Catherine Marley has waited so long for her opportunity in the Armagh team that a run of five consecutive starts isn’t going to take the edge off the Lissummon forward’s desire to keep pushing hard and establish herself fully.
The youngest of four sisters to follow dad Noel in wearing the orange jersey, this is actually Catherine’s seventh season in the senior county panel, but for most of that time she has been a comparatively peripheral figure.
There had been occasional starts, some untimely injuries and more than a few frustrations but the young physiotherapist finally got her big break in Tullamore last July and now she wants to continue reaping just rewards for her relentless effort through the years.
Having grabbed her long-awaited chance in last July’s famous upset of Cork and then kicked two superb points in the narrow All Ireland quarter-final defeat against Mayo, Catherine has been in the run-on line-up for the first three NFL fixtures this season.
However, with new management coming in over the winter, it was a fresh start for everyone so the 23-year-old couldn’t take selection for granted coming into the current campaign, though last summer still left her a valuable legacy.
“Those two games at the end of last season definitely gave me some confidence, which I’d really lacked. But it’s a new season now, with fierce competition for places, so it’s all about working hard and keeping putting my hand up to be picked,” she says.
“We started with a convincing victory over Clare, where everything just seemed to fall into place and I even got my first Armagh goal but then in the Tyrone game we collectively lacked the hunger needed and paid a painful price.”
Catherine can be exempted from the complacency criticism more than most for she got through a mountain of work in Silverbridge before being taken off as part of a strange substitution strategy which contributed to an avoidable Orchard defeat.
The Orchard outfit fought hard in Tralee last time out but ultimately came away with a two-point defeat to Division Two title favourites Kerry so will likely need to win their four remaining matches to have a realistic chance of reaching the league final.
“We were much hungrier against Kerry, though the Storm Ciara conditions were a difficult factor to contend with. In the end we fell just short but there were plenty of positives and things to build upon for the rest of the league.
“Everyone’s really looking forward to Wexford, when we’ll hopefully see the fruits of what we’ve been working on and put the last two defeats behind us. It’s another long journey but I think having these three away games early in the season has had benefits for us.
“We have such a lot of fresh, new players in the squad this season and these trips have helped integrate the young girls and been an opportunity to get to know them away from the training field. I can reveal we’re as competitive off the field as on it, especially with charades!
“Through pre-season and since, there has been a good vibe and the new management are a breath of fresh air. They’ve very positive and knowledgeable about the game, good at spotting problems and developing solutions so it’s up to us to keep progressing.”
Apart from Ronan Murphy and Tommy Stevenson taking charge, the other huge change in the Orchard camp this season has been the absence of Catherine’s eldest sister Caoimhe Morgan, for so long the beating heart of Armagh ladies football.
County captain for the past three seasons, Morgan has hung up her boots after more than two decades of fantastic service to the Orchard cause and Catherine admits it is strange not having her around.
“Caoimhe has been a massive influence on me. She completely embodies what Armagh stands for, through her endless commitment, leadership people respond to, and sheer talent. I’ve always looked up to her and still do.
“Her retirement has undoubtedly left a hole in our team because she was such a key player and galvanising figure. She brought an irreplaceable presence and always did the Armagh jersey and our family more than proud.”
The reshuffle has seen the second Marley sister, Sarah, promoted to vice-captain under new skipper Kelly Mallon and Catherine has also warm words for the experienced defender who has really earned her leadership stripes.
“Sarah has been such a role model to me. At a time when I was struggling last year with football she was so supportive. Her dedication on and off the pitch is phenomenal. She’s a very humble but exceptional player who totally deserves her role in leading this team.”
Considering she has still been in the background until lately, not seen much on the field and naturally overshadowed by her high-profile siblings, the realisation that only seven players in Armagh’s present panel of 36 have been around longer than Catherine is surprising.
Affectionately known as Kitty by her family, it’s easy to forget that this isn’t just a young girl tagging along with her big sisters but a fully-fledged professional woman who is highly personable, physically impressive and has so much to offer in this set-up.
“I’m very fond of Kitty, my god-child and the baby of the house. She’s a great girl who never gets the recognition she deserves and I know it’s hard following behind us all,” reflects Caoimhe.
A proud eldest sister, Caoimhe was Catherine’s teacher at St Catherine’s College when she came second in Northern Ireland in GCSE Learning for Life and Work before going on to graduate with First Class Honours in Physiotherapy.
“Firstly I want to pay grateful tribute to her skills as a physio for getting me back in record time after my ACL tear and surgery. She’s a true professional at her job and has a real passion for it which can be infectious.
“In terms of football, our Kitty has worked probably harder than her three sisters to have earned her rightful place on this Armagh team. She is a worker but also possesses the most flair of any of us.
“An excellent free-taker and forward who also plays that forward-defending role so well, she’s a true team player who has overcome so much to be wearing that coveted orange jersey and she would never take it for granted. I’m very proud of her.”
With Caoimhe’s recent retirement, the memories of that proud day in Tullamore when the four Marleys started together for the first time in a championship match and Armagh had their first ever victory over Cork in the championship mean even more.
“It was amazing just getting to play with Caoimhe, Sarah and Niamh at last in such a big game, but beating Cork means the day will go down in Armagh history. Having them there helped ensure I wasn’t overwhelmed with nerves,” says Catherine.
“I hadn’t started since the opening game of the season at the beginning of February so it was exciting being named in the team. I wanted to grab my opportunity, prove that I deserved the chance and do the jersey proud.
“Only a win would keep us in the All Ireland. Caoimhe was clear that everyone needed to play the game of our lives and Caroline (O’Hanlon) emphasised the importance of keeping things simple and sticking to the game-plan. She brings such calm on the pitch too and helps everybody believe.
“We lost Aimee (Mackin) to injury but ended up getting four goals in a 10-minute purple patch, which was just surreal, but everyone was working so hard and Cork were clearly rattled,” recalls Catherine who won a fantastic turnover in the lead-up to O’Hanlon’s opening goal.
“I was determined to make a nuisance of myself. When I came away with the ball I’d Niamh running hard off my shoulder and it was a wonderful finish from Caroline which sparked our comeback. Being part of that win was special and made all the effort feel worthwhile.
“I’d worked so hard to get back at the start of last season after 18 months out with a torn cruciate but, up until the Cork match, hadn’t got the opportunity I needed. Only for the encouragement of my sisters I’m not sure I could have stuck with it.
“In seasons gone by I know I didn’t deserve a starting spot but by last season I felt the time had come. You could say it has been a long apprenticeship but the jersey means more when you have to really fight for it and we’ve a lot of talent in Armagh.”
Catherine had just turned nine when she watched Caoimhe climb the fabled steps of Croke Park’s Hogan Stand to collect her All Ireland Junior Championship medal and was there too for Armagh’s agonising Senior showpiece loss to Cork 12 months later.
She started with Lissummon aged just 11, as the small country club lacked numbers, and the fourth Marley differed from her siblings by becoming a forward, who was brought into the county panel ahead of a 2014 campaign which would deliver a famous Ulster title triumph.
“It was unbelievable being around that. The whole set-up felt so professional and the experience gave me so much hunger. I had to stick with it for five years before my big chance came, but being part of a team good enough to beat Cork was worth waiting for.”
The even younger Aimee Mackin came through to claim an Armagh starting spot, and two All Stars in her first three seasons, but being leap-frogged by one of the country’s most prolific forwards was no shame.
A fractured cheekbone, sustained in an accidental collision with big sister Sarah’s head in the spring of 2016, was a nasty setback, as was that dreaded cruciate rupture in July the following year, which also happened at training.
“The cheekbone was broken in two places and I needed surgery but the injury didn’t put me off. It was more annoying not being able to play and likewise with the knee, for I’d started in that season’s Ulster semi-final against Donegal and was keen to kick on.
“I’d been marking Aoife McCoy in training that night so there was a lot of running and I’d had a club match the evening before so my legs were exhausted. I went to turn to tackle Caroline and that was the end of football for me until the start of last season.
“My sister Niamh was with me when I got the bad news and she’d already been through a similar scenario so she knew what it felt like. We hugged and cried it out. As well as being a physio, having her ahead of me on the rehab road kept me right. Professionally, I can now empathise more with my patients.”
Currently working on the stroke ward in South Tyrone Hospital, Marley couldn’t be happier with her professional career choice and her gaelic football feels more rewarding now she’s got an overdue run of Armagh games.
The fact she was so young initially, then had the cheekbone break and cruciate rupture and even a hamstring tear last spring, which ruled her out of the National League semi, have held Catherine back more than any lack of ability or commitment.
However while there was no sense of failure, she had reached the stage last season of needing to know what she could do at this level and those championship matches against Cork and Mayo gave her the perfect platform.
In Tullamore, Marley showed what an asset her hard work on both sides of the ball is to a team but those superbly struck points against Mayo were a useful reminder that Catherine can certainly take her scores with aplomb as well as being a willing grafter.
All of a sudden she’s one of the more experienced campaigners who can counsel the plethora of younger girls in the squad that hard work will pay off, while hopefully pushing on in nailing down that starting spot up front for Armagh herself.
Harps skipper Fionnuala McKenna is back in the mix this season and Granemore schoolgirl Corinna Doyle has burst onto the scene so, when Aimee Mackin returns, there will be plenty of forwards fighting for game-time, though none more determined than Catherine Marley.