MUM’S THE WORD FOR McCORMACKS!
Brenda McCormack missed Ballyhegan’s first Armagh Junior Championship success in 2004 because of being pregnant but another medal chance came around 13 years later and now she’s chasing an Intermediate title triumph alongside her daughter.
When Ballyhegan play Granemore in this Sunday’s semi-final at a neutral venue yet to be announced, Brenda will be at full forward with the highly promising 14-year-old Catilin patrolling midfield.
“Ever since Caitlin came along this was something I wanted to do but it hasn’t happened until this year because although she came up to the adult team very young last season I was expecting baby Brea at the time,” explains Brenda.
“So that was a real incentive to get myself back playing and it’s special for both of us. I’ve played with my sister (Kate) for many years but there’s only one other mother-daughter combo I know of in the county, the Creaneys with Tir na nOg.
“At the start of the year Caitlin was calling me by my first name on the field like any other team-mate but now she’s got into the routine of calling me ‘mum’, which is nice.”
Parents tend to be proud of their kids whatever their abilities but Brenda recognises that Caitlin is a pretty special prospect who has shone for school, club and county teams in an exciting career to date.
One of the strongest players in the St Catherine’s Under 16 team which made history by becoming the first ever Orchard county school to be crowned All Ireland champions earlier this year, she also captained their Under 14s to an Ulster B title.
“Rather than just being a young girl making up the numbers, she’s a key asset for Ballyhegan and I don’t think there’s many 14-year-olds who would be big players in midfield for their club.
“Caitlin has always played above her age grade with the county teams, including at Under 16 level this season, and is progressing very well as a footballer but she takes everything in her stride.
“She’s a competitive player but is quite placid too in the sense that she doesn’t get too burdened by the commitment involved or carried away with the achievements, just goes along and gets on with it.”
Young McCormack’s attitude has been praised by her Armagh age group team managers and Orchard county captain Caoimhe Morgan, who teaches her at St Catherine’s and also does some underage coaching in Ballyhegan.
At the moment, with the inter-county campaign over and school not back yet, the full focus is on Ballyhegan’s bid for a first ever Intermediate title triumph, which began with a thrilling 5-12 to 5-11 quarter-final victory at Cullyhanna.
“We came into this championship campaign quite confident for I know how strong our team is, though the commitment could be better at times,” chides Caitlin, with refreshing honesty and an evident desire to drive standards in spite of her youth.
“I think we’re capable but it’s about belief too and hopefully coming through that really tough game at Cullyhanna will help prepare us for facing Granemore in the semi-final.
“Cullyhanna got a goal in the first 30 seconds and then another, we were struggling to win our kick-outs and it wasn’t looking good but we started getting goals back and our coach had a good talk to us at half-time too.
“We were a transformed team in the second half, but that’s often the way with us, being a second half team. It was a very exciting game, going point for point and there was just no telling in the last 20 minutes who would win.
“There was maybe 4-5 minutes left and they got a goal but our heads didn’t drop and we went upfield and got another goal of our own. We won’t lack belief after that for it took fantastic character especially away from home,” says Caitlin, who scored 1-2.
Mum Brenda actually missed what was a rearraged game against Cullyhanna due to a prior commitment so this weekend will be Caitlin’s first championship match with her mum though they’re used to playing together in Division Three.
“With mum being out last season I didn’t know whether she’d be back playing but it’s great that she is. The way it’s worked out it has been her coming into the team with me already there rather the other way round which was slightly strange.
“Obviously I have to give her the ball when she wants it! It’s brilliant though, for we’ve mum in the forwards, me in midfield and my auntie in the backs so there’s McCormacks everywhere!” chuckles Caitlin proudly.
The then 12-year-old watched with interest as skipper Kate McCormack proudly lifted the Armagh Junior Championship trophy in the Athletic Grounds two Septembers ago, a win which whetted her appetite to break into the team as soon as possible.
“I remember that team trained flat out, they worked hard and went into the finally with a positive mindset even though Ballyhegan hadn’t won a championship in such a long time.
“My auntie was captain, a brilliant captain, and I was proud watching her and mum. It all just made me feel like I couldn’t wait to be a part of it and hopefully pick up a championship medal myself for Ballyhegan one day.”
Brenda has happy memories of finally getting over the metaphorical line after missing out in 2004 and then striving in vain for years at Intermediate level before Ballyhegan dropped down to the third tier again in 2017 and claimed silverware at the first attempt.
“It was special personally and good for the club to win a trophy for it energised everyone. I’d never played in the Athletic Grounds before so that was a highlight as was our good run in Ulster, going and beating teams from elsewhere,” she says.
Although she hadn’t graced county headquarters previously as a player, McCormack did spend the first part of the 2015 season in the Orchard county panel and, even without setting foot on the field for Armagh, it remains a valued experience.
“It was a very strong squad, which had won the Ulster title the previous season and reached the All Ireland semis, so that meant a very tough fight for places but you learn a lot of new things and are rubbing shoulders with some exceptional players.
“People don’t realise the step up from club to county but it was a great experience and county is an invaluable learning environment for any aspiring player. Ballyhegan have young Grace Ferguson there at the moment as well as Eve Lavery.”
Nothing can be taken for granted but all the signs suggest Caitlin will wear the orange jersey at senior level before finishing school, so she can look forward to playing with many of the present panel’s leading lights.
“When I’m in Caoimhe’s class I often feel like a fan wanting to ask questions about her football and I love watching Caroline, who is incredible, but also admire the younger ones too like Aimee Mackin, Blaithin Mackin and Clodagh McCambridge.
“Also Fionnuala McKenna, who isn’t there this season with Armagh but was my St Catherine’s Under 14 coach, so she’s a real role model too. It would be great getting the chance to play with some of those ones in the future,” enthuses Caitlin.
While declaring that “it’s everybody’s ambition to win the All Ireland with their county,” young McCormack remains a well-grounded girl who knows dreams won’t come true without hard work and dedication.
However that incredible experience with St Catherine’s in the past school year shows what is possible for gaelic footballers from Armagh and Caitlin cherishes every memory of what was an amazing journey.
In an interview with the Gazette at the time, she summed up perfectly how special that historic All Ireland win was and no doubt there will be a chance to reflect further next month when the St Catherine’s success will surely be recognised at the ABC Junior Sports Awards.
However it would be remiss if the present feature failed to even mention McCormack’s great admiration for her school coach Ciara Marley and her husband Paddy, because a grateful Caitlin praised them at length during this interview.
Paddy Marley of course captained Ballyhegan’s men to Armagh Junior Championship success two autumns ago so mention of him brings us back to the forthcoming ladies game against Granemore.
Baby Brea, now eight months old, is attired in a tiny Ballyhegan jersey for the afternoon’s photos and no doubt Brenda would love the kit to get another outing at the Athletic Grounds decider next month if the Davitts can get past fancied Granemore.
“I understand they were very impressive against last season’s finalists Forkhill but we’re maybe better tested having had a real nail-biter against Cullyhanna. However, like most championship matches, it will come down to an hour of football on the day.
“As always it will be about winning our individual battles but playing for each other and working hard for the full 60 minutes. We’re fairly familiar with them from league games but I don’t think those will count for much,” she says.
For the record, Granemore triumphed 4-7 to 1-7 at Ballyhegan in May before the teams drew the return fixture 5-7 to 2-16 at the start of last month. Whoever wins will face either Mullaghbawn or Mullabrack in the Intermediate decider.