This month’s Armagh Junior title triumph by Clan na Gael was the Lurgan outfit’s first championship success at adult level but one member of their team had already a medal in the competition from fully three decades ago.
Clan na Gael are only in their fifth season fielding an adult ladies side but the remarkable Brenda Loughran, their timeless 53-year-old corner forward, was a Junior Championship winner with a combined Lurgan team way back in 1989!
“There wasn’t much ladies football back then, but they started an amalgamated Lurgan team, which played under the name of Naoimh Mhuire and was managed by Jimmy Boyle and Jimmy Burns,” she explains.
“I can’t even remember who we were against in that Junior final, it’s 30 years ago now, but the match was in the Athletic Grounds, I played in the middle of the field and we won. The name is still on the trophy.”
However as a lifelong Clan na Gael woman, the impressive victory over Clonmore in this season’s decider in Portadown two Saturdays ago still felt exceptionally special, particularly as her teenage daughter Angela won Player of the Match.
“It was priceless for me playing with my daughter in a final for Clan na Gael, and winning our first championship made it a landmark day and then her picking up the award was the icing on the cake,” beams Brenda.
“That was such a great achievement for Angela and another amazing moment for me as her mum, but I’ll always be proud of her anyway for she’s a girl who always gives 100 percent.
“Apart from Angela, another aspect was that I’ve coached at least 10 of this team at underage level so it was great to be out there playing and winning with them at my advanced age!”
Apart from Brenda’s thirty-something fellow forward Roisin O’Hagan, sister of 2002 All Ireland winner with Armagh, Barry John, who hit 2-2 in the final, and 21-year-old midfielder Grace French, this Clan na Gael side is made up of teenagers including corner back captain Anna Murphy, who is still just 19.
This success should come as no surprise though to anyone who has followed age group results in the Orchard county, for the Davitt Park club have emerged as a significant force over recent years and also supplied plenty of players to county youth teams.
Brenda Loughran has played her part in ensuring Clan na Gael has such an impressive production line but gives much of the credit for the club’s very effective talent development model to former Armagh great Diarmuid Marsden.
An All Star in 1999 and now employed by Ulster GAA, Diarmuid’s talented daughter Lara Marsden plays centre half forward for this Clan na Gael ladies side, scoring 1-1 against Clonmore, and his influence has helped the club become an unofficial academy for young female footballers.
“Diarmuid came to me a good few years ago now, wanting a hand with the ladies football, and he’s made an incredible contribution in terms of developing players and getting us to the very healthy place we are today.
“He has taken Angela and her age group from Under 10s upwards and to see how he has the training sessions so professionally planned out for the younger groups is amazing and it’s a privilege just helping him out,” reflects Brenda.
An appreciative Angela agrees that seeing such commitment from the adults encourages girls to put the effort in too and says hard work has been central to this historic Junior Championship success.
“Everyone’s very committed this year, right from pre-season to turning up for training and putting 100 percent into training never mind matches. Now we’ve seen the reward for that, hopefully everyone will want to keep pushing on,” enthuses the 17-year-old centre half back.
With so many matches on television now, and another new record attendance of over 56,000 at All Ireland finals day at the weekend, she’s also grateful to be coming through at a time when ladies football has never enjoyed greater profile or support.
“It’s great to see the game growing massively and how well everything is set up now. Knowing we will get treated much the same as what the fellas would is a big boost for young female footballers because the game means every bit as much to us.
“We got great support at Tir na nOg for our final against Clonmore, the crowd was amazing to see and not long ago that wouldn’t have happened. I saw the attendance was fantastic for the Senior and Intermediate finals the next day too. The County Board is doing a great job.”
Armagh’s last appearance at Croke Park on All Ireland finals day was seven years ago when one local woman Shauna O’Hagan scored their only goal against Waterford and another, Mags McAlinden, lifted the Intermediate trophy as Orchard captain.
“It was brilliant being there that day, as a 10-year-old, and since then the crowds have just grown massively. Shauna, who played camogie with mum and has come to take sessions with us, has been a big inspiration,” says Angela, who cites the Mackin sisters as her heroes from the current county team.
Things have come a very long way since her mum was a young girl growing up, and Brenda recounts an amusing anecdote of how she had to try and disguise her identity to play football back in the day.
“Camogie was my first sport and I actually played in two All Ireland Junior finals for Armagh in 1985 and 1989 but when it came to football the only option when I was young was playing with the boys.
“I remember playing for our Minors, maybe when I was about 14. Colin McKinstry, Harry McGarry and Jim Burns were the managers and they came to me and said ‘Brenda, we’re a man short, will you strip out?’ and I did.
“It wasn’t allowed and I had long hair at the time so I remember trying to hide it down the back of my top. I scored a couple of points but about 20 minutes into the match the referee realised it was a girl playing and he marched me off!
“The club were taken up in front of the County Board and had their knuckles rapped but the win (against Wolf Tones) was allowed to stand. However I’d been rumbled so that was that in terms of football for me at the time though I still had the camogie.
“Galway beat us in the 1985 final when Tom Monaghan was manager and, two years later, there were seven Clan na Gael players togged out in Croke Park, with five starters, and Clann Eireann’s Paula Toal (now Brown) was the captain.”
Ladies football has undoubtedly displaced camogie since then as the premier code for females and it is in the big ball game that Angela Loughran is following her mum by wearing the orange jersey, so far up to Minor level.
Clan na Gael are well represented in Armagh age group teams and Aghagallon girl Angela, an All Ireland Scor medallist for ceili dancing earlier this year, is finding the experience of involvement in county set-ups enjoyable and beneficial.
“It’s great experience in so many ways, from fitness to seeing things done differently and working with other players and coaches so it’s something I’d definitely recommend girls to try and want to continue pursuing myself.
“We bring back bits and pieces to the club environment and anything that helps develop players, be it school or county set-ups, can only be a good thing,” says Angela.
As well as contingents from Lurgan school St Ronan’s and Our Lady’s Grammar in Newry, several of this young Clan na Gael panel featured in the historic All Ireland triumph for St Catherine’s College back in the spring.
Now this month has brought a first for all the Clan na Gael players, except their golden oldie, and three days after eclipsing Clonmore on a 4-15 to 2-8 scoreline, Angela Loughran said the achievement was just starting to sink in.
“It was the best feeling ever when we won and now I can appreciate it even more. Most of us have been together since Under 12s and we’ve been building up to this. Everyone really wanted it this year and people put in the effort required.
“The final was a professional performance from us, everyone played well and everyone kept going the whole game. We’re mainly very young and the club has only had a senior team for five seasons so this is an important milestone.
“Obviously it was amazing to win a championship with my mum, who has always been an inspiration to me. Sometimes we shout at each other on the field, but I know when I can get the ball up to her she’ll always do something good with it.”
Apart from representing invaluable experience in such a young team, Brenda continues to justify her place purely on playing ability and has made significant scoreboard contributions in this successful campaign.
“I keep myself fit, swimming a mile and a half every day in the pool. I’d said this season would do me and I’d hang up the boots but being with these girls keeps me young and I’m still enjoying my football,” she reflects.
Playing at Intermediate level will be a new challenge next season but the immediate adventure is a first ever provincial campaign which starts with a home game against Antrim second tier title winners Glenravel at Davitt Park this Sunday (2pm) in the preliminary round of the Ulster Junior Championship.
“It’s something different and quite exciting. We don’t know what they’re like so we’ll focus on ourselves and go out with the aim to put our best foot forward and show what we’re capable of,” says Angela.
The prize for winning would be a home quarter-final against the Derry Intermediate champions and Brenda, who had a big gap in her playing career, observes that “when you’re still training at this time of the year with the floodlights on, it has been a good season.”
Having already praised Dairmuid Marsden’s outstanding development work and the efforts behind the scenes of Ciara Austin, the Loughrans are also grateful for the efforts of the team management, (Brendan) ‘Phantom’ Campbell, Ben McCrory and Kevin O’Hagan.
“Phantom and Ben have been with us for a couple of seasons while Kevin has helped with the underage. The three boys have families and work full-time but, like the girls, they’ve put in the commitment from pre-season in the gym until now. They’ve never missed and have really pushed us forward this year,” says Brenda.
All concerned will hope that a long and already successful campaign, which also saw Clan na Gael finish third in Division Three, has a bit longer to run, and nobody will beat Brenda Loughran, 53 years young, in the hunger and enthusiasm stakes.