Carrickcruppen will have to do without the services of their long-serving vice-captain and Armagh stalwart Marian McGuinness if and when the Orchard domestic season finally gets underway.
The 34-year-old, who works as a physiotherapist at Cavan General Hospital, had transferred her registration to Breffni club Lacken before the current coronavirus crisis, which has seen her contract Covid-19 and all sporting activity be suspended until further notice.
McGuinness stepped back from Orchard duty at the end of 2018 but continued to commute from her Breffni base last season to line out for Cruppen in league games and their attempted defence of the county title.
However the versatile veteran, who has publicly confirmed for the first time that she has hung up her boots at inter-county level, decided to take the plunge by joining a club close to where she lives and works ahead of the forthcoming campaign.
So she has finally made a switch which makes clear logistical sense, and had already established links with Lacken, but McGuinness admits moving was less straightforward in emotional terms and that her heart will always be with the Lowe’s Lane ladies.
“I’ve been based in Cavan for the past few years and had trained with the Lacken girls on and off. Anytime that I was around in the evening and they were training, they said to me to come on out.
“They were really lovely and gave me a warm welcome from the start so, if I was going to join a Cavan club, coming to Lacken was a straightforward decision, a real no-brainer, but the hard thing was leaving Carrickcruppen,” muses Marian.
“There are so many amazing memories from down through the years, from starting off to winning Armagh Junior and Intermediate titles to being crowned county champions for the first time a decade ago and winning Senior three more times.
“Those big wins were wonderful days that I’ll never forget but success on the field is only one, albeit important, aspect of what your local club means to you and the special personal connections mean even more.
“My dad Pat is Carrickcruppen chairman and has been an incredible driving force for ladies football in the club down through the years, including managing the side in the old days, and I’ve lifelong friends in the team, especially my best buddy Caroline O’Hanlon,” she says.
“We’ve played together with club and county for so many years and it’s tough knowing I won’t be playing with her again. I’ll miss all the girls, but myself and Caroline are especially close and everyone would want to be on her team.
“It’s a privilege getting to play on the same side as Caroline, anyone would love to, so I feel fortunate to have done so for so long but it will be strange not doing so in the future. I definitely don’t want to be playing against her!” says Marian.
With brilliant triple All Star O’Hanlon being official club captain for an astonishing 13 years, McGuinness only occasionally skippered the side but she was much more than just her famous friend’s side-kick.
On the two occasions that Carrickcruppen beat bitter rivals Clann Eireann in Athletic Grounds deciders, in 2013 and 2018, McGuinness won the Player of the Match awards though she, typically, plays down her impressive personal performances on those occasions.
She was the only Cruppen representative shortlisted for the 2018 Gaelic Life Ulster Club All Stars and can bow out with her head held high having given great service in the red and white.
The same applies to an inter-county career which lasted more than a decade, from serving her apprenticeship during Armagh’s original glory years of the mid-noughties to establishing herself as a regular in the starting team thereafter.
McGuinness was in the run-on side for Armagh’s most recent Croke Park appearance, when they beat Waterford in the 2012 All Ireland Intermediate decider, and the Orchard county’s last Ulster Senior Championship success two seasons later.
After a frustrating run of injuries followed by an untimely and undeserved suspension, she took a year off from Orchard duty but returned to work her way back to first choice status before bowing out.
“It’s never easy saying goodbye to your county days. Stopping’s tough, for you’re a long time retired and I’d a great time with Armagh, even though we had highs and lows like most teams do.
“Obviously being able to play and win in Croke Park was a highlight and then that Ulster final in a packed Clones when we beat Monaghan with a great performance in front of a fantastic crowd in glorious sunshine ahead of a men’s championship match.
“I’m a competitive person and you work hard to be successful so those highlights on the field were well worth celebrating but it’s also about these who you share the journey with and the priceless camaraderie you get in team sports.
“I treasure the many friendships formed, and am still in touch with a lot of the Armagh girls after having been in so many battles together and spending so much time together down through the years.
“When I took the 2016 season off and went travelling I knew I was going to come back but, by the end of the season before last, I felt that was it in terms of my inter-county career even though there was no official announcement to that effect.
“The lengthy commute made it more difficult for me, having to leave work on the button, get up to training, be fresh and ready for training, put in a hard session and then get in the car and drive straight back.
“I remember pulling my calf a little bit at one of the training sessions and it being much worse by the time I got back to Cavan an hour and 40 minutes later. Travelling definitely doesn’t help with the niggling injuries, especially as you get older.
“I turned 34 at the start of February and there are plenty of miles in the legs. I’d a good crack at it with county and am content going to watch some of the Armagh games now, catching up with other old timers and cheering the girls on!” says McGuinness.
She has no ambitions to line out in the Breffni blue at inter-county level though, by ironic coincidence, former Armagh manager James Daly’s Cavan were meant to be Armagh’s next opponents when the National League was suspended last month.
It may be some time until our next chance to watch Armagh in action and likewise when McGuinness gets the opportunity to play a competitive match for her new club Lacken remains to be seen.
The last high-profile example of former Armagh players joining a club in another county came the best part of a decade ago when the O’Donnell twins transferred from Crossmaglen to Dublin’s Na Fianna.
Orchard captain Bronagh, who was an inspirational skipper during Armagh’s rise from obscurity in the mid-noughties, and her equally talented twin Alma had stopped playing for Armagh at the end of 2008, by which stage both were working and living in the Irish capital.
All Star centre half back Bronagh and O’Hanlon’s regular Armagh midfield partner Alma lined out for their native Cross for another couple of seasons before a move which helped transform sleeping giant Na Fianna’s fortunes.
In their first season there, a Na Fianna team which also included Ireland rugby international Nora Stapleton, reached the 2011 All Ireland Senior Club Championship final against Mayo ace Cora Staunton’s Carnacon.
Bronagh captained the club for the following two seasons, leading them to two more Dublin deciders as well as the 2013 All Ireland Senior Sevens title, and the twins signed off with another Leinster final appearance the following season.
Remarkably the pair were still slightly younger than McGuinness is now when they stopped playing altogether, but she will undoubtedly be a significant asset at club level for Lacken and should have a few effective years in her yet.
Effective anywhere in the middle eight, McGuinness wore No 10 in that 2012 All Ireland Intermediate final, played wing half back in the Orchard’s outfit’s subsequent Ulster Senior Championship success and also played midfield for Armagh on occasions.
Even at 34, there’s little doubt she’ll still set standards for fitness and, along with her natural ability and competitive instincts, Marian will also bring a lot to her new environment in terms of personality.
A cheerful, happy person without a bad bone in her body, the genial Marian is always lively and full of fun so, apart from knowing most of her new team already, she’ll have no difficulty fitting in.
Of course, Lacken’s major gain will be a very considerable loss for Carrickcruppen, as they seek to keep pushing restored county champions Clann Eireann and Division One league winners Armagh Harps for the top honours in the seasons ahead.
Cruppen’s halfback line has been bolstered by the arrival of another former Armagh stalwart, Sharon Reel, from Killeavy in recent seasons and the incomparable O’Hanlon is still going strong, but losing McGuinness is still a big blow.
In a special guest column for next week’s Ulster Gazette, Marian McGuinness will be reflecting on her recent experience of contracting coronavirus, the widespread reaction to her story and being grateful for a return to professional life on the frontline in Cavan Hospital.