Armagh Ladies Chairperson Sinead Reel at McKeever Park. Armagh will be the first ever ladies team to have their own training facilities.
Sinead speaks to Irish News Reporter Diarmuid Pepper in Killean, Armagh.
ARMAGH ladies are set to make history in becoming the first inter-county ladies football team to have their own dedicated training facilities, and bigger ambitions ahead, but it has been anything but plain sailing.
“Scary, but also exciting at the same time,” said Sinead Reel about the prospect of being the first ever ladies team to have their own training facilities in the form of McKeever Park in Killean.
Sinead Reel is the Armagh Ladies chairperson and has been instrumental in overseeing the ambitious scheme, refusing to give in to any obstacles that have presented themselves.
The training field will be located at the former home of St Michael’s, Killean, who have been defunct as a club for the past five years.
“Being the first at anything is exciting. But scary because you are thinking, ‘do we have the money to do this?’
“At the minute, no, we probably don’t have the money to do it, but that is something that I and the committee are going to work on,” said Reel”
The pitch alone will cost £120,000 to renovate and the cost of the overall proposed training complex is expected to rise to £800,000.
“Our players, and the senior players in particular, they don’t sit back and expect all the rest of us to do this,” she added.
“They get behind it and they go out and try to source voluntary funding too.”
Sourcing funding has been a major roadblock for Armagh ladies team, as Reel recently realised: “The biggest issue we probably have at the moment is that the Ladies Gaelic Football Association (LGFA) is not recognised for certain funding and government funding, the sport lottery, etc.
“Camogie, hurling, and men’s football is, but ladies Gaelic football is not.
“So I am trying to turn the tables on that and get ladies football recognised so if another team comes behind us and has this idea, then it is now set in place and they don’t have to go through the hard work that we have had to go through to even try and attempt to get funding.
“At the minute, we have no applications in for funding because we know we are not going to get it and we are working on the good will of local, and not-so-local, businesses and families and friends of Armagh ladies football in general.”
The need for these facilities is painfully clear, as Reel pointed out: “We couldn’t depend on clubs from one week to the next.
“It’s not that the clubs weren’t giving us their facilities, and we completely appreciate what they have done, but there were a lot of clubs who didn’t have floodlights, so we couldn’t go to their pitch over winter.”
There were also clubs who didn’t have toilets, or had toilets which weren’t located on site, which meant players were missing over 15 minutes of precious training time simply to go to the toilet.
Reel continued: “You have all the ladies under-age groups, minors, and seniors. You have six county squads there and we need to gather them together in one place to train.
“Then you have to factor in the club whose facilities we are using, they have their own teams to cater for as well. So we couldn’t rely on the goodwill of clubs, but at the minute we still have to.
“Silverbridge in particular have been unbelievable in the work that they have done for us as a county; hosting neutral club games, hosting the senior training, it is basically home for us at the minute.”
Armagh County Board is in the middle of building a £2.5 million training facility in Portadown.
However, Reel had reservations as to whether there would be space at this new facility for the ladies teams: “The new facility, and this is no disrespect to anybody, but I don’t think it would have included us, that’s just being straight.
“If it does, it doesn’t mean that we can’t be part of it, and it would be sad to think that it would have went ahead without including female participation, but there is never any guarantee.
“So that is why we needed a pitch, seven days a week, available for us to use, so the girls know from one week to the next that this is where we are going to train, and there is no changing at the last minute.”
There have been times when the team would gather at a club for training, only to find locked gates and be told that they would need to go elsewhere.
“The peace of mind the new facility will give the girls will make a big difference, especially for people travelling from work. We also have people travelling from universities in Belfast, Dublin, and Galway.
“Without that steady situation in which the girls know where they are going for training, it creates havoc amongst the team. Things like that should be the least of their worries, so that is why we have this push on for our own facilities.”
Money that is pumped into the Armagh men’s team doesn’t filter its way down into the ladies team, which is why Sinead Reel has started the ‘Friends of Armagh Ladies’ initiative.
Reel said: “I don’t know how the men’s clubs issue their funds to the male county board, I’m not sure how that all works, I wouldn’t mind finding out.
“But in our own set up, each club pays an affiliation fee to the county board and they pay a basic finance plan which each club follows. But we don’t see any funding that goes into the men’s team, we don’t get a return out of that.
“So I think that clubs and people who are pumping money into certain areas need to realise that the female side of things don’t see that unless you pay directly into a fund for the Armagh ladies county board.
“That is why I started up ‘Friends of Armagh Ladies’, which a lot of local businesses have signed up to.”
The idea for a ladies-only facility was floated about five years ago but quickly dropped.
However, an opportunity then presented itself with St Michael’s Killean, which Sinead said was “too good to let pass”.
“St Michael’s Killean GAA club have been defunct for a few years,” she explained.
“A local lad who was involved with the club, Micheál Connelly, he kept the lease himself and renewed it every year thinking that something would happen.
“He was cutting the grass and maintaining the field. My dad, Owen, stepped in and he said that we should look into Killean.
“So really the ball started rolling then. It was by accident; we didn’t realise how great the potential was of that area.”
It is an initiative that will benefit both Armagh ladies and the Killean area, as it will give much needed life to a formerly inactive and barren space.
“The people of Killean have been rowing in behind it, everybody is excited and really geared up for it. They are looking forward to the finished product with the lights turned on and action in it every evening. There will be a great atmosphere around it.”
At the moment, the Armagh ladies panel has to contest with a host of off-the-field issues regarding training.
But Sinead Reel relishes the prospect of future panels who will know nothing other than having the luxury of ladies-only training facilities: “The way I look at it, it’s about having the base and knowing where you are going. A girl who is now five, when she hits 13 or 14, she won’t know any different.
“McKeever Park will be Armagh ladies specialised based and that is where she will be going.
“And most clubs will be part of that as well because Féile competitions and different neutral competitions will be played there. Down the line, we will also hope to host national league matches and the like in it as well.”
The Armagh ladies team has been excelling on the field this year, reaching an Ulster final wherein they were bested by a very strong Donegal team.
And while Reel laments the fact the Armagh “just didn’t get out of the blocks” against Donegal, she hopes that the team can make even greater strides forward when the new training base is up and running.
Reel said: “It will be one less problem for management to worry about, organising pitches and stuff. So they can concentrate that effort and energy into something else, which might take us into that next level on the field.”
However, Reel is saddened by the seeming lack of communication which is hampering the ladies game in getting the crowd support they deserve.
She said: “All boards need to start coming together and cooperating. One of the big disappointments for ourselves is that we played in the Ulster final at a quarter to four in Clones, and the men’s board fixed all the club games in Armagh for 4pm on the same day. Where is the cohesion and the integration there?
“In 2014, our Ulster final was before the men’s Armagh game and the atmosphere was unbelievable. It was electric. The sun was shining in Clones, it was jammed to the rafters and our girls just thought it was unbelievable. And the difference that made.
“We won on the day, but would we have won without the crowd that was there, I don’t know. Yes, we played out of our skins, but the crowd made a massive difference in supporting and galvanising the team.
“That was in 2014, and you would have thought that there would have been more of that happening. There have been a few double headers this year, I appreciate and acknowledge this, but there is a need to drive it on more and coordinate better on fixtures to encourage more of these fixtures.
“It is not necessarily saying that the two Ulster finals have to be on the same day, but have the games better coordinated. Now it won’t work all the time, but you would like to think there could be more of it.”
Despite scheduling issues, Reel is excited by the future, especially within the context of the ‘20×20: If she can’t see it, she can’t be it’ initiative.
“People who have never watched ladies football played at this level, they are pretty shocked about how high the standard is,” said Reel.
“I spoke to a man this week, who has only started watching ladies football this year, and he reckons that he is going to quit going to men’s football because it is so negative.
“He thinks that if ladies football continues to be played the way it is, with a positive and attacking style of football, then he will be watching more ladies football and he won’t be on his own.
“But we need more people to see it to realise that this is the way it is played.”
In order to drive up attendances at games, Reel thinks the LGFA would do well to harness the star power that the Armagh ladies team possesses.
Several of the Armagh ladies teams where in action in different sports the weekend of the Ulster final, a testament to how in-demand their talents are.
Reel also spoke highly of veterans Caroline O’Hagan and Caoimhe Morgan, who play for Carrickcuppen and Lissummon respectively.
“Caroline played for Northern Ireland netballers the day before the Ulster final. Kelly Mallon was playing road bowls the weekend of the final. Aimee Mackin was due to play soccer but I don’t think she played,” Reel revealed.
Armagh’s Caroline O’Hanlon in action for Northern Ireland Netballers at the recent Netball World Cup in Liverpool
She continued: “Caroline O’Hanlon, she epitomises what you want every young girl to look up to.
“Herself and Caoimhe Morgan, after a few retirements last season, they are the girls who have been there the longest.
“How Caroline does it, I do not know. How Caoimhe does it, a mother of two and a teacher, I do not know either. Especially since she came back from a cruciate injury as well. But the passion and the love of the game is there.”
Reel hopes the powers that be will utilise players like O’Hanlon and Morgan to inspire the future generation.
“I know the girls a long time, and I would hope and pray that the likes of the LGFA and female associations would hone in on Caoimhe and Caroline as prime examples of what is possible within female sports.
“Firstly, it shows that just because you get married and have children, it doesn’t mean that you have to step aside from your sport. Whether it is professional or voluntary sport, Caoimhe is a fine example of that.
“And Caroline obviously as well, who is elite in her education, she is a doctor, the netball and then the ladies football as well, for both club and county.
“These girls have a passion for their sport, a continuing desire, and no matter how many walls they bang their heads off or no matter how many people try to bring them down, they forge ahead regardless.”
Armagh ladies have created a GoFundMe campaign for their prospective training complex, and donations can be made here: https://uk.gofundme.com/armagh-lgfa-development-fund