This was always going to be a milestone year for Armagh Harps stalwart Paula Powell-Enright thanks to having a big birthday at the end of September, but there has been plenty of her icing for her metaphorical cake.
The evergreen veteran, enjoying a new lease of life as a goalkeeper in the autumn of a long career, helped Harps claim their first Armagh Division One league title for a quarter of a century at the end of July.
She subsequently picked up a Buttercrane Senior Championship All Star for her part in the cathedral city club reaching the county final, albeit the Athletic Grounds showpiece ended in defeat against Lurgan giants Clann Eireann.
Paula has turned 40 since the decider but isn’t intending to hang up her boots just yet given the enjoyment she still gets from playing, her ongoing importance to the team and a justifiable belief that Harps can claim the Orchard county’s top prize very soon.
Harps won the Armagh Minor Championship this season for the first time ever, a triumph featuring so many promising players Paula nurtured in their formative years before they graduated to teenage finishing school under Paddy McShane.
Originally as Powell, when she played county football, and more recently under her married name of Enright, she has done wonderful work for Harps in numerous capacities over many years.
A few well deserved awards which have come Enright’s way at a local level or within her own sport have been at least some small acknowledgement of an exceptional contribution but Paula’s fantastic service was finally recognised nationally last month.
The Armagh woman was a very worthy recipient of one of the Irish Federation of Sport’s Volunteer Awards, handed out during a prestigious ceremony at Farmleigh House in Dublin’s Pheonix Park on November 12.
“I got a phonecall about three weeks before from Mary O’Connor, who was a legendary dual player for Cork back in the day and is now Chief Executive of the Irish Federation of Sport, telling me to ‘keep that date free for a volunteer award’
“My initial reaction was ‘who is the volunteer’ as normally it would be me making nominations for things on behalf of our club. But this time it was me who had been put forward by our Youth Officer Aidan Breen and I was quite taken aback,” explains Paula.
“There’s one award for each of the 32 counties in Ireland, across all sports, and although there were a number which were GAA-related I was the only ladies football recipient which was humbling.
“It was a brilliant day, so well run, and a real celebration of volunteers. We were made to feel valued and special. There was a champagne reception and three-course meal but I also enjoyed meeting other recipients.
“There were so many inspiring people, with great stories to tell, and all the winners were profiled in a little printed programme. You don’t go looking for these things but it was a lovely event and nice to be there representing Harps, Armagh and ladies football.”
If a successful season for Harps was Paula’s footballing cake and this award was the icing, getting one of the inaugural Buttercrane All Stars was an unexpected cherry on the top for the converted keeper.
A midfielder in her heyday, Enright’s goalkeeping career began in the 2015 county final, a move which she reveals came as much of a surprise to herself as to everyone else at the time but has worked out well and extended her playing career.
“I only found out the night before that final but I’ve ended up playing there for several seasons now. I used to think being goalkeeper was easy and would have been critical of kick-outs going astray.
“Now I know what pressure you’re under with the restarts so important and the goalkeeping job has evolved in the modern game,” reflects Enright, who got her Buttercrane All Star nomination for the quarter-final against Crossmaglen.
Hot favourites to reach the final thanks to both champions Carrickcruppen and Clann Eireann being in the other half, Harps were wobbling before half-time at St Oliver Plunkett Park and were glad of a couple of fine saves to avoid the evening getting messy.
“We got the better side of the draw, avoiding the two big teams, so reaching the final was a very realistic objective but we absolutely believed it was winnable in spite of (Clann Eireann’s) great record in the competition.”
Having come through their Crossmaglen scare comfortably enough in the end and seen off Silverbridge helped by a double hat-trick from Aoife Lennon, Harps had high hopes of a first county title this century but came up short on the evening.
“It’s tough to take at the time but, going forward, we’ll be better for having been there than not, especially with so many young, developing players who will benefit from the experience.
“We had our homework done going into the game, maybe even over-thought things, but Clann Eireann, who have been there so often over the past decade and a half, deserved victory on the day.
“I’d kind of hoped to retire with a winners’ medal but now I’ll just have to keep playing! I still love it and never want to retire but the kids are at an age now where they’re needing run to swimming, football, fiddle, Irish dancing and so forth,” reflects the mum of three.
Aimee is still just 18 months old but Katie (7) and Conor (5) are old enough to share in their mum’s footballing triumphs and, maybe even more so, savour the sweets which Paddy McShane hands out when they come to training with her!
Enright herself has huge regard for McShane, “who has taken the nucleus of this season’s successful Minor team since they were Under 12 and won with them at every age group.
“He has done an amazing job, both with our senior side and still looking after the Minors with the help of several of our top players, and could sell snow. I’d be retired only for his persuasive powers!”
Unsurprisingly the sole survivor from that last league title win 25 years ago, Paula also tasted championship success as a teenager and is the only player left from Harps’ most recent county title triumph in 1998.
“Obviously in gaelic games, championships are the holy grail, but winning the league this season was a big thing for the club and meant plenty to the more experienced players in particular.
“The younger girls are well used to winning (age group) silverware but the likes of myself, Fionnuala (McKenna) and Pip (Dougan-Toal) appreciate the hard work which can go in without tangible reward.
“We only lost one league game all year, at home to Clann Eireann but beat them in Lurgan and they dropped points elsewhere. We had good depth in our panel and not much disruption with just one county player (Kelly Mallon) this season.”
Club captain McKenna, who started 84 of 88 Armagh matches since coming into the county panel as a schoolgirl, will return to Orchard duty for 2020 after taking this season out while teenager Tiarna McVeigh has also been called up.
Enright has glowing praise for her successor as Harps skipper, saying: “I’ve no words that would be enough for Fionnuala. She’s a lady, so passionate and wants everyone very involved.
“She’s a complete professional who wants the best for the team and club. You could call her old school in the sense that training comes first and everything has to fit around that routine. Fionnuala’s a real role model and she’ll be an asset to Armagh again.”
Putting football first is second nature to Paula too and she was also into athletics as a schoolgirl, but she admits that things have evolved a lot since her early days with Harps in terms of ladies gaelic’s growth and societal change.
“Back then there were probably only about 10 active clubs in Armagh, but Harps had a panel of about 25 including six from my house. Like now, we’d a good group who came through together.
“It was so different then though. Instead of water breaks, a lot of players would have had a smoke at half-time and a can of diet coke! There was no such thing as strength and conditioning or cool-downs after matches.
“We went out together as a whole team after home matches. There were no mobile phones to be obsessed with like young ones now, we weren’t given cars aged 17, and these days people are more aware of diets and training regimes.”
Fellow golden oldie Dervla Mallon also won a Buttercrane All Star this autumn and the pair are firm friends notwithstanding the healthy local rivalry between their respective clubs, city slickers Harps and country cousins Grange.
“It’s always a good battle and Grange gave us a tough game the night we won the league there. Even though the final scoreline looked comfortable for us, it was hard-hitting until the end and good championship preparation for both teams.”
The multi-talented Kelly Mallon, who has now been seven seasons with Harps since transferring from floundering Derrynoose, hit a hat-trick of goals two days after helping Armagh shock Cork and two days before captaining Madden into the county camogie final.
“Kelly’s very experienced and now thankfully kind of free from the injury issues she suffered from so badly in 2017. She’s so busy with Armagh, her camogie and the road bowls but always wants to do what she can.”
After reaching the 2015 county final when beaten by Carrickcruppen, Harps slumped again and endured a couple of relatively lean years before laying down a real marker in last season’s Senior Championship quarter-final.
Going into injury-time they were level with Cruppen, who went on to reclaim the county title from Clann Eireann, and having Leah McGoldrick’s uncompromising physicality to discomfort Caroline O’Hanlon might have made the difference.
Absent then through injury, McGoldrick’s rugby and camogie commitments mean she has seldom lined out for Harps since the 2015 final but getting another dual star Aoife Lennon back has been an invaluable boost for Harps.
The Northern Ireland international footballer made a dramatic return to the gaelic code for Harps and Armagh in 2015 but bowed out again for the next couple of seasons before returning last year.
She has been brilliant this season, scoring six goals in the Senior Championship semi and winning the Armagh Division One Player of the Year award on the back of excellent contributions to her team’s title triumph.
“Aoife is an unreal athlete, you could watch her playing all day. She’s had her problems but thrives in the Harps environment and is happy here. She loves the club and is a real role model and ambassador.
“The young girls love her and she’s so encouraging with them. She’s always motivating them and sees the good in everyone. Even that night of the Armagh Awards, she sent me a nice thoughtful text afterwards saying my All Star was well deserved.”
Although that 2015 final appearance proved a false dawn in terms of Harps making Armagh a three-club-county by becoming genuine challengers to the established Big Two, this time the future looks sustainably bright.
Lennon’s focus seems set to remain with Harps, Annalivia Hynds will be back from her maternity break and the emerging generation of fantastic talent which includes McVeigh, Casey Mullan and Emily Druse will be another year older and better.
“Last year’s quarter-final performance against Cruppen was a real statement of intent, though an agonising loss which at the time felt tougher to take than losing this season’s final.
“We laid down a marker that evening, this year’s league title should hopefully prove another stepping stone and our Minors gave (eventual provincial champions) Bredagh a great game in Ulster so there’s a lot to be positive about.”
Talking of building for the future, the magnificent new Abbey Park is taking shape with handover expected early in 2020 so these are really exciting times for anyone associated with Harps.
Of course clubs are about developing people as much as first-class facilities and the irrepressible Paula will continue to ensure that the children linked to Harps get a good grounding in the footballing basics.
“I still run the nursery for the Under 6, Under 8 and Under 10 age groups and am also involved with the Under 16 girls. I also sit on the main club committee and the fundraising committee and am the nominated officer for dealing with Access NI requirements,” confirms this award-winning volunteer who is worth her weight in gold.