Queen’s University ladies gaelic club chairperson Clodagh McCambridge is dreaming of the perfect fairytale ending to her student footballing career with O’Connor Cup glory in Dublin this weekend.
Armagh defender McCambridge heads an Orchard contingent of four in a Queen’s squad which has qualified for the O’Connor Cup semi-finals for the first time since 2014, so it is an exciting new experience for the entire present panel.
The Belfast side secured their passage to the last four of the flagship competition, the All Ireland Championship for universities, with a valiant 2-14 to 2-8 victory over National University of Ireland Galway (NUIG) in Sligo last Wednesday night.
They will take on the University of Limerick (UL) under the lights at Abbotstown on Friday (5pm) with a place in the following day’s televised showpiece against either University College Dublin (UCD) or University College Cork (UCC) up for grabs.
Clodagh’s Clann Eireann clubmate Sinead McCleary lifted the trophy as skipper when Queen’s won their first and only O’Connor Cup to date under the then Armagh manager James Daly in 2013.
They reached the final again the following year, but Queen’s haven’t qualified for the semis since, though McCambridge says winning the secondary O’Connor Shield last year was a useful experience for many of the present squad.
“We enjoyed being part of finals weekend last year and I think that whetted our appetite to make in the back in the competition proper this time,” reflects Clodagh.
“The fact none of us have played in an O’Connor semi-final before was mentioned before we even left the changing rooms after beating NUIG. In my first two years I think we won only one championship match.
“This is my fourth and final attempt so it’s great to get there at last but we aren’t going just to make up the numbers, even though some may see us as outsiders.
“As with Armagh, our management is in their second season and the continuity has helped. We’ve been developing from last season, everyone works hard for each other and there’s good belief in the group.
“UCD have probably been O’Connor Cup favourites since the outset on the back of winning the league, in which we finished fourth, but we only lost to them by three points in our group game and that performance gave us real confidence for facing Galway.”
Queen’s are managed by Mark Doran, recently on opposing sides to Clodagh at club level as Carrickcruppen boss, and Caolan Hendron while the squad has a good geographical mix with a liberal sprinkling of county players.
The Armagh quartet are centre half back McCambridge, her clubmate Niamh Coleman, fresher Niamh Reel from Silverbridge and another Lurgan girl, Chloe Magill, who has recently recovered from injury.
Reel, who shared the hour with Coleman in Armagh’s victory over Tyrone at the weekend, contributed some useful scores in the win against NUIG in a match which was all square at the interval.
Aoibheann McHugh and Slaine McCarroll both started for Tyrone against Armagh at Garvaghey, with another Queen’s squad member, Aoife McConnell, on the bench.
Queen’s skipper Eimear McAnespie is an established star for Monaghan while the prolific Laoise Duffy plays for Down and several Bredagh girls have enjoyed success with their club.
“University football is great, playing with girls who are normally opponents, and it’s a bit different to club or county in having a limited time-frame and greater turnover of players.
“I think it beneficially bridges a challenging gap for girls between county minor and senior, though there are other advantages too and I’ve really loved my time with Queen’s,” says 21-year-old Clodagh, who is into her fourth season as an Armagh regular.
“One of the differences with club and county is that the players in the university set-up have to take responsibility themselves on and off the field which can only be good for personal development.
“At this age you wouldn’t get these experiences elsewhere. Collectively we have to take care of whatever the (university) club needs, should that be fundraising, arranging the bus for matchday or whatever,” observes Clodagh.
A solid citizen on and off the field, it isn’t surprising that McCambridge is the head honcho at The Dub. She’s a dependable player who is also sensible about balancing her sporting pursuits with academic commitments and laying the foundations for professional life.
An esteemed enough netballer to have been Caroline O’Hanlon’s opposing skipper in a NI Senior Cup final between Kingsway and her Orchard colleague’s Larkfield, McCambridge turned down the opportunity of playing for Northern Ireland Under 21s in the 2017 Netball World Youth Cup in Botswana.
“I wanted to focus on getting through university at that stage and thought I had enough going on with the football,” explains Actuarial Science student McCambridge, who has already secured a job in Dublin post-graduation this summer.
Netball is also a big family focus though, with Clodagh’s mum Helen being a former Northern Ireland international and schoolgirl sister Meabh, another future Armagh defender, featuring in the Under 21 squad which won bronze medals at last year’s age group Euros at Antrim Forum.
Clodagh hopes Armagh can build on their successful start to the year, winning their first four National League games, but for now it is all about that final fling with Queen’s.
“It has been a busy few weeks but both sets of management are accommodating,” says Clodagh, whose development has benefited from being part of the Dale Farm QUB GAA Academy.
“There’s a lot of money and time invested in you, with regular one-to-one meetings to talk about performance and specialist support in things like strength and conditioning, nutrition, recovery and so forth.
“I feel physically more confident as a result of the work done at Queen’s and have picked up plenty to take back to club and county, so everybody benefits,” enthuses the physically impressive McCambridge.
She made her big breakthrough with Armagh when parachuted in at full back by Ronan Clarke when the great Caoimhe Morgan was on maternity leave at the start of the 2016 season, proving a real revelation in an unfamiliar role.
“That actually came about because of Queen’s! Ahead of that county season I was playing for Queen’s against Armagh in a challenge match and (Queen’s manager) James Daly threw me in at full back, marking Blaithin Mackin.
“James has been a big influence on my gaelic career as he brought me into the Armagh senior panel initially as a schoolgirl, then had me for two years with university and was also my club manager for two years.
“Anyway, that was the first time the new Armagh manager Ronan Clarke had seen me play and he then tried me at full back for county even though I hadn’t any real experience there. I play midfield for my club and half back with Armagh at the minute, which I’m enjoying.”
She is now one of the first names on the Armagh teamsheet and an increasingly influential figure in a set-up which has lost several seasoned campaigners over the winter.
“When I first came into the panel I wouldn’t have said much but now I’ve no fear in communicating more. I feel quite established at this stage and experience increases confidence.”
McCambridge is the outstanding defender of the Orchard’s emerging generation and should be a real rock for Armagh for the next decade but firstly she’s hoping for one glorious last hurrah in Queen’s colours this weekend.