May 26th, 2020

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Anna Carr and her Orchard colleagues should have been getting their Ulster Senior Championship campaign underway this weekend, with the opening group game against Monaghan scheduled for Sunday.

Unfortunately that has had to be put on hold like nearly everything else both here and further afield, leaving frustrated sportspeople playing the waiting game, but patience is a virtue which Carr has had to develop plenty of through the years.

The Carrickcruppen player is in her seventh season in the senior county panel but has spent prolonged periods in the unenviable position of back-up goalkeeper, which has been branded the most soul-destroying role in gaelic football, soccer or hockey squads.

So the 23-year-old knows all about biding her time, but also being ready when the opportunity presents itself, like when she played her part in Armagh’s famous upset of Ireland’s most successful ladies gaelic county last July.

An imposing specimen in black and beaming broadly, Carr really stands out at the heart of the photographs of joyful Orchard celebrations in Tullamore after what was Armagh’s first ever victory over Cork in a championship match.

There she was, front and centre on a glorious afternoon for Armagh, enjoying a deserved day in the sun, having kept persevering while a frustratingly peripheral figure for most of the season and the two before that.

It looked like Carr had established herself as Armagh’s starting goalkeeper for many years to come when Orchard hero Ronan Clarke handed her the No 1 jersey during his single season as manager in 2016.

Armagh actually topped Division One, albeit briefly, for the only time in Orchard history and Carr’s crucial late save in the Athletic Grounds helped the orangewomen to a first ever victory over Dublin.

However, that summer’s championship campaign petered out pretty quickly, Clarke left the Orchard helm, and new Armagh manager Sean O’Kane handed the goalkeeping gloves to Caroline O’Hare, a prolific forward at club level, at the start of the 2017 National League.

The converted keeper prospered in the unfamiliar role and, with the fact Carr was based in England as a student not helping her cause, she found herself benching for most of the next three seasons, until being given the nod for that Cork clash.

A good display in a winning team saw Carr keep her place for the All Ireland quarter-final defeat to Mayo next time out and now, with O’Hare having hung up her Armagh gloves over the winter, Anna finds herself mentoring two teenage goalkeeping understudies.

Mullabrack’s Chloe Kelly was part of the St Catherine’s College Under 16 team which won the All Ireland last year while St Paul’s Bessbrook’s Brianna Mathers has followed in fellow Camlough girl Carr’s footsteps by switching from school full forward to net-minder.

Like Kelly, Carr was still in her penultimate year at school when she first joined the senior county panel for 2014, as one of four keepers along with the experienced Catherine McAlinden, future rival Katie Daly and her own clubmate Niamh Finnegan.

The apprenticeship proved particularly special because Armagh won their first Ulster title in seven seasons, shocking hot favourites Monaghan in a packed Clones, with Carr’s Cruppen captain Caroline O’Hanlon lifting the trophy in front of an estimated 20,000 crowd.

“I remember that day so clearly, being in the matchday squad but not as a designated goalkeeper.  My schoolmate Louise Kenny, who had got her chance because of Sarah Marley’s broken ankle, had an unreal game marking Cora Courtney,” she enthuses.

“It was the sort of special performance Armagh are capable of but unfortunately we haven’t had one in an Ulster final since.  However, the Cork game and a few others have shown we’re capable of beating anyone on our day, so the challenge is to become more consistent.

“Unfortunately our National League campaign this season was below par and then cut short so we’ll be bursting to prove a point whenever we get back to football, but when that will be is just so hard to know and what I’m expecting changes from day to day.

“Driving past the well-rested field at Cruppen, it’s looking so inviting and we’d all love to be playing but understand the seriousness of what’s going on.  Healthcare people are risking their lives to save people and gaelic football is just a luxury at this stage.

“Lockdown life’s fairly good for me.  I’m working in the Lynas Food Outlet in Newry at present and have just qualified as a certified personal trainer last weekend, which is a step forward with a career change on my part.

“I graduated in software engineering in Liverpool last summer and had a job there but didn’t like the office life, so I came back home before Christmas and am going a different direction now, with personal training and strength and conditioning.

“Although missing sport, I’m grateful for a job meantime, that I have my health and for the wee bit of equipment I have at home along with a field that I can go out into with a few footballs,” reflects Carr, who readily relates to that viral video of the young boy in lockdown with his net, saving shots he hit against the nearby wall.

“I’ve been doing something like that for years with a wall at home!  In this day and age, with so much technology to distract, there had probably been less people playing outside but you see more families enjoying exercise together in the present situation.”

Actually, Carr wasn’t always a goalkeeper but played up front for a successful St Paul’s school side, backboned by Kenny and the Mackin sisters, Aimee and Blaithin, who won plenty of Ulster honours and came close to All Ireland glory.

“We lost two All Ireland finals and I was joint captain for one of them down in Galway.  I was full forward but, when we gave away a penalty, I raced back to get in nets.  I couldn’t save it though and we lost by a point.

“I think I was mainly in at full forward for my height, tasked to keep the full back busy and let Aimee run in!” says the self-deprecating Carr, who was a fairly reluctant conscript to the goalkeeping position initially.

“There were a lot of girls from school playing for Armagh Under 16s so I went along too.  Tommy Coleman and Misty (Quinn) were in charge.  I was throwing myself about at training and they reckoned I wasn’t bad at diving and had a strong left foot, so they put me in nets and the position stuck.

“I was still fighting it until Minors but then we played an All Ireland B semi-final against Tipperary (in 2013) and should have lost by about 15 goals but I kept the scoreline respectable and since then I embraced it and did want to be a keeper.”

Coincidentally, she made her first senior appearance for the county aged just 17 off the bench in the win over depleted Tipperary in the following season’s NFL Division Three semi-final landslide and also won Armagh Minor Payer of the Year.

Carr got the odd opportunity in 2015, when Armagh won NFL Division Two and reached a second successive All Ireland semi-final, before displacing Daly as Clarke’s keeper of choice in spite of being based in England.

“I’d started at Liverpool John Moores University and all the other first year students were wanting to go out but I had to knuckle down.  We won the British Universities Cup before I left though, the first time they’d ever won it,” she says proudly of her time at her former Armagh captain Caoimhe Morgan’s alma mater.

She was joined in that team by Cruppen clubmates Dearbhla Wright and Kerry Garvey, with whom she had also tasted school success in gaelic football and was in Netball NI’s regional development squads.

“I was a goalkeeper in netball but never really good.  But understanding the sport helps me appreciate how world-class my (Carrickcrupppen clubmate) Caroline O’Hanlon is.  Most people wouldn’t really know what a special player she is in that sport too.

“Myself, Marian (McGuinness) and Rebecca (O’Reilly) were at last summer’s World Cup as supporters and it was so nice to hear the respect for Caroline from fans of other nations, saying she’d slot into the Australian or New Zealand teams.”

Talking of local legends of sport, she’s never met that ultimate goalkeeping giant from Newry, Pat Jennings, but has studied net-minders from various codes since joining that circle, and benefitted from working with Armagh’s 2006 All Ireland final keeper and All Star nominee Fionnuala McAtamney.

“Fionnuala was Armagh goalkeeping coach under James Daly when I came into the panel, was joint manager of Cruppen for two spells with Lorraine McCaffrey and then they were over the county team for a couple of years, so that’s been great.

“Apart from the technical coaching for the position, she has helped me with the mental side.  It can be a lonely role and you also need to develop leadership and authority, which can be challenging when you’re going in young and are kind of quiet.”

That natural reserve makes the unlikely tale of her sledging the Clann Eireann penalty-taker in the 2018 county final all the more amusing and Carr’s psychological warfare worked as Julie Henderson’s spot-kick was saved and Cruppen won narrowly against their bitter rivals.

“I don’t know what came over me, I think it just came out!  I was psyching myself up and next thing I heard myself saying audibly ‘you’re not scoring this goal!’  She scuffed it a bit and I saved it.  It’s the stuff of folklore in Carrickcruppen now, but I’m not generally mouthy!

“Some goalkeepers go in for gamesmanship, but you couldn’t count on putting opponents off.  It is important to have a bit of presence and project confidence though and to be able to communicate well with your own team.”

Goalkeepers are a special category in any squad and, although direct rivals for a single spot more than players in any other area of the field, Carr says that they tend to help each other out in her experience.

She’s grateful for more established colleagues taking her under their wing back in the day, now willingly shares her experience with the young guns coming up behind and also reports having had a great relationship with longest-standing rival O’Hare.

Having usurped Daly, Carr consolidated her starting spot during 2016, including contributing to that nail-biting victory over Dublin in the Athletic Grounds, as Armagh held on in front of an increasing crowd in an NFL fixture which was a curtain-raiser to a men’s match.

“We’d started the season so well before faltering a bit but that win over Dublin was a big boost and put us back in the hunt for a semi-final place, which in the end we just missed out on by an agonisingly small margin after losing a close contest with Cork.

“It was a strange game in that we were missing a few players but weathered an early storm, then got a quite healthy lead which they ate away at.  In the last 5-10 minutes, Nicole Owens hit a really low shot which I managed to save and it proved vital.

“Whatever happened, the pain in my shoulder afterwards was awful, but the other thing I remember equally well when I got up was the realisation that I belonged in the Armagh goal and was good enough for this level.  Up until then I think I was in ‘fake-it-til-you-make-it’ mode.

“I was still very young and, having just gone to Liverpool, was flying back and forwards for football.  I’d get home in time for training on Thursday evenings and then leave at 4am on Monday to be back for classes.

“Because of bad weather, we had several rearranged games so it ended up me doing that for about eight weeks in a row and I’d say my mummy was sick of ferrying me to and from the airport but it was worth it.”

The stage seemed set for Carr to nail down the Armagh goalkeeping jersey for the foreseeable, but it didn’t quite happen thanks to the emergence of an unexpected threat from left field in the shape of O’Hare.

Sport, more than nearly anything, has unpredictable twists and Anna insists she never felt resentful or hard done by and, although just watching could be frustrating, losing her first choice status didn’t knock confidence or turn her into a bad goalkeeper.

Quite the opposite in fact as she and the Mullaghbawn woman kept pushing each other hard, trusted management to make the correct calls, and backed whoever got the nod to do a good job for the team.

“I suppose I’d thought of 2016 as my big breakthrough, the first time I’d been first choice, though the fact that I was away wasn’t ideal.  I understood Sean (O’Kane) and the management needed to find another viable goalkeeping option at the start of the next year.

“Unfortunately for me, Caroline grabbed her chance with both hands and established herself in the team.  Everyone wants to play but you can’t control selection and I tried to look at it logically, that I was still good enough and that Armagh had two good options now.”

As luck would have it, Carr’s chance would have come mid-summer when O’Hare picked up an injury, but by then Anna was already sidelined herself after damaging her ankle at training on a suspect pitch in Armagh.

“I tore nearly every ligament and ended up in a (moon)boot.  The fact Caroline got injured then too made it more frustrating for it wasn’t just a case of having to rehab but knowing I had missed my chance to get back in the team.

“Ellen McVerry made her Armagh debut in our All Ireland qualifier against Westmeath in Dunleer and then when she got sinbinned later on, Kelly Mallon, who wasn’t fit to play outfield that season because of niggling injury issues came on in nets.

“Kelly then started the quarter-final against Kerry in Nowlan Park and, in fairness, she’s actually a very capable goalkeeper, but it was annoying not being fit to step in when Caroline couldn’t play.”

Her outgoing Carrickcruppen managers McAtamney and McCaffrey came in as Armagh’s joint gaffers for 2018 and Carr’s strengths were well known to them but she still couldn’t displace O’Hare from the starting spot.

The makeshift keeper kept the Armagh gloves and played the full hour in successive Ulster finals as the orangewomen were hammered by Donegal at Brewster Park and then ambushed by a poor start in the Clones showpiece 12 months later.

Sitting out those two decider defeats was a very different feeling for Carr than the excitement of merely being in the environment as a wide-eyed teenager for that unforgettable triumph over Monaghan in 2014.

“Back then I was just happy to be there and, of course, we won, but the 2018 and 2019 finals were tough for the entire squad whether you were on the field or not.  In my case, not playing was a blow but unsurprising at the time and I still wanted Armagh to win.”

From Clones, Armagh moved on to face Cavan in their opening group game of the All Ireland series, but threw away an 11-point lead against their former manager Daly’s Breffni brigade at Bawnboy and were beaten by a free deep in injury-time.

That meant Armagh had to eclipse Cork to stay in the TG4 Championship and one of several changes saw O’Hare replaced in nets by Carr, who hadn’t played since the league victory over Cavan in Clonmore at the start of February.

“I don’t think I was told that I was starting until the Thursday or Friday and it was a kind of weird feeling.  Me and Caroline are really good friends, respected each other’s ability and left selection to management’s judgement.

“We each had our pros and cons and I’m sure sometimes the choice came down to whoever we were playing against.  She’d had a very good year and maybe didn’t deserve to be dropped but equally you could argue I was unlucky to have been benching all year.

“Although no doubt disappointed, there was no bad blood from Caroline about the decision.  It was up to whoever got the job to do the other one justice as well as yourself.  Facing Cork can be daunting, but it was the chance I’d been waiting for.

“We knew it would be a tough game but always believe that we can beat the best teams on our day.  Our backs were to the wall, we had a point to prove after letting the Cavan result slip away and only a win would keep us in the All Ireland.

“There had been significant criticism after another Ulster final loss, compounded by the Cavan collapse.  People felt we kept cracking under pressure and, although it wasn’t that we just gave up easily, there was an element of truth to that on the recent evidence.

“However, we had belief in ourselves and our aim was to be in the game at half-time after the disastrous start against Donegal.  We wanted to keep it tight at the back, limit their damage and let our forwards do their thing at the other end.

“It was probably the quickest game of football of my life and I can’t even remember most of it.  Things went well enough for me personally, but Cork got a penalty well on in the second half and, although I saved it, they scored from the rebound.”

Armagh had lost prolific forward Aimee Mackin just before half-time to what would prove a ruptured cruciate but hit an astonishing four goals in a 10-minute purple patch in the second period to take a barely believable 10-point lead, though Cork were far from finished.

They closed the gap to a single point but Armagh held on, though solicitor Sarah Marley was the only player who was sure right away that this minimum-margin victory was enough to take the Orchard outfit through to the quarter-finals.

“It was a blow when the penalty was still scored when I’d done well to keep it out initially but, in that important period towards the end when our lead was being eroded, in the past few years we would have panicked but this time the girls came together.

“There were a few hairy moments as well as some good interventions in defence, and I found the likes of Kelly (Mallon) with a couple of long kick-outs to take pressure off.  When the whistle went we knew we had won but thought we were out so there weren’t much celebrating initially.”

When confirmation came through that they had indeed qualified for the last eight, there was great jubilation in the Armagh ranks, and Carr is familiar with those happy photos of her hugging team-mates while looking in the direction of the camera.

“A few weeks later I came home from work and Mummy had them blown up big.  We were knocked out by Mayo two weeks later but that Cork game will live long in the memory and it’s nice to have the reports and photos.

“We get great local coverage, the sport is now getting much more exposure at national level and (Armagh LGFA Chairperson) Sinead Reel is doing an amazing job to develop and elevate ladies football in our own county.”

Like another 2014 newcomer who was given her chance against Cork, Catherine Marley, Carr has had to take the scenic route to establishing herself for Armagh, but appreciates everything she has learned along the way.

“The Armagh career I’ve had, it’s been a journey, and I’ve got to work with a variety of managers and so many top players.  I’d Caroline and Marian (McGuinness) from my own club but also the likes of Caoimhe, Sarah and Niamh Marley, Sinead McCleary and Mags McAlinden.

“I’m really grateful for those superb professionals I’ve played alongside.  I wasn’t around when Maebh Mo (Moriarty) was (Armagh) captain but I’m so pleased she came back because I’ve learned so much from her in terms of the way she thinks, how she prepares and her fantastic commitment to the game.

“When I came in for the 2014 season, I was the youngest along with Louise Kenny, but all the players were welcoming.  I was just quiet and new, but you learn from being in the presence of those senior girls and develop the mentality needed at the elite level.

“I’d played for the Under 16s in the half-time game during the 2012 All Ireland Intermediate final (in which Armagh beat Waterford) at Croke Park so it was great to be in the same set-up as those players less than 18 months later, learning my trade.

“It’s hard to take in that I’m now one of the more experienced players, albeit still just 23, and I want to be a good role model to younger girls both inside and outside the squad including my goalkeeping colleagues,” reflects Carr, marvelling at the statistic that only seven of the 36 players on Armagh’s books this year had been there prior to her arrival in 2014.

“Something that Fionnuala McAtamney said to me is that you’re always trying to benefit the jersey for the next person and the good of Armagh.  I’ve learned from others and in turn have tried to take these new young goalkeepers under my wing rather than treating them as a threat to my position.

“I want to set them high standards and help them get better because ultimately that will keep pushing me to be the best that I can be.  When Caroline and I were going head to head, it got the best out of both of us.  Sometimes we’d go to training earlier to do extra together.”

These days, Carr is the face of Precision Gloves locally, one of few Armagh players with a personal endorsement deal, and Anna says she is determined to take her role model status seriously.

“Actually the contact came through Caroline O’Hare, who manages the O’Neills sports store in Newry.  I promote Precision’s gloves and they give me a good supply.  I’ve got some for the younger players in Cruppen and also a wee keeper from Mullaghbawn.

“It’s hard to realise it but I’m at a stage now where some young girls may be looking up to me, so I want to encourage anyone who has any interest in keeping, especially because it’s still not a naturally popular position.

“Probably like soccer too, there’s still that stigma that whoever isn’t much good or not very fit gets stuck in nets!  It’s important to change that perception and promote goalkeeping as a positive choice.  I’ve taken a few wee goalkeeping sessions and would like to do more of that in the future.”

Carr, who actually played a bit of her underage football with Whitecross, won the first of her three Armagh Senior Championship medals to date with Carrickcruppen as a bit-part outfield player in 2013, after McCaffrey and McAtamney had come in as management mid-season.

“I made my Senior Championship debut in that season’s semi-final wearing No 7 for Marian (McGuinness) was out injured, but she was fit for the final, in which she actually won Player of the Match.

“Niamh Finnegan was our established goalkeeper so I was on the bench but got a run towards the end.  I remember the first thing I did was taking out (Armagh star) Sinead McCleary, who was about to go on a dangerous run!  Thankfully, we got over the line.

“I’ve a 2013 medal but, maybe because of playing relatively little that year, or becoming a fully-fledged keeper after that, in some ways 2015 felt like my first real club championship success.  I’d got a bit of game-time for Armagh that year and was well established with Cruppen so confidence was high.

“We’d beaten Clann Eireann in the semi and were favourites for the final against (Armagh) Harps but I knew we’d be up against a good team with the likes of Kelly (Mallon) and Fionnuala (McKenna) and facing them would be tough.

“Going up against Kelly, who is my county captain now, is hard, and it was a real grind on the night to win.  I don’t believe we played our best football but we did get the job done,” reflects Carr of that 2015 triumph under Barry Flynn and his dad Gerry.

The great rivalry however was with Clann Eireann, the clubs taking three titles each in the first six seasons of last decade, but even the return of McCaffrey and McAtamney to Lowe’s Lane couldn’t prevent the Lurgan giants winning back to back titles in 2016 and 2017.

There was a feeling that, if Clann Eireann completed a hat-trick of successes the following season, Armagh might have become, in effect, a one-club county and, for Cruppen themselves, Carr says it was a real line-in-the-sand situation for Mark Doran’s side.

“We’d taken pride in being neck and neck with Clann Eireann in the first half of the decade, with the two teams more or less winning year about but they’d got away a bit and we took it hard that they’d won two in a row.

“The writing would have been on the wall if they could make it three and we knew that if we didn’t win the title in 2018 you could hardly call it a serious rivalry any more so it was everything on the line for us.  We’d a fairly settled side and everybody dug deep to get what was a very special win in the Athletic Grounds.”

Managed by former Armagh boss Daly, Clann Eireann were an hour of football away from completing a third domestic season in a row unbeaten but two stunning second half goals from the incomparable O’Hanlon and that penalty save from Carr delivered a stunning triumph for Cruppen.

Clann Eireann avenged that defeat by knocking the holders out in last season’s preliminary round game in Lurgan and went on to reclaim the Marie Hoye Cup courtesy of a showpiece win over emerging force Harps.

Whether there will be any action this year at club level remains to be seen as the coronavirus shutdown was imposed in mid-March a few weeks before the domestic season was due to start and the Buttercrane Championship draws hadn’t even been made.

For all the hypothetical talk about gaelic games returning on the club front first before any inter-county action, the social distancing conundrum is likely to prove problematic at all levels.

So the only certainty is that chatty woman Carr won’t be back on a football field anytime soon but she’s used to the waiting game, is keeping positive and busy and, as a 23-year-old virtual veteran, is in the happy position of having experience under her belt but time on her side.

“I think this break has just made me more determined to push on with Armagh whenever we get back.  I’ve yet to play in an Ulster final so that’s an ambition but, having been on the bench when we’ve won and lost in Clones, I’ve seen the best and worst scenarios on the big day and know there’s a massive difference.

“Hopefully hard lessons have been learnt, there are a lot of players still there from those Donegal games who want another crack at it and I believe we have what it takes to win a provincial championship.  It’s time to deliver fresh Armagh success and we must leave no stone unturned in that quest.”

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