defeat to the Kingdom ensured another year in Division Two for the Orchard ladies, who have been knocking on the door of promotion for a number of years. This time, they’re ready to barge through it and guarantee their top-flight status.
Laois stand in their way and although Armagh already got one over the O’Moore County this season, it was far from simple. It was the only time this year that Armagh didn’t raise a green flag and they stumbled past their opponents with a 0-10 to 0-5 win.
It was in stark contrast to their clash last year when Armagh breezed through without breaking a sweat, demolishing their opponents 7-18 to 1-9 in the Division Two semi-final, but the Leinster side have certainly learned their lessons 12 months on.
“They seem to be a little bit more defensive than any of the setups that we’ve faced so far,” Mally continued.
“Their defensive structure is quite strong and it’s quite hard to break down but we have worked on that quite a bit because we know that’s what we’re going to face potentially in the Ulster Championship and into the All-Ireland series.
“It’s about stretching the defence and trying to find gaps. But Laois are coming off the back of winning the Intermediate All-Ireland last year, they have plenty of experience in Croke Park and they’ll be totally up for the final.
“They’ll be thinking that we only beat them by five points so they’ll be up for it and we need to be at the top of our game to get over the line against them.
“I think they probably looked at last year and said they didn’t want to concede seven goals again so they’ll keep it nice and tight at the back. I don’t think they’re quite as defensive against other sides, they go for it a little bit more.
“Off the back of last year, conceding seven goals, they probably just wanted to avoid that and then really go after us with their attack because they have a lot of good forwards as well. Their development over a one-year period has been unbelievable and they’ll definitely be a very tough test for us.”