Armagh might have failed to secure their expected promotion to the NFL’s top flight this spring but forward Kelly Mallon is still bullishly upbeat about the Orchard crew’s Championship prospects.
The Orchard challenge came up short with a soul-destroying one-point defeat in the semi-final against a Tipperary team which went on to clinch back-to-back promotions by beating Cavan at the weekend.
It was the second time in 12 weeks that Armagh had lost a healthy lead to All Ireland Intermediate champions Tipp and they also snatched defeat from the jaws of victory at home to Waterford.
Coming from well behind to draw with Cavan at the start of February was a good result in the circumstances but the harsh reality is that the Orchard outfit failed to beat any of the other teams from the top half of the Division Two table.
However Mallon insists that no harm had been done in terms of Armagh’s confidence for the summer ahead, starting with an Ulster Senior Championship semi-final against Cavan on June 3.
“The league was frustrating for us in the end and we’re fed up being on the wrong side of the result in close contests over the past couple of seasons, but on the other hand we’ve faced all the best sides in Ireland and never felt out of place, she reflects.
“Each time we’ve been able to identify factors which caused us to lose and things that we can work to rectify, rather than just knowing we were inherently inferior. We have the ability but there have been some disappointing performances and also too many near misses.
“I absolutely believe we can compete with any team in the country, and we’ve had deserved victories over the only two counties to have won the All Ireland in the past decade, Cork and Dublin, but we must become more consistent.
“We haven’t always backed up performances from one game to the next and, even within matches, can really blow hot and cold. Against strong sides you can suffer serious damage in a short space of time and we’ve made it difficult for ourselves by having those costly slumps.”
Mallon is confident that Armagh will learn from what have been bitter experiences come Championship and, having enjoyed being back playing this season after spending most of last year sidelined by injury, she’s inclined to take a positive view.
“When you’ve spent so long just watching from the sidelines, you even appreciate pre-season never mind the honour of pulling on the orange jersey again for a match. In ways I’ve felt like I’m coming in new and I’ve really loved it.”
Perhaps like Armagh metaphorically, Mallon has had to find a way to deal with an Achilles heel literally and, although she’s still bothered by the tendon trouble which ruined her 2017 season, her Orchard return this spring has been a big boost for the team.
“I’ve a condition called achilles tendinopathy which has to be managed so I’m grateful for a good physio I trust. It doesn’t affect everyday tasks and I’d had three months of no pain until the club season started.
“I’ve always played club camogie as well as club and county football and road bowls, which are all important to me, but carefully managing my workload will probably be a way of life from now on if I want to keep playing each of them.”
Kelly sat out the National League game at home to Laois at the end of March as a precaution and at the weekend was in nets for Armagh Harps against Grange in a club match, reprising her surprise role as goalkeeper for the county team in last August’s All Ireland quarter-final.
Injury meant Mallon’s only Armagh appearances in the whole of 2017 were a late cameo in goals against Westmeath in the qualifier followed by being elevated to starting keeper against Kerry at Kilkenny’s Nolan Park!
“Two of our keepers, Caroline O’Hare and Anna Carr, were both injured ahead of the Westmeath match, which left Ellen McVerry as our only specialist so management asked me on the Friday if I’d cover her.
“I kind of laughed it off but said ‘yeah of course’ and then Ellen gets sinbinned towards the end and I find myself being brought on to face a penalty! Thankfully we held on for the win and then I got the start against Kerry, I think for the strength of my kickouts rather than shot-stopping pedigree!
“It was an interesting experience but I’m more than happy to be back among the forwards,” admits Mallon, who has played up front for Armagh, when fit, for the past 10 seasons and will likely wear the No 11 jersey against Cavan in Inishkeen.
The fact the orangewomen haven’t actually won a provincial championship match since their glorious march to that surprise Ulster title triumph in 2014 may warrant another note of caution to go with the alarming league wobbles, but Mallon isn’t the type to be bothered by statistics.
It isn’t that the 28-year-old subconsciously blanks out difficult facts – she only realised during this interview that she’s now in her 10th season with Armagh and appears genuinely unsure of how many senior All Ireland road bowls titles she has amassed at this stage.
So even the nice numbers don’t particularly register with a multi-talented woman who is something of an unsung hero of the local sporting scene in spite of fantastic achievements in three sports.
A regular starter for Armagh throughout an Orchard career already running to nearly a decade, Mallon has made a significant contribution to an All Intermediate title triumph, that Ulster Senior Championship success when she scored the only Armagh goal from play in the Clones showpiece, and back to back promotions in the National League.
She has played in two All Ireland Senior Championship semi-finals, been part of the Orchard outfit’s first ever victory over Dublin back in 2016 and featured in an interpro title-winning Ulster squad.
In camogie, she captained her home club Madden to their first Armagh Senior Championship for more than three decades in 2014 and will break the all-time record for All Ireland road bowls titles if she retains her crown later this summer.
Unsurprisingly Kelly was honoured twice with the Armagh Sportswoman of the Year title and has subsequently been runner-up when the catchment area was widened to take in the whole new ABC Super-Council area.
However just as she isn’t hung up on numbers, Mallon isn’t one for flashy self-promotion so hasn’t the public profile of which she’d be worthy, but it would be wrong to mistake a fairly quiet, unassuming manner for any lack of fight, ambition or belief in the sporting arena.
There’s no submissive mentality which would countenance the notion that Armagh’s place is anything other than as equals among the elite of ladies football in Ireland and she has plenty of individual determination too.
“I’m probably a wee bit shy to be honest and definitely don’t do sport in the hope of fame or glory, but because I really love playing, including competing at the highest level,” is her response to the proposition that she’s the quiet woman of Armagh football.
At this stage, Mallon is the most experienced player in an Orchard forward division which would be the envy of most counties in Ireland but often it seems that her attacking colleagues get more of the attention.
Scoring machine Aimee Mackin had two All Stars to her name before turning 21, Aoife McCoy has won Armagh Player of the Year twice in the last three seasons and Mallon’s Harps clubmate Fionnuala McKenna made major waves early in her Orchard career.
The irrepressible Lauren McConville has a high-profile family name, never mind being the Orchard outfit’s in-house entertainment, while the most junior member of Armagh’s super six, Blaithin Mackin, arguably benefits from being Aimee’s sibling in recognition terms.
“I absolutely believe we’ve a set of forwards who can do damage against anyone as long as we play to our strengths. Maybe last season we were a bit over-dependent on Aimee and Caroline (O’Hanlon) to take the lead but we all need to show what we’re capable of.”
Armagh’s quiet woman Mallon may be but anyone who had the privilege of watching her unforgettable final shot to take victory in the 2016 All Ireland bullets final on her home road in Madden won’t doubt that she has fantastic character.
She showed incredible nerve that day to pull out the shot of a lifetime when it mattered most, in front of a huge, expectant crowd who had largely resigned themselves to Kelly’s excellent Cork opponent spoiling the script.
“I’m fortunate enough to have won a fair few All Ireland titles but that one was absolutely special, because of where we were throwing and the fact that my challenge looked dead and buried,” she recalls.
One of four free-takers for Armagh, Mallon accepts her road bowls experiences should help prepare her for the scenario of stepping up to take a pressure kick in the closing stages of an Ulster or All Ireland ladies football final.
She actually competes less domestically than most of her rivals but Kelly is an absolute superstar in road bowls with European honours and those magnificent seven All Irelands on top of being crowned Ulster champion in each of the past eight years.
That fantastic finish to the All Ireland final featured on BBC’s flagship One Show with Mallon’s heroics captivating former Olympic heptathon champion and now athletics commentator Denise Lewis.
“Denise seemed very nice, really easy to get along with. She picked up the road bowls quickly and also asked lots of questions about the GAA codes. Rather than turning up as some celebrity, she showed real enthusiasm and interest in what she’d come for.”
Kelly’s dad Chris combines being the road bowls equivalents of her coach and caddie with chairing the northern branch of the national governing body, and she is as proud of his efforts for the sport as he is of her great achievements.
Talking of treasured success close to home, captaining Madden camogs to that county title will always have a special place in Mallon’s heart and be right up there on her lengthy list of sporting successes.
“That was probably one of the best days of my life full stop. There’s nothing like winning with your club, for family and friends, and that was our first Senior Championshp for 33 years and I’d the honour of being captain,” she says of the historic victory over kingpins Keady at Pearse Og Park.
Mallon’s Madden retained the county title the following year but have fallen at the first hurdle in each subsequent season while her Harps footballers have likewise slumped since reaching the Senior Championship showpiece in 2015 so she hopes for better runs with both this summer.
In a parallel universe she’d love to play inter-county camogie but chose football as her sporting priority, unlike high profile friends such as Ciara Donnelly, which perhaps explains the ‘missing generation’ in the Armagh ladies set-up.
The present squad has seven players aged over 32 and a large group from McKenna downwards who are aged 24 and under but the late-20s sector is surprisingly under-populated with Mallon and Niamh Marley rare exceptions in terms of frontline regulars.
“There’s been a big demographic gap there with very few players around my age and I think it’s because camogie got the pick of that generation at the time including some very useful footballers.
“I’m sure some of them would probably love to play for Armagh ladies and I’d definitely like to play inter-county camogie if that was possible but it just wouldn’t work logistically never mind placing an even bigger burden on the body.
“So it’s football for me in terms of county but, seeing I have to play elsewhere (with Harps) at club level in football because my home club doesn’t have a ladies team, I’m exceptionally proud playing camogie for Madden and there’s no bigger buzz than winning with them,” she explains.