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Armagh's promotion hopes hit by China crisis

 

Missing out: Caroline O’Hanlon will be an Armagh absentee
Missing out: Caroline O’Hanlon will be an Armagh absentee
John Campbell

By John Campbell

Armagh face into Saturday's Lidl All-Ireland Ladies National Football League Division Two semi-final against Kerry without top scorer Aimee Mackin.

And that is not the only problem confronting the Orchard county for what is their biggest match of the season to date.

Mackin's sister Blainthid will also be an absentee as both are currently on tour in China with the Shane O'Neill's club from south Armagh.

It's the second time in less than 18 months that a party from the club has toured China under the auspices of the Confucius Institute but the trip could hardly have come at a more inopportune time from Armagh's perspective.

Aimee has been Armagh's top scorer in the league to date while Blainthid has also been making an impact in the team's surge into the Division Two semi-finals.

Not only will Aimee miss out on Armagh's bid to overturn the result of their earlier meeting with Kerry when they lost at the Athletic Grounds but she also missed representing Sion Swifts in the Northern Ireland Women's Soccer Premiership last night.

A Northern Ireland international player, her scoring prowess also carries into this code.

To add to Armagh's pre-match woes, midfield powerhouse Caroline O'Hanlon will also be missing on Saturday as she will be turning out for Manchester Thunder on both Saturday and Sunday in crucial Vitality Super League Netball matches.

It's not often the lure of China strips a GAA club of playing resources but with the Shane O'Neill's club having established a strong sporting link with sporting bodies in that country, it was felt that the strongest possible body of players and officials should make the trip.

And this all means that Armagh are left with a selection dilemma although they are far from abandoning hope that their depleted team can come good.

Joint manager Fionnuala McAtamney raps out a defiant message despite the adversity which is confronting her team.

"We have been working hard over the past couple of years in building up a stronger squad and we feel we have achieved that," she explains. "We have players now who have come through strongly and while we would love to have all our recognised first-choice players on board we feel we have adequate resources to meet the challenge ahead."

"There is a tremendous spirit within the squad and the girls can't wait for the game to get under way. We are focusing on what we see as the positives and while we respect Kerry we will be going out to give it our best shot."

When Kerry got the better of Armagh a few weeks ago, they did so in the normally inhospitable setting of the Athletic Grounds - inhospitable for visiting teams that is - and now they will surely fancy their chances of repeating the feat in the neutral setting of Athy in Kildare.

Skipper Kelly Mallon gave an insight into Armagh's detailed advance planning for the fixture.

"Obviously we have known that we would be without the three girls for the semi-final so when we played Wexford in our last scheduled league game the management rested them and only brought them on in the final few minutes," explains Mallon.

"The fact that we won that game has given us a boost. Kerry lost to Cavan last weekend which was something of a surprise result but we will not be reading too much into this in terms of Saturday's semi-final.

"We would love to be at full strength but this just isn't possible so the rest of us will just have to try and go the extra mile. Only one team goes up to Division One so even if we win the semi-final we would still have to go on and try and win the final.

"We obviously still have promotion in our sights but we know it is going to be very difficult against Kerry."

As well as looking to skipper Mallon for inspiration, Armagh will now be forced to lean on players such as Aoife McCoy, Shauna Gray, Niamh Marley and skipper Mallon herself for scores.

Cavan and Waterford will meet in the other Division Two semi-final.

Meanwhile, the Armagh men's senior football team's current trip to the Algarve is understood to have been sanctioned by the Central Competitions Control Committee.

The Orchard county are in the throes of preparations for their forthcoming Ulster Championship quarter-final tie against Down in Newry on May 19.

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