August 11th, 2020

She sheepishly confesses that “the fridge was my best friend during lockdown” but current county footballer and former Orchard camog Aveen Donaldson Bellew is right back in the thick of it now as one of Crossmaglen’s leading lights in both codes.

“We’ve a lot of dual players in Cross so it’s a busy schedule and quite challenging going from the club being closed to having intense training sessions and now matches every week in camogie as well as football but it’s really enjoyable being back.

“Lockdown was tough at the start and even though the Armagh players tried to encourage each other remotely, I got to the point where I was sick of the solitary workouts.  I’m a team person by nature and really missed the interaction,” reflects the 31-year-old.

As a primary school teacher who will be getting geared up for her fourth year in St Patrick’s Crossmaglen next month, Mrs Bellew would have been on a long summer break anyway at present but this year the school effectively closed in mid-March.

“We were posting up work every morning using an app, with the parents or pupils to send it back when completed.  It was strange though not having the routine of going out to work or training and I must admit the fridge became my best friend for a while!

“Apart from team training, I even missed the gym.  You’d maybe be there some mornings as part of a routine and there was also a new yoga facility in Cross I’d been going to.  We have stuff here at the house, but it’s not the same,” says Aveen, whose husband is the Armagh ladies county team physio Dermot Bellew.

As recalled by Aveen’s sister Orla in her ‘Postcard from Sydney’ in last week’s Ulster Gazette, the couple got married on July 19 last year, the weekend between Armagh’s All Ireland group games against Cavan and Cork.

“It was all very simple last year compared to couples we know who have faced uncertainty and disruption.  Dermot has three friends due to get married this year, but the May and September weddings were cancelled and the one near Christmas is still being agonised over.

“With hindsight, we were fortunate with both the wedding and our honeymoon at the turn of the year, and I’m also grateful for family members not having suffered from Covid so I really can’t complain.

“As a county player at least we’d had some matches early in the year and a handful from Cross went to a sevens tournament in Castlewellan before the shutdown but it was striking to hear (clubmate) Aislinn McMahon saying she hadn’t touched a football since August.”

Under Aveen’s captaincy for a third consecutive season, Crossmaglen’s footballers hit the ground running with an impressive 4-19 to 5-9 victory at Granemore which may have established them as early favourites for the Division Two title.

“We were really looking forward to our opening game against Granemore last Saturday.  The weather was perfect and everyone was in good form.  Initially the plan was to meet up in Cross but in the end we just went there and got together in the carpark.

“It was a fast-paced, flowing game and, after so long without a match, we were glad of the new water-break and then half-time.  We got off to a flying start but Granemore have a knack of getting goals so we trailed at the interval in spite of having scored 2-13!

“They have dangerous forwards but also keep a lot behind the ball, so our forwards had no space, but we were patient and players linked up well especially considering it was our first fixture.  We applied pressure and a good few frees came our way.

“It was great to have Lauren McConville back from Australia.  She has been a first choice county forward for a number of years and not having her experience and ability was obviously a big miss for us last season.

“I think the exciting thing, both for her and us, is how the team has kept progressing in her absence.  Peter (Crossmaglen joint manager McMahon) said afterwards it was the most mature game she has played.

“She played with her head up and we produced some efficient, effective football.  Our forwards, on form, are almost unstoppable.  There’s Lauren, two girls who are in the Armagh senior squad, Mairead Watters and Alex Clarke, and Megan O’Callaghan as a core group, plus competition for places.

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“Melissa Hughes came on in Granemore and scored two goals.  It isn’t just up front either because I think that we’ve a really strong panel now with young girls coming through to fight for places such as Caoimhe Dooley and Lucy Duffy, and Eimear McMahon came on in the second half for her first senior game.

“Goalkeeper has been a bit of a problem position for us but Marie Luckie, who did a great job there when we won the Intermediate title in 2017, took the gloves last Saturday and she could get stuck with them for we saw the benefit of her being able to come out and play.

“Against Granemore, we were missing Aislinn McMahon, Faye Fitzpatrick, Riona McConville and Sarah Hanratty who were away in Donegal, so hopefully Peter and Maria (O’Donnell) have a few positive selection headaches when everyone’s available.”

Now into their fourth season at the helm, the impressive pair are arguably the top management team anywhere in Armagh ladies football, bringing great commitment and complete professionalism as well as welcome continuity, as Aveen acknowledges.

“We tell Peter and Maria we’ll never let them leave and definitely feel fortunate to have them.  They’re so meticulous, meeting up before training to plan properly and analysing everything afterwards.

“When they came in there were doubts over whether we would be able to field that season but the numbers have increased and we’d more than 20 players at our first session back,” says Donaldson, whose sister Orla and fellow defender Orlaith Murtagh are still in Sydney.

Their scheduled league game against coronavirus-stricken Killeavy was postponed at the weekend, but Crossmaglen’s footballers should be back in action at home to Mullaghbawn this Saturday before going to Lissummon seven days later for what could be a Division Two decider.

The following weekend they are away to Shane O’Neills, the club who pipped them to the Division Two title last season, in the Buttercrane Senior Championship quarter-finals and Donaldson anticipates an ‘interesting game’.

“I don’t think it’s a bad draw.  We know Shanes are a strong team with standout players in the Mackins, Louise Kenny and Moya Feehan, but it’s time to back ourselves and show what we’re capable of.”

Since coming up to Senior again after a long absence having ruled the Orchard roost in the noughties, Cross beat local rivals Silverbridge in a 2018 quarter-final before losing heavily to Carrickcruppen and then gave Armagh Harps a good battle last season.

Just four days after facing Shanes, many of the same players will be in action for Cross camogs against Middletown in a repeat of last season’s Senior Championship quarter-final and, like the footballers, they too have stable management.

Micheal Murphy, who steered Cross to back to back Junior and Intermediate Championship successes in 2017 and 2018, remains in charge and almost all of last season’s squad are back again albeit recent captain Orla Donaldson and Murtagh are notable absentees.

“Micheal had talked about stepping away but thankfully he has stayed, giving us that continuity as we try to keep building on the progress of recent years.  Especially as we’ve no hurling team in the club, it would have been tough finding a natural replacement.

“The dual players have a heavy workload because, naturally, both managements want their teams to be the best they can be and we’re competitive people ourselves so don’t like just going through the motions even in a supposedly light session.

“We played Kilkeel last Monday night and have a challenge match against Dungannon arranged for this week.  Because camogie in south Armagh isn’t as strong as we would like, our regional group games may not be ideal Championship preparation, except Castleblaney.”

Middletown were in a state of flux last June when they faced newcomers Crossmaglen in the quarter-final and, after a disastrous start, their comeback fell short, but they should be back as a more formidable force this time round with Cork great Jennifer O’Leary available again.

If Crossmaglen, captained by Marie Luckie, can emulate last season’s victory over Middletown in the last eight they will likely play Granemore, who won three county titles in a row from 2016, rather than newly promoted Port Mor in the semis.

The Armagh camogie club championship starts on August 19 with county champions Ballymacnab meeting Madden in a repeat of last season’s showpiece and Tullysaran tackling Keady on that harder side of the draw.

However the club campaigns go, Donaldson and her county colleagues have another All Ireland bid to follow in the autumn, with group games against neighbours Tyrone at Halloween and Mayo two weeks later, the latter a repeat of last season’s quarter-final.

“It isn’t a bad draw and the way the fixtures fall is arguably favourable for us and we’ve a point to prove having lost to both teams the last time we met them.  At a personal level, I’m glad to be building up through club football first following lockdown.

“Running on the roads doesn’t really agree with me, so I took up cycling but nothing beats proper football fitness.  Armagh had a disappointing National League campaign but we can take some confidence from our efforts last summer.

“We’d been narrowly beaten by Cavan just six days before my wedding, when we lost what should have been a winning lead, and then knew we had to beat Cork eight days after it to reach the quarter-finals.

“I actually lost my starting place for the Cork clash but came on in the second half of what was an amazing game.  When the final whistle went, and we realised we were through, there was sheer relief.  Everyone just ran to the nearest person to celebrate.”

An unused sub in the 2012 All Ireland Intermediate final, Donaldson’s only two Armagh starts before last season came in the historic National League victories over Dublin and Cork in 2016 and 2017 respectively.  As someone who didn’t play any championship football for her county until last season, aged 30, Aveen is sporting proof that persistence pays.