by Richard Bullick
There won’t be an Armagh player looking forward to this Sunday’s Ulster final more than experienced corner back Sarah Marley after feeling the anguish of missing out on Armagh’s last triumph four years ago.
Marley was sidelined for the entire provincial campaign in 2014 after sustaining a broken ankle in a club match, meaning there were mixed emotions on that unforgettable afternoon in Clones as seven years of famine ended in stunning style for the Orchard outfit.
“Going through injury is challenging and the feelings of frustration are heightened when it means missing out on really big games and the sort of success which doesn’t come around often,” reflects Sarah.
“That Ulster Championship campaign constitutes a special chapter in Armagh’s history because the three wins were against teams two league divisions higher and all absolutely deserved. Then there was that fantastic crowd at the final in Clones as it was a double bill with the men.
“I’m Armagh through and through and I’d two sisters in the team and another on the bench so obviously I was delighted for everybody but at a personal level those few weeks were tough at times and I actually got very upset on the day.
“I put everything into my football and you dream of days like that, playing in the biggest games and helping your team to win trophies, so when injury intervenes there’s understandable disappointment even though you accept it’s part and parcel of sport.
“No matter how supportive people are, or their efforts to include you, it’s a different feeling. Being utilised as an analyst by the Gazette during that campaign was a nice distraction but hopefully I’ll have a different role this time!,” she enthuses, with genuine excitment in her voice.
She attended every training session while out injured and did well to get back in time to come off the bench in the All Ireland semi-final defeat to Cork, but it has been a lot longer wait for another opportunity to play in an Ulster showpiece.
Overcoming Cavan in this month’s semi was actually Armagh’s first victory in a provincial championship match since the 2014 final and Marley agrees it was a result the team badly needed.
“We’ve had so many near misses in the past few years both in championship matches and league games and being beaten by Cavan would have been particularly hard to come back from. Last Sunday was as nervous as I’ve felt before a game in ages and the 6pm start meant we’d all day to think about it.
“Getting that win meant so much to us as a group and it’s great to have an Ulster final to look forward to now, whether you’ve been fortunate enough to play previously and know why it’s such a big deal, or whether it’s the excitment of your first time.
“This is Aimee Mackin’s fourth year with Armagh but her first Ulster final whereas the likes of Lauren (McConville) and Aoife (McCoy) got there and won in their first season in the county set-up so I’m sure they thought it would be like that all the time!
“Actually Lorraine (McCaffrey) has been telling us to make sure we enjoy every moment because you don’t know how often these chances come around and it’s important to make the most of them.”
Sarah herself has had to wait longer than most for a provincial championship medal in that she first came into the Armagh panel in 2005 but missed the Ulster title triumphs the following two seasons because of tearing her cruciate and then being based in Dublin for her law degree.
She did play in Armagh’s only losing Ulster final appearance in 2010 before cruel luck kept her out of the last success, her injury opening the door for the then schoolgirl Louise Kenny to grace the big stage.
“Louise has torn her cruciate twice since then, which is awful for a young player, and she’s just had her operation during the week. My two youngest sisters have had similar surgery since last season so I can certainly empathise. Each career has ups and downs.
“It’s a delicate balance between encouragement and not patronising people, but both are rehabbing hard and Niamh is training with us again now so hopefully she’ll be back before long.”
As in the 2010 final, Lissummon star Sarah will have big sister Caoimhe Morgan as her captain in Sunday’s showpiece and an Armagh win would make their dad Noel Marley a very happy man on Father’s Day.
“Caoimhe has been a huge help to me right through my career, especially sharing her experience of how to be an effective corner back. She’s such a leader, people really relate to her and she inspires everyone. To get my medal and have her lifting the trophy would be perfect.
“Our family is so proud of Caoimhe captaining Armagh and, although my dad enjoyed Ulster Championship success himself as a player, he’d say the only thing better is watching his children do well. We’ve all very close and gaelic football is an important part of that bond.”
The orangewomen will go in as underdogs against first division Donegal, who will be confident of retaining the Ulster title following their unexpectedly emphatic margin of victory over fellow top flight team Monaghan in last Saturday’s second semi-final, but that won’t worry Armagh.
“I think there’s actually less pressure on us than facing Cavan, which looked like a good draw we needed to capitalise on. Donegal are a strong side who we’ve had a few tight games against in recent years and it should be another cracking contest.
“We won both knockout games against them in 2015 but they beat us in a league game up there last season and then turned over our big interval lead with the wind in the Ulster semi-final in Greencastle, so now we want to hit back and show what we’re made of.
“Unlike then, we didn’t panic in this season’s semi-final, and I think we’ve added depth since the Greencastle game. Look at how well young Tiarna Grimes played against Cavan on her return from injury and a fit-again Blaithin Mackin’s impact off the bench.
“With the bonus of Maebh Moriarty combing back so strongly after a few years away, management will have healthy selection headaches and the increasing competition for places is keeping us all on our toes to perform in training as well as the matches themselves.”
Even with the disappointment of failing to secure the expected promotion from NFL Division Two this spring, there has been a very positive vibe in the Orchard camp this season and now there’s a real spring in Armagh’s step after reaching the Ulster final.
“We had disastrous spells in a couple of our league games which proved very costly but we approach every game knowing we’re capable of beating the opposition. We made back to back All Ireland semi-finals in 2014 and 2015 and since then we’ve won league games against Dublin (twice) and Cork.
“We respect every opponent but there’s no fear factor and I think the most important thing is getting ourselves right. It has felt like things are coming together, everyone has been buoyed by beating Cavan and morale is certainly as good as I’ve seen it for a very long time.
“Lorraine and Fionnuala understand Armagh football, from the club scene to the particular culture in the county set-up, which both have been involved in before. They know the personalities involved and what’s expected.
“They’re also complete professionals and they have us doing what the likes of Cork and Dublin do in terms of video analysis and all other aspects of preparations. They’re exceptionally committed and give us an environment in which we can be ambitious but enjoy our football too.”
Modest, demure, meticulous and dedicated, Sarah herself is the sort of impeccable professional and ultimate team woman any manager would love to work with and this usually unsung hero’s consistent excellence for Armagh this season hasn’t gone unnoticed.
One of three Armagh players to be included in the ceremonial NFL Team of Division Two, the Portadown solicitor is characteristically humble in reflecting upon her well deserved recognition.
“I was waiting for a client at court when I read the email from the LGFA. The barrister who was there saw my face and asked if I’d had a shock! It was a pleasant surprise alright and the acknowledgement from managers of other teams is satisfying.
“I’d happily trade the personal award for us having won Division Two this season but being included in the Team of the League is a confidence boost which I can try to build upon.
“At the time I said the award was a reflection of how much I was enjoying my football this season and our managers must take considerable credit for that.
“They put us through the hardest pre-season we’ve ever done but that has left me in the best shape I’ve ever been. In years gone by I maybe put too much pressure on myself to peform but because of the work we’ve put in I’m now content just going out to try my best and seeking to enjoy whatever’s left of my career.”
Now 32, Marley laughs about being the second youngest of the six Orchard defenders against Cavan and still having her big sister to look after her on the field, but being more serious she sees experience counting for Armagh rather than age telling against them.
“People talk about Armagh’s missing generation of players in the upper 20s age group but that means the older heads are balanced by a significant group of younger girls. Some of them are quite experienced now and the hunger is still strong among the 30-somethings so it’s a good mix.”
The eldest two Marley sisters can expect a searching examination this Sunday against the deadly duo up front for Donegal, but facing Geraldine McLaughlin and Yvonne McMonagle is an appealing prospect compared to the frustrated spectator role Sarah was condemned to last time Armagh were in an Ulster final.