by Richard Bullick
There are no January blues for Niamh Marley as she excitedly counts down the days until Armagh’s opening National League game and her long-awaited Orchard comeback after injury.
“In years gone by it used to be Caroline O’Hanlon who always wanted to have a bit of a match at the end of every training session and now it’s me. When you’ve spent so long out and so many months of hard work to get fit again, you’re just bursting to play,” explains Niamh.
After more than a year on the sidelines following cruciate repair surgery, the Lissummon powerhouse finally got her only outing of 2018 in an Armagh training game against Queen’s University the Monday before Christmas.
“It was great getting back out on the field and not only coming through unscathed physically but without experiencing any psychological hang-ups in terms of feeling apprehensive or subconsciously being uncharacteristically careful with my knee,” she says, breaking into a grin.
Famed for her robust style and whole-hearted physical commitment, she reports that her watching sisters Caoimhe and Catherine, themselves both recovering from similar injuries, felt she ‘hadn’t changed anything’ about her game.
Having the high-voltage version of the third Marley sister back in action will be a big boost for the Orchard outfit, the equivalent of a new signing for Armagh joint managers Lorraine McCaffrey and Fionnuala McAtamney, who were denied her services in their first season in charge.
The previous summer she was wearing the orange jersey for Armagh’s championship campaigns but what at the time seemed somewhat subdued displays by her standards can be excused with hindsight for, remarkably, Marley was playing with an already torn cruciate!
“I was playing in a league game for Lissummon against Silverbridge, went up to catch a ball and landed on one foot. I can withstand a lot of pain but this was horrendous for about 20 seconds and then subsided.
“I went to the physio on the Monday and he was 90 percent certain I hadn’t ruptured it. I saw six physios in total who all took the same view but the consultant knew right away when I went to get the scan in September, having fought on for the remainder of the season.
“Last school year I was working at St John the Baptist College in Portadown and it was tough teaching on for the rest of the day after the call came with such devastating news for any sportsperson, though the school were very good facilitating appointments and so forth.”
Everyone deals with such setbacks in their own way and Niamh kept the bad news within the Marley family until after she’d gone under the knife in November.
“I went to an Armagh training session on a Tuesday night, 10 days post-op, and told the players. They hadn’t known up until then. After that I withdrew myself for five months because I felt like I was no good to the squad and it was too painful for myself being around the environment.
“I hated being on the sideline, unable to have any effect on games or their outcome, so I focused on the only thing which I could control, which was my rehab work. It might sound selfish, but being around the team in that frustrated state wouldn’t do anyone any good.
“By contrast my sister (Armagh captain) Caoimhe, who had her surgery last September, has stayed with the squad all the time while she goes through her rehab. She’s an inspirational presence and all the girls look up to her.
“I dealt with my long lay-off differently though obviously when you’ve sisters in the squad you can’t cut yourself off completely. Unfortunately three of us have been at various stages of the rehab road in recent months and Sarah has been there before.
“So there’s empathy there but, when you’re injured you don’t want to be bringing team-mates down, family or otherwise, so I’ve tried to draw on friends for support. It is tough at times though and you don’t realise how much you’d miss playing until you’re ruled out for a prolonged period.”
Infamous for playing through the pain barrier in normal circumstances, Niamh has been both patient and sensible in not rushing back before the expert professionals felt it was appropriate, or risking undoing good work by being foolish.
“My physio Paul Carragher wanted me to take the full 12 months post-surgery and I accepted that, though instinctively I thought I should be able to shorten the period by pushing harder at the rehab.
“I remember the day of the Ulster final in June when I was nowhere near ready but Caoimhe and daddy (former Armagh player Noel) made me leave my boots and gear at home as a precaution. If Armagh had reached the All Ireland semis I’d have been bursting to be involved.
“Maybe I’m a compulsive person but I did kind of get addicted to rehab, even doing 100 days back-to-back in the gym including Christmas Day (2017). Thankfully I’ve a good network of friends who looked out for me and stopped me becoming completely obsessive in a way which could have proved counter-productive.
“Normally when I pick up less serious injuries I just try to plough on through them and of course in this case I’d unknowingly kept playing for several months which actually amazed my former Armagh team-mate and now Ireland hockey physio Roisin Murphy when she heard afterwards.
“But an ACL tear is a major injury, and this was my second for I’d done it before aged 17, so in the end I reluctantly did what I was told and took the whole year which also means I’ve got a full pre-season in with Armagh ahead of our National League campaign.”
Rehabbing properly means Marley is satisfied her knee is strong enough for her return and nor does she seem too bothered by self-doubt or understandable trepidation as a result of spending so long on the sidelines and the high expectations placed upon her by herself and others.
“There’s just a big buzz about being back and even my pupils are taking an interest as I’ve haven’t been playing since coming to their schools,” says PE teacher Marley, who is currently splitting her time between St Mark’s Warrenpoint and St Malachy’s Castlewellan.
“I’d be very self-critical and put pressure on myself but I don’t see that in negative terms. I’ve missed a whole year of football so obviously I want to make an impact in 2019 and be effective for Armagh rather than just getting by or being glad to be playing for the sake of it.
“I’m ambitious for the team and determined to do what I can to help make us successful. As a young girl I saw up close the standards set by those Armagh greats who won the county’s first All Stars back in 2006, Bronagh O’Donnell, Caroline O’Hanlon and Caoimhe.
“It’s up to players like me from the next generation to ensure Armagh match those standards in the modern era and push the bar even higher in any way we can,” says Niamh, who has been playing inter-county football for almost a decade at this stage.
“Jim Finnegan first brought me into the panel for the 2008 season but then it emerged that I wasn’t allowed to play because I was still just 15, which felt like a big blow. I remember Bronagh O’Donnell, the captain, phoning me next day with words of encouragement.”
The young Niamh had tremendous mentors in eldest sister Caoimhe and the legendary O’Donnell, whom she had the honour of following in the orange No 6 jersey also made famous by All Ireland-winning Armagh men’s captain of the noughties, Kieran McGeeney.
At 20 she found herself playing centre half back for Armagh in the 2012 All Ireland Intermediate final against Waterford at Croke Park, with the challenge of marking the opposition’s top player, Michelle Ryan.
“Caroline was our big star but the television camera also focused on me during the pre-match parade because of facing Ryan, who had a huge height advantage over me. It could have been daunting but that was where I wanted to be and thankfully we won and it was special playing in Croke Park.”
Recalling special memories made in the orange jersey through the years has helped sustain Niamh during her recent lay-off and driven her onwards when the rehab road seemed long and lonely.
“It’s very difficult to keep a positive mindset, especially when there’s no quick fix. Unless you’ve had a long-term injury you don’t know what it’s like but for the past year we’ve had two of us in the household.
“My younger sister Catherine didn’t understand until she tore her cruciate too and that experience will help her to be empathetic in her professional life as a physio. She’s back doing contact now so will also be fit for the start of the National League.”
Another highlight of the first phase of the third Marley sibling’s Orchard career was Armagh’s famous upset of champions Monaghan in the 2014 Ulster showpiece in a packed Clones having already thumped Tyrone in an Athletic Grounds double bill with a men’s match.
“Monaghan had ruled Ulster through the years but we’d got exceptionally professional under James Daly and Aileen Matthews. The homework was first-class, the match-ups worked well for us and the game-plan was spot on.
“It was a very pleasing performance from us and the atmosphere was unbelievable. I remember being on teaching placement at the time and one of the guys played for Tranmere Rovers. When he heard the crowd was over 20,000 he was jealous as they just got about 6000!”
The nostalgic trip down memory lane brings Niamh on to the Orchard outfit’s first ever victory over Dublin, in an NFL Division One game at the Athletic Grounds in April 2016, when she scored her first ever Armagh goal, on her 24th birthday, in a 2-10 to 3-6 win.
“Definitely one to savour. A sublime pass from Caroline sent me through and I put the ball in the bottom right corner. It was a huge thrill at the time. There was fantastic cheering because it was a double-header and the crowd was filling up ahead of the men’s match afterwards.
“The fact we went on to win, for the first time against them, and that it was my birthday and my first Armagh goal all made it pretty special. Since then Dublin have gone on to win the All Ireland twice and my marker that day, Noelle Healy, got All Ireland Player of the Year in 2017.”
Marley’s excitement at being back fit and on the brink of what will almost feel like a second career after such a long lay-off is palpable and she is determined to combine enjoyment and achievement to make all the past year’s effort feel worthwhile.
“I’m going hell for leather at training and Lorraine’s saying to me ‘you’ve nothing to prove, Niamh’ but in my mind I’m making up for lost time. You know yourself where you’re at and I genuinely believe I’m coming back fitting and stronger.”
She won’t have played a competitive match for about 18 months by the time Armagh meet Laois on February 3 but it will be a surprise if Marley doesn’t start the opening National League game either in midfield or at centre half back.
A degree of ring-rust initially may be inevitable but being back in action for Armagh will be a familiar feeling for Marley in contrast to the other sporting challenge the 26-year-old is set to tackle in the coming months.
In August 2017, oblivious to her torn cruciate, Niamh attended an Ulster rugby screening day and made such an initial impression she won a place on the province’s extended training squad in spite of never having played a game in the oval ball code.
Her injury relevation means Niamh has yet to make her rugby bow but she is actively considering options to get games at club level this spring as a prelude to pushing hard for a place in the Ulster squad next season alongside fellow local gael Leah McGoldrick.
Marley’s mix of physical courage, combative manner and abrasive style would appear perfectly suited to rugby and, in spite of losing so much time to the cruciate rupture, she seems serious about adding this second string to her sporting bow in the near future. Watch this space!