by Richard Bullick
Armagh joint manager Fionnuala McAtamney has hailed one of the Orchard county’s unsung heroes Sarah Marley after the Lissummon stalwart was included in the NFL Division Two Team of the League.
Along with forwards Aimee Mackin and Aoife McCoy, experienced corner back Marley is one of three Armagh players who will be honoured at this Friday’s Lidl National League Awards at Croke Park.
It is the fourth time in four seasons that ace markswoman Mackin has made the ceremonial line-up for whichever division the orangewomen were in and the Shane O’Neills scoring machine has also two All Stars to her name.
Meanwhile Dromintee dynamo McCoy’s exceptional carrying and considerable scoring threat has also been well lauded before in that she has been crowned Armagh Player of the Year in two of the past three seasons.
However faithful foot-soldier Sarah has often found herself overlooked when the honours have been handed out and seldom receives the plaudits she deserves, albeit the 32-year-old Portadown-based solicitor would be the last to seek personal acclaim.
Once described by former Armagh manager James Daly as the most professional player he has worked with, the meticulous Marley is also the ultimate team woman who willingly gives everything for the Orchard cause.
The Teams of the League are selected based upon the votes of opposing managers in a side’s division, so this accolade is an endorsement of on-field displays but those who work with Sarah Marley can also vouch for the qualities she brings behind the scenes.
“Sarah’s commitment and dedication is second to none and she has consisently put in high-quality performances for us all season. She is a pleasure to coach and a great team player who, up until now, hasn’t got as much recognition as she should,” enthuses McAtamney.
“In saying that, she’s the kind of player who would readily acknowledge that individual recognition is not as important as the team winning, such is the nature of her. Myself and Lorraine (McCaffrey) are delighted for Sarah and with the other two Armagh girls selected.”
For her part, Sarah reflects credit back on the Armagh management too in her characteristically humble response to news of her inclusion in the Division Two line-up, saying: “This was totally unexpected but I’m really enjoying my football this year and I think that makes a difference.”
A technically proficient corner back who does her homework on opposing players and is consistently steady in performing her bread and butter defensive duties, Marley has also carried more ball than usual this season. She is one of only four players to have been on the field for every minute of Armagh’s eight games so far in 2018.
Sarah’s honour has also been warmly welcomed by her big sister and county captain Caoimhe Morgan, who must have been in the frame for inclusion herself but the 2006 All Star doesn’t mind being eclipsed on this occasion by her less-sung sibling.
“I’m just thrilled for Sarah, I know nobody works as hard as her on and off the pitch and it’s great that the managers across Division Two can see what a valuable asset she is to our team,” reflects Caoimhe, who has made the Team of the League twice.
Fittingly, the oldest of four Marley sisters to have played for Armagh, claimed the right corner back berth in the 2010 Division Two team back in 2010 during her first spell as Orchard captain and now Sarah has earned the same No 2 jersey eight years later.
The Team of the League concept was first introduced back in 2009 for what was then the Bord Gais National League and subsequent sponsors Tesco and now Lidl have carried on a tradition now stretching to 10 seasons.
Armagh ace Caroline O’Hanlon was the only player in Ireland to have made her relevant Team of the League selection every year for its first seven seasons and, after missing out on the Division One line-up in 2016, she bounced back with an eighth award last year.
Missing three rounds of fixtures this spring due to captaining Northern Ireland’s netballers at April’s Commonwealth Games in Australia put paid to O’Hanlon’s hopes of extending her record in 2018 and Mackin could challenge it in years to come.
She has now won four Team of the League jerseys at the tender age of 21, picked this time at right corner forward as she was when Armagh’s sole Division One recipient in 2016. Her first award was at left corner forward when the Orchard crew won the second division title in 2015 and last season she was selected at centre half forward.
Behind O’Hanlon’s eight times and Mackin’s four, Morgan is one of four Armagh players to have been selected twice along with 2014 All Star Mairead Tennyson and her fellow nominees from that season, Sinead McCleary and Fionnuala McKenna.
McCoy, named at right half forward, and Sarah Marley are among eight Armagh players to have been recognised once, including current squad members Lauren McConville and the recently returned Maebh Moriarty, the latter having been named at right wing back in 2010.
So Armagh have had 28 Team of the League awards for 14 separate players in 10 seasons with at least one recipient every year and all positions covered except left corner back and left half forward.
Title winners Tipperary lead the way with five players in the 2018 Division Two line-up including leading scorer Aisling Moloney and skipper Samantha Lambert, with four from beaten finalists Cavan, who Armagh will face in next month’s Ulster Senior Championship semi-final.
Goalkeeper Evelyn Baugh, skipper Sinead Greene and forwards Aisling Doonan and Ashling Sheridan have been included with the rest of the team made up by Waterford defender Michelle McGrath, Tyrone midfielder Emma-Jane Gervin and Sligo’s Kaie Walsh at left corner forward.
Six counties are represented in the Division One line-up where first-time National League champions Dublin, with three inclusions, are outdone by a quartet from Mayo and matched by the Donegal trio of Ciara Hegarty, Karen Guthrie and Yvonne McMonagle.
Guthrie and McMonagle are among three surivors from last season’s first division select, the other being Galway veteran Sinead Burke who has one county colleague in this team, while newcomers Westmeath also provide two players.
With Monaghan’s Muireann Atkinson named in midfield, former champions Cork, whose hopes of six titles on the trot were ended at the semi-final stage, are the only county other than relegated Kerry not to be represented.
Nobody from Down made the Division Three line-up which consequently has no Ulster players but there are four from three northern counties in the fourth division side with two Antrim representatives and one each from Fermanagh and Derry.