by Richard BullickOne casualty of Armagh’s recent Donegal defeat was the poetic contribution which Crossmaglen’s Lauren McConville had hoped to produce in the event of an Ulster title triumph for the Orchard county.
That heavy Ulster final loss was the second time this season that the wannabe bard found her poetic skills surplus to requirements, for Armagh missed out on May’s NFL Division Two final so there was no promotion to immortalise in verse either.
However the 23-year-old forward is still determined that the orangewomen will deliver something this summer worth waxing lyrical about and she is driven by a strong sense of unfinished business off the field as well as on it.
“I’ve some material for a very promising poem about the team, which was partly written on the long journey home from our league game away on the far side of Clare, but what I need now is the perfect platform for rolling it out,” grins Armagh’s resident entertainer, with a hint of trademark mischief.
“But unfortunately we had no National League title to celebrate and then our Ulster Championship hopes were well and truly buried by Donegal, though reaching the final for the first time in four years is still something we must see as a positive.
“Being beaten by 28 points in a showpiece occasion obviously isn’t what you dream about but beating Cavan to get there was worthwhile and, given the choice, I wouldn’t sacrifice that just to avoid the expectionally painful hammering we got at Brewster Park.
“Having fallen at the first championship hurdle in each of the past three seasons and lost too many close league games too against the stronger sides, it was so important for us as a team that we got over the line against Cavan.
“My buddy Aoife McCoy actually shed a tear when we won the semi in Inniskeen such was the emotion and relief and, although things didn’t go the way we wanted against Donegal, I still think the positives of getting there outweigh what happened on the day, however horrible at the time.
“Losing those two goals in such quick succession before half-time really hurt us and we were realistically out of the running for most of the second half so Donegal had the luxury of playing on the front foot full of confidence and knowing the win was in the bag.
“It was a shock scoreline, probably for both teams and any neutral, and I don’t believe Donegal are that much better than us but all we can do is learn from the experience and show what we’re capable of from here on in.
“We were given a week off to clear our heads but there has been a lot of hard work done since and now we’re really looking forward to these group games and trying to qualify for the All Ireland quarter-finals.
“The new format means that provincial champions must play the same number of games as everyone else so, although winning the Ulster final might have earned us a more straightforward draw on paper, you have to play and beat the better teams sometime.
“Cork and Monaghan have been very successful sides down through the years but they have been knocked off their respective pedestals by Dublin and Donegal at national and provincial level and will want to make strong statements this summer that this isn’t the end of their eras.
“We look forward to facing Cork in our second match, having real respect for their incredible record over the past decade but knowing we beat them (in a league game in Clonmore) last time we met.
“But for now our full focus is on this Monaghan match because a win would be the perfect response to the Donegal defeat, it might get us into the quarter-finals and secure our senior status for next year, plus it would keep us in the running to top our group.
“So although it’s not knockout as such, there’s an awful lot at stake and everything to fight for. We know this match might make or break our summer, so it’s up to us to throw everything we have at Monaghan.
“They’re also coming off the back of a disappointing defeat by Donegal, and I’m sure the fact we lost by twice what they did won’t have been much consolation to their management or players. I suppose we’ll both be braced for a backlash from each other.
“We’d be fairly familiar with Monaghan from meeting them quite often in the past few years and we definitely feel we owe them after losing the league game in Clones last season and then the relegation play-off at the Athletic Grounds a week later.
“They have comfortably beaten us in the two championship clashes since we got one over them in the 2014 final but both those league games last season were really close contests and I believe we’re very capable of beating them.
“I’d say it will be quite a tactical game but as always work-rate and desire will be key to the outcome and we’re really up for this one and determined to prove a point after the Donegal defeat and also Monaghan getting the better of us twice last season.
“It’s a really big game for both teams and there’s a bit of rivalry has built up over recent years as you’d expect between neighbouring counties,” reflects Lauren, whose mum Michelle is actually a Farney native but will be behind her daughter this Saturday!
Lauren’s dad Jim, who himself lined out for Armagh, is most famous for captaining Crossmaglen at the start of their run of outstanding sucess over the past two decades, but she reveals the sporting pedigree isn’t restricted to one side of the family.
“My mum has actually more medals than my dad. She comes from Castleblayney and played camogie for them and, more recently, I’d the honour of winning two Armagh Junior Championships with her.
Although she captained Crossmaglen to a memorable Armagh Intermediate Championship and Division Two double in ladies football last season, Lauren has been playing her club camogie for Culloville.
“I maybe barely appreciated the first one properly but the second championship we won, the final was at Pearse Ogs, and it was a real thrill sharing that success with my mum and younger sister Aoibheann.
“I’d say mum’s similar to me as a player, she can get up a right head of steam though she was maybe a bit stiffer than she’d have been at her best by the time I got to play with her! But it’s been a special chapter in my sporting career.
“Unfortunately I opted out of Culloville camogie this season as, with my Armagh commitments, I couldn’t guarantee always making matches and they were struggling for numbers so it would have been fair to create expectations. I think they aren’t able to field for championship, which is a shame, but hopefully they’ll be back stronger next year.”
Those county commitments have even curtailed Lauren’s football for Crossmaglen this season so far, though the club captain did score an astonishing 10-10 in her team’s 15-21 to 3-7 thrashing of Killeavy in a Division Two league game at the end of April.
“County management make a real effort to facilitate clubs but inevitably you’re not there as much as you’d ideally like at times of the season. Things have been going alright in the league and over the next few weeks we’ll look to crank it up ahead of our Senior Championship campaign.”
With her cousins James Morgan and Oisin O’Neill unavailable, the enigmatic Jamie Clarke in America and Paul Hughes injured, remarkably the diminutive McConville was the only Crossmaglen representative to play Ulster Championship football for Armagh this season and the club couldn’t have a better ambassador.
“Apparently it’s the first time in 22 years that Armagh have taken the field for a championship match without a Crossmaglen man, which is some stat. I do take pride in representing my club at inter-county level and they’re very supportive of me playing for Armagh.”
She carries the responsibility of being the sole Cross representative extremely well on impressively sturdy shoulders for a player who admits with a chuckle that there was generous rounding up involved in submitting her height as officially 5’2” for match programmes!
However what McConville lacks in height she makes up for in heart and, although scoreless against Donegal in the Ulster final, she was one of few Armagh players to emerge with credit and fought ferociously until the bitter end.
Never shirking the heavy hits, McConville won one of the three penalties Armagh were awarded on a day Donegal were lucky to get away with just four sinbinnings, and was still battling away with all she had right until the final whistle even though, by her own admission, the game was long since past the point of no return.
“Because we’ve fallen short since 2014, never even getting past the first stage in Ulster, it was great getting to the final again and I was so excited about the match. I haven’t looked forward to a game as much for so long.
“It was so disappointing that we were realistically out of it so early and it would be human nature to let your head drop but you don’t just give up the fight for you’re still wearing that Armagh jersey you’ve such pride in and you’re still representing people.”
Whether ruthlessly hammering home Crossmaglen’s superiority in Killeavy or defiantly fighting on in a hopeless situation at Brewster Park, whether in the elite environment of an interpro final or a routine training session, McConville always gives her absolute best and thus has no regrets.
That approach enables her to be ambitious but content and explains how she felt no particular pressure at club level last season in spite of the heavy weight of expectations on her as Cross captain and star turn.
In all circumstances she’s an indomitable battler who knows no other way and that honesty of effort is appreciated by team-mates and fans alike. Lauren tenaciously takes the fight to every opponent and neither her work-rate nor physical courage can be questioned.
Industrious, determined, dependable, positive, very likeable and serious about football but with a strong sense of humour, mischief and fun, Lauren always seems to strike the right balance between work and enjoyment.
A talented dancer, a promising poet, compelling mimic and renowned messer, McConville can entertain any audience and there have been amusing instances of her explaining gaelic football to top Sky Sports presenters and addressing the then Taoiseach Enda Kenny in local Crossmaglen dialect!
But she has shown her substance by successfully combining gaelic football at the highest level with her studies and it sums up Lauren’s dedication that she got an outstanding attendance award when she left Our Lady’s Grammar in Newry.
On top of her Armagh and Cross commitments, she captained the Queen’s ladies gaelic football team and was their club treasurer but still managed to achieve a 2:1 Honours degree in Food Safety and has been employed since last summer in quality assurance for Castleblayney company Rangeland Foods.
“Working life is going well and I’ve a nice routine now. It’s enjoyable not having to study for exams and having more money but I’d also a great time at Queen’s on and off the field,” who ironically works the other side of the Armagh-Monaghan border.
“Sometimes the books must come first but my message to any young girl is that you can definitely do both, get your qualifications and keep playing your football. Education is so important and most managers are sensible enough to understand that.”
Two summers ago she had an enjoyable couple of months playing gaelic in the United States, something sibling Aoibheann, a Cardiff-based university radiography student who was part of the squad which reached the 2017 Ulster Minor final, is doing now.
At the time Lauren agonised over missing Armagh’s championship campaign but knew that scratching the legitimate itch of America could help prolong her Orchard career, which should have many years ahead, by enabling her to come back refreshed, hungry and happy.
She had a great 2017, having captained Queen’s in the O’Connor Cup and been honoured at their Blues ceremony before graduating 12 months ago, getting her job and leading Crossmaglen to that unexpected domestic double, but rather than rest on her laurels, Lauren has her sights set on further success, not least in the orange jersey.
With Crossmaglen’s campaign going deep into October, the pragmatic McConville took a proper break before joining Armagh’s pre-season and, as apparent penance for returning late, had to come off the bench for the first two National League games.
Up until then, either side of her sabattical in America, McConville had started all 44 Armagh matches since coming into the squad as a teenager ahead of the 2014 season but she has full faith in Lorraine McCaffrey and Fionnuala McAtamney.
“I’m very happy with the management we have this year, they’re really committed to Armagh and very thorough. They’ve worked with us very closely as individuals and that hard work was reflected in the way our performance against Cavan came together.”
The youngest of eight survivors in the Orchard starting line-up from that 2014 Ulster final for this month’s showpiece, McConville is quite an experienced campaigner now and, like accomplice McCoy, is in her fifth inter-county season with more than 50 Armagh appearances under her belt, but she still looks up to the squad’s senior pros, especially captain Caoimhe Morgan.
“It’s a complete privilege playing with the older girls, they’re real Armagh heroes who have given so much and achieved so much. I’m still learning from them all the time and their continued commitment is inspiring.
“As the younger generation we want to give them hope that it’s worthwhile keeping making those sacrifices and we can do that by showing we have the application, by taking responsibility for upholding the standards they expect and hopefully performing to our potential in big games.
“Caoimhe’s brilliant as a captain, she picks us up when needed and knows what to say to get the best out of each of us. She’s such an experienced player, is still so passionate about her football and always leads by example,” says the formidable McConville, who herself has emerged as a real role model with the qualities to become county captain in the future.
“She’s a great woman altogether and I know she has a birthday coming up at the end of the week so hopefully we can her the win which would just give all of us so much more to look forward to this summer and help put the Donegal defeat further behind us.
“I must say, the mood’s genuinely good again, there’s no lack of talent and there’s no lack of drive in this set-up but obviously all that really counts isn’t what we say about that but how we go out and perform against Monaghan.
“Although they’ve home advantage, as a team we like Clones because of the pitch, the atmosphere and its status as Ulster headquarters as well as our amazing memories from that final four years ago and knowing we’ve had other pleasing performances there.
“We’re really looking forward to getting out there, answering some of the questions raised by the Donegal defeat and showing why we’re better than that,” vows Lauren, who will be doing her best to make sure everything rhymes for Armagh this Saturday.