by Richard Bullick
She broke the all-time record for All Ireland road bowls titles and captained the Armagh gaelic county team for the first time during the year, but 2018 still left Kelly Mallon with a few sporting itches to scratch.
Her hopes of a Senior Championship double at club level with Armagh Harps and Madden didn’t materialise last season and her Orchard outfit fell just short in their All Ireland quarter-final against Donegal.
Mallon was off the field as Armagh frustratingly let a healthy lead slip in the NFL Division Two semi against Tipperary, eventually limped off in June’s ill-fated Ulster final and wasn’t fit to start the opening All Ireland group game against Monaghan in Clones.
But injury to Orchard captain Caoimhe Morgan meant Mallon found herself leading Armagh against Cork a fortnight later and then in that Donegal game at Healy Park.
A spirited Orchard comeback wasn’t quite enough for a redemptive victory but Armagh had certainly restored pride dented by that horrible Brewster Park pasting by the same opponents just seven weeks earlier and their much improved performance created fresh hope for the future.
“We hadn’t done ourselves justice in the Ulster final so were delighted to get another go at Donegal. This time we didn’t let them pull away either side of half-time and it ended up being a great game in which we came close and importantly put down a marker for 2019,” reflects Mallon.
More immediately, the weekend was still to have a happy ending for road bowls queen Kelly, who claimed her eighth senior All Ireland title on the Sunday at Tullysaran with a commanding display against her Cork opponent.
It was a particularly impressive performance considering Mallon confessed afterwards to having watched the Armagh match back before turning her attention to the road bowls showpiece and that chance to establish herself as the most decorated champion in the sport’s history.
“Especially when you play more than one sport you must move on quickly but I needed to watch the Donegal game over again just to put it to bed. It was an intense schedule but, having spent most of 2017 sidelined by injury, I’d never complain about being in the thick of it,” she explains.
Perhaps slightly self-deprecatingly, she attributes being made Armagh vice-captain to how enthusiastic she was around the set-up last winter on the back of a year blighted by a lingering achilles problem which wiped out an entire inter-county campaign.
Highlighted in one supplement coming into that season as Armagh’s player to watch in 2017, forward Mallon’s only Armagh appearances of the year actually came in nets towards the end of the summer, off the bench in the qualifier win against Westmeath and then from the start in the quarter-final loss to Kerry.
“After the frustrations of 2017, I was really happy to be back, got a good pre-season in and was happy to help with stuff outside of training. I got on well with the new management and being asked to take on the role of vice-captain was an honour.
“I’m not as shy as I was and am probably better at communicating now than in the past. I still wouldn’t be the most vocal in a team setting, but would try to check in with people to make sure they’re alright and I’ve a good relationship with the younger girls,” reflects Kelly.
“I think getting the Armagh vice-captaincy last year has brought me out of myself more and encouraged me to embrace responsibilities rather than shying away from the (television) cameras.
“Armagh has been fortunate to have some of ladies football’s biggest names as our senior players for many years and up until now we’ve happily left the leadership roles to them but they’re encouraging us to step up.
“I couldn’t ask for a better person to look up to than Caoimhe, who is so passionate about Armagh and a great influence even when she’s injured. She spoke powerfully to the team at half-time in last August’s All Ireland quarter-final and is heavily involved in our pre-season.”
Mallon is an experienced player and respected stalwart who has been a first choice up front for Armagh for 10 seasons now and she skippered her home club Madden to their first county title in camogie for more than three decades in 2014.
However when she led Armagh against Cork in Ballinasloe last July it was actually the first time Mallon had captained a gaelic football team at any level and that wasn’t the only fascinating footnote.
That match was the first time since the 2006 All Ireland final that Armagh had been captained by someone who didn’t play in that Croke Park showpiece against Cork and the first time a player under 30 had officially led the team since Caroline O’Hanlon in the 2014 Ulster final.
A heavyweight handful of the golden generation which spectacularly catapulted Armagh onto the ladies gaelic map in the mid-noughties are still around including current captain Morgan, that era remains an important part of Orchard heritage and has left a valuable legacy.
Meanwhile Armagh’s resurgence under James Daly earlier this decade was sparked by an influx of fresh talent from his All Ireland Minor B title-winning team of 2011 and those players form the nucleus of the significant group in the present panel aged 25 or under.
At the start of the coming season, Armagh may have seven veterans on their books of 33 and over but Mallon, who will turn 30 in early July, is one of few products of what could now be regarded as wilderness years in terms of the Orchard conveyor belt.
As such she is an important bridge between two footballing generations and should be a very valuable leader in the next few years as some Armagh greats come to the end of their Orchard careers.
Kelly is careful not to assume anything but, with Morgan currently recovering from cruciate surgery, McCaffrey and McAtamney will need an alternative captain on the field for the first phase of the season and Mallon appears the logical choice.
Willing, loyal and dedicated, she could be seen as something of a quiet woman within the set-up, but spend a few hours in her company and it’s apparent Kelly can converse comfortably, with well-developed views on a range of subjects and a clear sense of her own values and ambitions.
Although she hasn’t sought the footballing limelight, Mallon is of course used to individual attention in the road bowls world, where she has established herself as the sport’s undisputed queen of the ages.
Last summer she won her ninth Ulster senior title on the trot before going clear of Gretta Cormican in the all-time All Ireland charts by being crowned national chaption for a fifth year running.
She subsequently beat her great international rival Silke Tulk in a high-profile exhibition in Boston between the world’s top two throwers and in November became the youngest person ever inducted into the Cork-based Road Bowls Hall of Fame.
With Kelly there’s no swagger but thanks to her remarkable record in the sport there’s an inevitable aura about her albeit with accompanying pressure of expectations which she handles nonchalantly.
“When you’re up there, everyone else is out to knock you off your perch, whether in individual sport or with teams such as the Dublin men’s footballers or the Cork ladies for much of the past decade.
“So you can’t slip along under the radar but on the other hand there is a confidence from winning and knowing you’ve proved able to deal with the big moments previously or come from behind or whatever. Likewise an opponent could have baggage from being beaten before.
“I’m a very competitive person obviously but can generally keep pretty composed even in finals. I’ve a great relationship with dad and having him there is a calming influence even if he probably gets more nervous than I do!
“People like watching our interaction and it’s a special player-coach relationship. I suppose it’s a little like a golfer liaising with their caddy between shots and there’s great trust there for we know each other so well.”
She enjoyed performing in America, albeit Boston was ‘freezing’, where she was taken aback by the size of the crowd which turned out to watch her take on giant Dutchwoman Tulk in a park, and appreciated their enthusiasm.
“It’s good to see the international interest growing and I’ve been invited to go to Germany in May. Staging a World Championships might be difficult financially but that’s an aspiration as is broadening the base in Ireland.
“I’ll happily play any part I can in that and am proud to be an ambassador for road bowls, it’s a privilege rather than a burden. Boston was special and I also got a great reception in Cork. I’d even written a speech for the occasion and it was a nice evening for my family too.”
It’s challenging juggling the demands of two sports but Mallon is also passionate about the third string to her bow, playing club camogie for her beloved Madden, even though being a dual player at inter-county level would be a bridge too far.
“I’ve been asked about playing camogie for Armagh and in a way would love to but I don’t think it’s a practical proposition and isn’t in my mind now. I enjoy both but Armagh are much stronger in football and that’s also where my heart is having put a lot into it for the past decade.
“But at club level it’s different, for Madden means an awful lot to me and it was special captaining the team to that long-awaited county title in 2014. Although I don’t play inter-county camogie I feel like I can be a positive influence for the younger girls who look up to me.”
Mallon’s near reckless commitment in the club’s cause resulted in her having to be stretchered off in injury-time of last season’s Armagh Senior Championship semi-final at the Athletic Grounds, in which Madden were overhauled late on by neighbours Middletown.
Although the midfielder’s personal performance was highlighted for praise in a daily newspaper the following day, driven perfectionist Kelly wasn’t as satisfied but believes the welcome return of BJ Sheridan as manager can help Madden reclaim the county title in 2019.
She has high hopes too for her adopted Armagh Harps on the football field, considering they only lost to eventual county champions Carrickcruppen in injury-time last season and are developing depth thanks to the club’s impressive production line.
“Harps may not be my home club but I’m there for a few years now, am more involved behind the scenes than ever and really enthused about the good foundations which have been put in place including great underage development thanks to Paula (Enright) and others.
“We had about 60 players at the start of last season and built up well to championship under Paddy McShane and Paddy Toner. It was a tough draw getting Cruppen in the quarter-finals but at least we were at home and knew from the league that we should be competitive.
“It was a great game against Cruppen, which could have gone either way, so the incentive is there for us to work hard and really push on in 2019,” remarks Mallon, who took a lot of physical punishment on the evening but proved her resilience and top scored for Harps. She was subsequently shortlisted for the Division One Player of the Season award.
Both Harps and Madden missed Mallon’s multi-talented young cousin, Armagh camog and Ulster rugby player Leah McGoldrick, due to injury last season but her expected return this summer should be a big boost to their respective chances.
With sensible management, Mallon’s own injury nightmares are hopefully behind her though she did have to pull out of November’s interpro tournament with a calf injury after being selected to start up front for Ulster.
She sat out one National League game last spring as a precaution and didn’t start the Monaghan match after hobbling off towards the end of June’s Ulster final, though not before scoring a good goal, winning a penalty and hitting both posts.
Selected ahead of Aileen Matthews for her first Ulster final in 2010, Mallon netted the only Armagh goal from play in the Clones showpiece four years later as the Orchard outfit upset hot favourites Monaghan in front of a five-figure crowd.
“That was a wonderful day, one of the very best I’ve had in sport. We were massive underdogs but as always we seemed to play well with a big crowd. It would be great to see more double-headers with men’s matches.
“We were delighted to get back to the final last season with what at the time was a very important win over Cavan, and had no fears facing Donegal. It was going well enough 20 minutes in but turned into an absolute nightmare.
“Come the summer we’ll want to go one better but for now the full focus is on our National League campaign which starts in a few weeks. Our aim is to achieve consistency, keep progressing as the games go on and ultimately win Division Two.
“We were quite unlucky to be relegated in 2017 and last season was a missed opportunity to go straight back up to the top flight. But back then we’d a new management team whereas there’s continuity now and the groundwork will have been done.
“On paper the fixtures fall quite well so it’s up to us to get the results needed to qualify for the play-offs and then take it from there. Teams like Kerry will be strong but it’s up to us to back ourselves and deliver,” she insists.