August 11th, 2020

The huge gulf of more than 19 years between Niamh Reel and the opposing skipper in her first game as Silverbridge captain two Saturdays ago gives credence to the theory that age really is just a number, even in sport.

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The supremely professional Dervla Mallon remains Grange’s great taliswoman in spite of entering her 40th year during lockdown, while it’s hard to believe that current county forward Reel just left her teens behind in June, for she seems to have been around for ages.

“I suppose this is my seventh season in the Silverbridge senior side so it feels like I’m one of the older ones now, but being given the honour of captaincy last week was a surprise as there are still some much more experienced players.  We’ve a real range of ages in our squad,” explains Reel, who first hit the headlines way back in 2014.

Aged just 14, she top-scored for her team and won Player of the Match in the Athletic Grounds as Silverbridge snatched victory in the Armagh Intermediate decider against Lissummon with a last-gasp goal from Denise Buckley.

“It was my first time playing in the Athletic Grounds but I don’t think I was nervous as such.  I was so young, just loved played and didn’t think too much about who I was marking or anything,” says Reel, reflecting the enviable fearless freedom which comes with youth.

“Thankfully we won in the end, so it was a great day for the club.  I scored a goal at the start but the award was probably because of all the age of me!” insists a multi-talented young woman with an understated manner the modest Mallon would doubtless approve of.

The Queen’s University medical student previously played age group international netball but, unlike another Sacred Heart Newry old girl who went on to become a doctor, Caroline O’Hanlon, has opted to focus fully on gaelic football at adult level.

“Sacred Heart was a renowned netball school and we were generally in the frame for silverware.  We had success at the junior age group level, in intermediate too and then finally did the league and cup double at senior level for the first time in the school’s history.

“When I was in juniors, we went over to Glasgow to watch Sacred Heart past pupil Caroline O’Hanlon competing in the Commonwealth Games and we played a couple of matches against Scottish schools while there.

“Netball brought me many good opportunities, including going away with Northern Ireland age group teams.  I played both (Ulster Schools) football and (NI U17) netball with Maeve Blaney (daughter of Down great Greg) and Antrim’s Michelle Magee.”

Faced with more depth of opposition across nine counties, Sacred Heart couldn’t match their netball success in gaelic football but held their own and Reel won an Ulster Schools All Star alongside Lurgan girls Megan McCann, Meabh McCambridge, Dearbhla Coleman and Cait Towe.

Michelle Magee – “a very good midfielder for Ulster Schools, so big and strong but skilful too” – actually lined out for O’Hanlon’s Northern Ireland’s netballers in the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games before finishing school, while McCambridge and Coleman have worn the green dress at Under 21 level, but Reel bowed out.

“Although I’d played age group international netball, I never joined a club.  Coming up to A-levels, I didn’t want to be over-training and I didn’t drive at first either.  Then when I went to Queen’s, I thought about playing again but the training clashed with football.  Never say never though.”

One of the highlights should have been playing in an U17 European Championships at Antrim Forum, but it rankles with Reel that the young greens arguably underachieved and were whitewashed, with defeats against Scotland and Wales as well as England.

“It was good that our parents could come and watch us play after all the training sessions they’d driven us to, but we didn’t deliver at the tournament.  With a small player pool, Northern Ireland are always up against it, but we didn’t give a good account of ourselves.”

Although she actually won ladies footballer of the year for her club Cullyhanna last season, Reel’s Sacred Heart contemporary Frances Keenan has taken the opposite path in focusing on netball, winning her first senior cap for Northern Ireland last autumn.

Earlier, it had been Reel who was spoken of as the ‘new Caroline O’Hanlon’ by Sacred Heart PE teacher Siobhan McCaffery, given the compelling parallels of gaelic football prowess, playing the same centre position and opting to study Medicine at Queen’s.

Like those being branded the next whoever in sport, that could have been daunting but seems to have had little effect on the unruffled Reel, whose sporting drive comes from within, while she reveals there were also strong influences closer to home.

“Obviously, Caroline is spoken plenty of at Sacred Heart as an exceptional past pupil and is revered for her ability to play both sports at the top level and also be a doctor, but I haven’t really felt any pressure in terms of following in her footsteps, or from others’ expectations.

“Sport has always been a big part of my life from very young, I always had an interest in the sciences at school and I’ve a brother and sister who are doctors so I suppose all that has shaped the paths I’ve taken in life to date.”

The current coronavirus pandemic couldn’t have been envisaged when Reel started studying Medicine just under two years ago and, although watching it all unfold must be fascinating for a future doctor, she isn’t claiming to be any authority yet.

“I’m only two years into my Medicine course, so I’m in no position to be giving out advice or whatever!  At a personal level, I follow the guidelines around social distancing and so forth and try to be a bit sensible about not going out too much unnecessarily.  I stayed at home during lockdown, when exercise helped keep us sane.

“This coming academic year I’ll be starting in the hospital so am a bit apprehensive about that but I’m happy with my career choice at this stage and have been enjoying the course so far.

“I’ve enjoyed the Queen’s football too, the universities stuff is of a good standard with strong teams.  Last year, we got to the O’Connor Cup weekend and it was a good experience to be part of that, but we didn’t show up on the day.

“This time we were maybe a bit complacent in the group stage and didn’t qualify for the finals weekend, though in the end it didn’t take place due to the pandemic.  I think we can compete with the big southern sides in the years ahead.

“It’s been good getting to play with girls from other counties such as Tyrone, Down and Antrim.  Most of the university sides at the elite level are full of county players so it all adds to your range of experience,” says Reel, who impressed in last season’s semi as a fresher.

As well as coming to attention with Silverbridge, Reel did well with Armagh age group sides and shone brightly as the Orchard county captured the first ever Ulster 16 title in their history a few years back.

“Going into the provincial final everyone was sure Cavan would win, they were big favourites, but we didn’t panic and kept chipping away with scores.  We played really well but were then hammered by Dublin in the All Ireland semi,” she recalls.

Fast-tracked into the senior squad, she made her first Armagh appearance the month she turned 17, in the Ulster semi-final defeat to Donegal in Greencastle and had cameo outings in the qualifier victory over Westmeath and All Ireland quarter-final exit at the hands of Kerry.

“I got on for the last five minutes of the Donegal game and a bit of time towards the end of the next two matches which was an exciting experience and big bonus at that age and having just been brought onto the panel.”

She has established herself as a useful figure for Armagh over the couple of seasons since with reasonably regular starts and, with Aimee and Blaithin Mackin unavailable, led the charge well in last season’s NFL Division Two semi-final.

Reel kicked five points from play in the first half of that tie against Kerry in Athy but a good effort from understrength Armagh fell short and, this spring, they were a miserable sixth in the table when the coronavirus shutdown came in mid-March.

There will be no Ulster Championship this season but Armagh will meet Tyrone and Mayo in autumn group games with one place in the All Ireland semi-finals up for grabs and Reel is taking a positive perspective.

“We’re just glad to be playing football first and foremost for there was a time when we thought the rest of the year would be written off.  I think we’ve got a decent draw – we gave Mayo a good run last year and know we can play better than against Tyrone in February.”

With Aimee Mackin expected to be back fit following her cruciate rupture in last July’s shock victory over Cork and Lauren McConville home early from Australia, there is set to be fascinating competition for starting spots in the Orchard forward division.

“It takes a while to find your feet at this level but I’m happy with the game-time I’ve been getting.  You learn a lot from more experienced players.  There’s always good competition for places, which drives you on, makes you work harder and develop more.

“County football is a great learning environment and the experience has helped me at club level in terms of what I can bring back and apply,” says the young Silverbridge star, whose side face a daunting task this Saturday (7pm).

They have drawn the short straw of facing county champions Clann Eireann – including Reel’s former NI netball team-mate Coleman – away from home in the preliminary round of the Buttercrane Senior Championship, with the winners due to travel to Armagh Harps in the quarter-finals.

Outside the camp, nobody believes Silverbridge have a realistic chance of causing what would be a huge upset against the star-studded Lurgan giants, who have dominated Orchard club football for the past decade and a half.

“We know Clann Eireann are big favourites, but championship matches are all on the day.  We’ve everyone back from injury so we’ll look to play our own game.  You just never know,” says Niamh, neither rubbishing her team’s prospects nor making extravagant claims.

Reel spoke about the weekend’s apparent mission impossible in the same measured way she talked about all the success she had as a teenager.  Whatever happens on Saturday, there should be a lot more to come from this seasoned 20-year-old.

A young person who doesn’t appear particularly interested in the shallow limelight, Niamh nevertheless is someone the Silverbridge club and those who helped shape her in Sacred Heart like Mrs McCaffery and Gazette columnist Ciara Hayes rightly hold up proudly.

Like her fellow past pupil O’Hanlon, Reel is now a role model for an even younger generation emerging not only in her alma mater but the club and even a county panel featuring several schoolgirl forwards like she was not too long ago.

Although not the type to push herself forward for the sake of it, Reel is also already undertaking ambassadorial duties for Armagh LGFA, showing up at last autumn’s High G and Tea charity fundraising event and to do presentations at the Junior Awards night.

Clann Eireann go into this Saturday’s Championship opener having virtually regained their league title by virtue of victories at old rivals Carrickcruppen, by 20 points against admittedly understrength outgoing title holders Armagh Harps and more narrowly away to Dromahill at the weekend.

Silverbridge got their Division One league campaign underway with an 8-point defeat at Grange in spite of Reel’s personal haul of 2-7 and they lost by six at home to Shane O’Neills on Saturday so will go to Lurgan still seeking their first win of this shortened season.