Up until now Aveen Donaldson has had a wonderfully unique claim to fame as an Armagh ladies footballer but the Crossmaglen woman, who had her 30th birthday yesterday (Mon), hopes her Orchard career is entering a more active chapter.
Crossmaglen captain Donaldson has lined out in an unaccustomed corner back berth in Armagh’s first two National League games in a positional switch she hopes will see her become an Armagh regular a decade after first attempting to break into the senior set-up.
“Management came to me a few weeks before the season and asked how I would feel about having a go in the full back line and I initially played there in a challenge match against Ulster Schools,” she explains.
“I’d normally play midfield or centre half back for my club but I did actually line out at full back for Cross when (Armagh All Ireland finalist) Fiona Quinn retired so it isn’t entirely new.
“You’re delighted just to play anywhere for Armagh and I’ve loved finally getting the chance to be out there. You understand it’s a strong squad but everyone wants to start.”
Before this season, Donaldson’s only two starts for the Armagh senior side had come in the Orchard outfit’s famous first ever victories over Dublin and Cork, the two most successful counties in the modern era of ladies gaelic football.
All Ireland winner Ronan Clarke handed Donaldson her Orchard debut against the Dubs at the Athletic Grounds in March 2016 when Armagh pulled off an unexpected victory in spite of the controversial ejection from the squad of America-bound duo Lauren McConville and Aoife McCoy.
But Aveen was left out for the following game as Armagh agonisingly missed out on a top four play-off place on points difference by losing narrowly to the then All Ireland champions Cork at Abbotstown.
However when Cork came to Clonmore in the second round of NFL fixtures the following season, Donaldson was given her second start in the orange jersey by the then new Armagh manager Sean O’Kane.
Again Armagh upset their illustrious visitors on another landmark day in Orchard history but, this time too, Donaldson’s start proved a one-off and she didn’t make the initial line-up again until this month’s opening National League game.
To have victories over Dublin and Cork on your only two Armagh starts is some statistic but Donaldson isn’t inclined to claim much credit for that double upset and wouldn’t like to be regarded as just some sort of lucky charm.
“It was nice to be involved in those two wins against top teams that Armagh hadn’t beaten before and the novelty value of those having been my only two starts (up until lately) has been pointed out on occasions,” says the amiable Aveen.
“I especially enjoyed the match against Dublin because it was my Armagh debut, it was in the Athletic Grounds and there was a significant crowd in when we won because it was a double header with a men’s match.
“Our Cork win was a highlight too though I wasn’t that happy with my personal performance. I was in midfield and it was one of the hardest games I’ve played in but I just tried to keep moving.”
An Armagh Minors player back in the day, Donaldson first went to trials for the senior squad back in 2009 but didn’t make the cut and actually played inter-county camogie that year instead, albeit benching.
“I was there in 2012 when Armagh won the All Ireland Intermediate title but I didn’t get on the field so it was hard to accept credit for the team success or feel comfortable being congratulated by clubmates.
“The likes of Caroline O’Hanlon was good at saying that without the panel of 30 players the team couldn’t perform and I knew I was hampered by a back injury sustained playing camogie but I did feel peripheral and stepped away after that.”
In the gap period she took up other sports including indoor rowing and tug of war, returned to the county set-up for 2016 and 2017 but then didn’t come back until last May after failing to establish herself in the team.
“(Armagh joint manager) Fionnuala McAtamney was at our club game against Lissummon and asked me to come in. It isn’t easy when you aren’t there from the start so I wasn’t expecting to get game-time.
“It was more an investment in this season but everyone was so welcoming. I enjoyed being here and knew I wanted to give it a good go this year even though I’m getting married in July.”
She also turned down an Armagh camogie call-up to focus on county football and duly got the nod to start the opening game of the season, which coincided with her mum’s 13th anniversary mass.
“With the Laois game falling on mum’s anniversary I wasn’t going to go but I’d been putting in a lot of effort to get my place and daddy encouraged me to play.
“We won well enough against Laois but it was a much more pleasing performance against Cavan in Clonmore when we were more relaxed, even though up against stronger opposition, made fewer errors and had better communication in defence.
“I don’t think anyone expected us to win by 20 points but it didn’t feel like that on the pitch, partly because we maintained intensity the whole way through. We were delighted to keep them scoreless in the second half.
“Management had told us to keep on top of our own player, to keep possession and have patience. We worked well collectively too and I was pleased to be there to claim the ball when Sarah Marley made that brilliant block on our goal-line late on.”
Clonmore has emerged as a special place in Donaldson’s story with those two Orchard victories over Cork and Cavan sandwiching Crossmaglen’s notable triumph over Sarsfields in the 2017 Armagh Intermediate Championship. final replay.
Aveen’s club career has been a roller-coaster ride, tasting success as a youngster back in the glory years of the mid-noughties but having to step up as player-manager to keep the team going in leaner times before the more recent revival.
“I remember being there in the full back line as a 15-year-old. Over the next few years it was always us and Clann Eireann battling it out to be county champions. We had tight games, including draws, and it was a great rivalry.”
That Crossmaglen side was backboned by iconic county champion Bronagh O’Donnell, her twin Alma, their cousin Maria, golden girl Sharon Duncan, dual star Patricia McAvoy and the aforementioned Quinn.
The twins prematurely retired from the inter-county arena aged just 27 but for the following two years continued to commute from their Dublin base to play club football for hometown Crossmaglen.
“It was a shambles. They were coming up the road to six or eight people at training and it wasn’t fair on such complete professionals. They joined (Dublin club) Na Fianna with our blessing and had a few great years there.
“It was a privilege playing alongside the twins and I realised even more when they left just what machines they had been in midfield. I took up indoor rowing to get fitter for playing there!” she recalls.
Crossmaglen reached the 2013 Armagh Intermediate decider, losing out in a replay against Grange, but things got worse before they got better for the former Orchard champions whose men’s side have dominated local club football for the past two decades.
“I did a year as player-manager with (fellow senior player) Marie Luckie and people don’t understand the amount of pestering it takes to keep a club team going in difficult times.”
Things reached crisis point at Christmas 2016 with the unthinkable prospect that Crossmaglen might not be able to field an adult ladies side being averted as former captain Maria O’Donnell and club coaching guru Peter McMahon stepped forward.
This exceptionally impressive pair look like Armagh managers of the future but initially their taking charge at Cross was a real relief for Aveen.
“They’ve made such a difference. At the start I was still texting, asking whether we had enough numbers, but Maria said she’d sort it and I could just focus on playing. It was hard to shut off from feeling responsible.”
Dromintee and Sarsfields were widely expected to contest the 2017 Armagh Intermediate decider but surprise package Crossmaglen upset both on their way to a shock trophy triumph.
“I remember on our way to the Dromintee match myself and (captain) Lauren McConville saying we could win and Orlaith Murtagh having doubts but she was brilliant on their star player Aoife McCoy. The rain was lashing but winning was a wonderful feeling for us.”
Their opponents in the showpiece, Sarsfields, had established themselves near the top of the first division over several seasons, had a huge playing panel and were appearing in their second successive final.
“The big game was pushed out of the Athletic Grounds to Mullabrack, which we weren’t happy about, and we were real outsiders but beating Dromintee had given us a bit of belief.”
A late Sarsfields goal looked to have broken Crossmaglen hearts but Aveen netted the equaliser late in injury-time to earn her team a second chance in spite of feeling fuzzy.
“I don’t remember much about it for I’d got a hard hit in that game and was maybe half concussed! They say underdogs need to win first time round but we went into the replay positive we could win and deservedly did.
“It was fantastic seeing Lauren lifting the cup for she’s too young to have ever won anything with Cross. She’d had great success with Armagh but I know it meant a lot to her. It was wonderful watching our younger girls step up, like Aislinn McMahon, a phenomenal athlete at just 15.”
Aveen replaced Lauren as ladies football captain last season with her sister Orla captaining their camogie counterparts, who clinched a second successive championship promotion, meaning Crossmaglen will be the only Armagh club in the senior ranks in both female codes in 2019.
“That’s something to be proud of obviously but it will be a challenge with so many dual players and the fact that Lauren, my sister Orla and Orlaith Murtagh are all in Australia.”
The previous year’s Armagh Junior champions, Cross camogs, who also feature another Donaldson sister, Eimear Crummie, upset the odds to eclipse St Brigid’s in the Intermediate decider at the Athletic Grounds last August with Aveen’s performance earning special praise from Ulster Gazette camogie pundit Ciara Hayes.
“Our Orla as captain did a great job instilling positivity and that rubbed off on our manager Micheal Murphy too. We were getting stronger, our first touch had become better and anyway we knew we should have won the Junior title earlier.
“It was a memorable evening in the Athletic Grounds. That’s where you want to be playing and we got great support. Subsequently losing the Ulster Junior B final to Clontibret was a real regret for we weren’t at our best but face the top teams in Armagh now will be an exciting challenge.”
Being an Armagh giant-killer who still has a 100 percent win record when she starts in the orange jersey, dual star at club level, former county camog and Crossmaglen player-manager in her 20s aren’t the only interesting strands to Donaldson’s story however.
She’s also competed in a tug of war World Championships and been an Irish Championships medallist in indoor rowing for good measure!
“I went up to the local shed to get indoor rowing practice to improve my fitness for playing midfield but my times were good so I was one of five or six girls who went down to the national championships in Limerick.
“One year I got third and another second,” says Aveen, who won’t be taking to the water-based version of the sport though as she reveals that she’s just learning to swim at present!
“Through the rowing I also got involved in the local St Patrick’s Tug of War club, both the female and mixed teams. We won the national championships and got to the World Championships in Holland in 2016.
“The Worlds were a different level altogether. We weren’t used to getting beaten but the likes of Chinese Taipei were unbelievable. I was getting sore toes and hands so I packed it in to focus on my main sports.
“Waterford and Tyrone away the next two weekends will be good tests to see where we’re at because Cavan weren’t great on the day so we mustn’t get carried away.”
There’s a lot to look forward to this year for Aveen at a sporting and personal level but another highlight locally she wants to mention is the Crossmaglen Sevens which has become established as a great even in the ladies gaelic calendar.
“Marion (McMahon) has worked really hard in terms of organisation, pushing the commercial side and ensuring visiting teams get a good welcome. We’d get as many as 16 teams competing, some from far afield, and it’s always a good day,” says Donaldson ahead of this year’s tournament, which takes place in March.