January 28th, 2018

Richard Bullick

The familiar Carrickdale Hotel logo will be back on the orange jerseys of Armagh Ladies this Sunday when they open their Lidl NFL Division Two campaign by hosting newly-promoted All Ireland Intermediate champions Tipperary at Silverbridge (12 noon).
After 13 seasons as Armagh’s main backer, the Carrickdale crest appeared on the jersey sleeves in 2017 but they have returned to prime position for the forthcoming campaign, much to the delight of Ladies County Board Chairperson Sinead Reel.

“This has been a very special partnership which has stood the test of time and The Carrickdale is very much part of the Armagh ladies football family at this stage.  This is surely one of the longest relationships in sports sponsorship anywhere,” enthuses Sinead.
“We’re very grateful for all the support from the McParland family down through the years and their willingness to continue investing in Armagh ladies football is very much appreciated.  Armagh has had considerable success in their jerseys and all associated with the county team will work hard to ensure they get a worthwhile return this time too.
“I would also like to thank our subsidiary senior team sponsors this season, Kilmore Farms and Taranto, and all the businesses who are backing ladies football in Armagh at all levels.”
By neat coincidence, last time the Carrickdale came on board as Armagh’s new headline sponsor, for the 2004 season, Lorraine McCaffrey was just starting her first spell as joint manager of the Orchard county team.
Now, 14 years on, they’re both back in similar roles, albeit the Fermanagh native after a much longer gap, and the hope is that, like then, the new era will deliver a rich harvest of Orchard success.
First time round, an all-female management team of McCaffrey, Jacqui Clarke and Hayley Boyle presided over five trophy triumphs in a successful four-season spell in the mid-noughties, including Armagh’s first two Ulster titles, and took the Orchard outfit to their only All Ireland final to date.
That remains the most productive period in Orchard history though the haul of five pieces of silverware in four years was matched during James Daly’s reign this decade.
Armagh’s goalkeeper in the original glory years, 2006 All Star nominee Fionnuala McAtamney, was part of Daly’s backroom team for the runs to consecutive All Ireland semi-final appearances in 2014 and 2015.
A proven pairing at club level, she and McCaffrey were handed the Orchard reins in November by the newly-elected Reel as Armagh joint managers after last season’s incumbent Sean O’Kane stood down with the writing on the wall for his short tenure.
McCaffrey’s return, inevitably with established sidekick McAtamney, had been talked about in Orchard circles for several years and finally, after a round decade away, the time has proved right for all parties.
“Having been involved in the Armagh set-up in the past, this was always something which Fionnuala and I felt that we’d like to do at some stage of our management careers and thankfully the timing is now right for both of us.  Previously it hadn’t maybe been for one or other and we come as a joint package,” explains Lorraine.
“Fionnuala’s from Armagh herself and I’ve had a strong affinity for the county for many years.  As well as being around the set-up previously, we’ve managed together at club level (with Carrickcruppen) for several seasons so are well aware of the talent pool locally.
“As an outsider, for want of a better word, I’ve also always admired the exceptional pride in the jersey there is in Armagh and that willingness to do whatever you can to win a match.  That may not be enough in itself to ensure success but you certainly won’t get far without it.”
The arrival of these two women as Armagh managers has ensured there have been no retirements over the winter with the experienced core of half a dozen 30-somethings all back for another year after warmly welcoming.the appointments.
The admiration is mutual and the hunger those stalwarts still have is invaluable but McCaffrey is also enthused by her experiences so far of the younger generation who she says are also bringing plenty to the table.
“You need leaders in every team and we’ve got them dotted all over the field.  We’re fortunate to have very experienced senior players who are widely respected in the sport but it’s great to see the younger girls stepping up too.
“It’s important to have leaders in different areas of the field and from all age groups, people you can count on at the crunch moments and in the biggest games.  That’s what we’ll need if we’re to challenge for honours and I’m very encouraged by what we’ve seen so far.
“I think we’ve got a good blend between those hugely experienced campaigners and young talent coming through including girls still in their early 20s who have a few years of inter-county football under their belt now.
“Division Two will be exceptionally competitive so we won’t have the luxury of experimenting as such but we’ve consciously gone with a reasonably small panel and want all the players to feel they can earn opportunities for themselves with hard work and showing well in training.
“Hopefully we’ll learn something about a lot of individuals during the National League but not at the expense of winning.  We want to get out of Division Two this spring so we’ll be looking to put out the best team to win the matches.”
She knows Division Two will be crowded with contenders for the title and that sole, all-important promotion place which goes with it, and indeed a credible case could be made for as many as seven of the eight teams.
Cavan, Clare and Laois all made the top four last season with Tyrone just missing out on points difference while Waterford, who subsequently beat both Cork and Kerry in the Munster Senior Championship, newly promoted Tipperary, who haven’t lost a competitive match since 2016, and recently relegated Armagh are all useful sides.
“Obviously it might make promotion more difficult to secure but we want competitive matches and that tremendous depth in the second division should stand to us later in the year.  We want to be successful so that means fronting up against strong teams and doing what it takes to win.”
There’s an appealing narrative to the forthcoming National League campaign, particularly with the Orchard crew coming up against neighbours Tyrone, bitter rivals during McCaffrey’s first spell, and ambitious Cavan, now under former Armagh manager Daly.
“I don’t think we’ll get too concerned about who the management teams are or whether they’re Ulster sides.  Each game counts the same and we want to win them all.  I think sometimes you can get sidetracked by these issues,” Lorraine.objects, before relenting a little.
“Obviously you’ve enough angles there to write about!  There’s always that rivalry between Tyrone and Armagh so no doubt there’ll be that derby edge when we play them in round four.  We’re looking forward to that but we’ve three equally important matches before thEN and everyone’s focus for now is on the opening game against Tipperary.
“We started training at the back end of November and the girls have been working very hard so I’m confident we’ll be well prepared.  The high expectations we have of ourselves as a group matters more than what others are saying,” she insists in response to the suggestion that the pressure will be on Armagh to secure an immediate return to the NFL’s top flight.
Unlike last time she came in, when Armagh weren’t really mapped in ladies football, some may now see them more as sleeping giants and the hope is that the new management can help this squad become contenders again for the sport’s top prize.
“Armagh were ambitious back then and achieved considerable success through honest, hard work, fantastic commitment and players and management making the most of what we had.  The game has changed greatly in the intervening period but getting the best out of ourselves as a group remains the first foundation for success.”
That mid-noughties set-up prided itself on unflinching commitment and an impressive professionalism ahead of its time.  Those still involved have evolved and nobody wants to wallow in nostalgia or pursue retro football, but you can’t put a price on character and a true team mentality.
“We really respect players and this season will be a collective effort from everyone to make Armagh as successful as possible.  We’ll work hard to make training productive, prepare professionally for matches and have full faith in the players who take to the field,” McCaffrey concludes.