by Richard Bullick
Armagh LGFA Chairperson Sinead Reel was philosophical after losing out to a familiar face for the ‘Game Changer’ title at last Monday night’s Belfast Telegraph Sports Awards at the Waterfront Hall.
The all-female award was won by Irish hockey hero Shirley McCay, who had been the special guest speaker at last November’s Armagh LGFA 40th anniversary celebration banquet, and Reel declared her a worthy winner.
Ireland’s most capped female in any sport with 273 appearances to date, McCay shone as the girls in green defied all the odds on an amazing journey which culminated in reaching last August’s World Cup final.
She is also a significant figure off-field in her role as Ulster Hockey’s Talent Coach, which involves working with young players, male and female, from primary school age up until late teens to ensure the province has a healthy flow of future stars coming through.
“Shirley’s a great girl who deserves every accolade which comes her way. I knew when I saw her name on the shortlist that she’d win this category. She’s had an exceptional career which hopefully isn’t finished yet and is an inspirational role model for any young girl in the country,” said Sinead.
“We were delighted to have her at our 40th anniversary gala a couple of months ago and it was nice catching up with her again at the Waterfront Hall at what has become a real landmark event in the sporting calendar.
“As Armagh LGFA Chairperson I would also like to congratulate our own Caroline O’Hanlon on being shortlisted again in the Player of the Year category after her well deserved Special Recognition award 12 months ago.
“Caroline lost out to Irish hockey’s amazing goalkeeper Ayeisha McFerran in what was a very competitive category also featuring gymnastics golden boy Rhys McClenaghan and Tyrone All Star footballer Colm Cavanagh, but that can’t detract from her achievements in 2018.
“The esteem in which she is held more widely was reflected in her being chosen as flag-bearer for Team NI at the Commonwealth Games, she continues to excel in netball beyond these shores and, closer to home, Carrickcruppen winning the county title back meant a lot to her.
“This time, another local hero Rory Best was a very worthy winner of the Special Recognition award after what has been an absolutely brilliant rugby year for him and the other success for our county was the All Ireland-winning St Ronan’s boys picking up Young Team of the Year.”
The other finalists in Reel’s Electric Ireland Game Changer category were Commonwealth Games silver medal-winning shooter Kirsty Barr and veteran kick-boxer Cathy McAleer, who has recently taken up professional boxing.
Unlike in its inaugural year, the Game Changers category shortlist this time seemed to have more emphasis on recognisable current competitors than off-field figures who are effectively changing the landscape of female sport with their efforts.
Although Reel lined out for the Orchard county team many years ago, her nomination was on the back of the impressive impact she has made in her first 12 months at the helm of Armagh Ladies County Board.
Her exceptional contribution and personal sporting journey will be explored properly in a forthcoming interview with the Ulster Gazette but she undoubtedly deserves the plaudits which come with being shortlisted alongside so many notable names across the various categories.
World superbike champion Jonathan Rea was crowned Sports Star of the Year while other winners on the evening included Ireland rugby winger Jacob Stockdale, Tyrone gaelic football boss Mickey Harte and teenage gymnast McClenaghan, honoured with the Rising Star award.
“I’m not motivated by personal recognition but was proud to be there representing Armagh ladies football, for which I have great ambitions. Being nominated for an award is simply another platform for promoting what we’re trying to do.
“It was special having my parents, Owen and Philomena, there at the Waterfront for they’ve been a great encouragement and support to me over the years and of course dad has given a lifetime of fantastic service to Armagh ladies football.
“Dad got a photo with Down legend Sean O’Neill, I think mum has a selfie with Pamela Ballentine and there’s a nice one of them both with Rory Best,” reveals Sinead, who herself was photographed with celebrity Armagh supporter, Paddy Barnes, a sporting pal of O’Hanlon.
Perhaps Sinead’s most prized photo though was with Game Changer award winner McCay and another south Armagh woman who has blazed her own trail as the first female Chief Executive of Sport NI, Antoinette McKeown.
“Although she lives elsewhere now, Antoinette hails from Silverbridge and I currently coach her niece at the local club so it’s a small world. I appreciated her warm words about what we’re trying to do in Armagh ladies football and enthusiasm for female sport.”
As an advocate of females filling leading roles in sport, Reel also appreciated the significance of the event having two women hosting for the first time, with UTV’s Ruth Gorman joining regular MC Claire McCollum.