These are exciting times for bubbly Ballyhegan captain Eve Lavery who hopes to have a Buttercrane Intermediate Championship medal by the time she turns 25 next Tuesday.
It is an understatement to say that Sunday will be a big day in the Lavery household, with Eve leading Ballyhegan in their showdown with Lissummon in Keady (1pm) and her brother David, who has battled back from serious injuries, captaining Maghery against Crossmaglen in the men’s county final later on.
Throw in the fact that Armagh forward Eve has just started her first teaching job in St Louis Grammar Ballymena, in the midst of these strange pandemic circumstances, and it all adds up to a busy but stimulating few weeks.
“It’s all go, but all good, I can’t complain! It’s an interesting time to be starting my teaching career, but something I’ve always looked forward to, and everyone at Ballyhegan’s buzzing about us being in the football final,” she says.
“Hopefully we win at lunchtime and have some celebrations before going to the Maghery game (4pm). David is captain this season, (former Armagh regular) James captained the team to their historic county title win a few years ago and my other brother Jack was in that team too.”
Unfortunately there was no ladies football for a young Eve at Maghery so, after playing with the boys for the club’s Under 12s, she switched to Clonmore but when they stopped fielding she had to look elsewhere and Ballyhegan has long since felt like home.
Over recent years, Lavery has often found herself as her adopted club’s sole representative in the county panel, she shone in Ballyhegan’s Junior Championship success in 2017 and now has the honour of being their captain.
“I’ve definitely felt like a fully-fledged Ballyhegan player before, but I was so shocked when the managers said I’d be club captain this year. It’s a real honour and I’m absolutely buzzing about it,” enthuses Eve, who has held several leadership roles previously.
“I was Student Union President at St Mary’s (University College Belfast) last year after doing my teaching degree over the previous four and I also captained their ladies football team. I enjoyed those roles and I suppose there are some similarities.
“As captain it isn’t just about yourself and it would be in my nature to look out for others anyway. I suppose people would be looking to me anyway, as a county player and reasonably experienced now, so it’s important I try to play well and lead by example.
“Although I teach technology, design and ICT, I’ve already been put down to take ladies football in the school so that will be a new experience, but we have so many young players in Ballyhegan and I’m used to trying to encourage and develop them.”
Lavery’s Orchard debut was in memorable circumstances, coming off the bench aged just 18 as Armagh gloriously trounced traditional rivals Tyrone in the 2014 Ulster Senior Championship quarter-final in front of a fantastic crowd in the Athletic Grounds.
“I’ll always remember that day. I’d just been brought into the panel after the National League, but I got on against Tyrone. It was a curtain-raiser to an Armagh men’s match so by that stage the ground was really filling up and we were winning well. It was amazing.”
The Orchard crew went on to an unforgettable Ulster title triumph a few weeks later but, six years on, Lavery has yet to establish herself in the Armagh starting team and has dipped in and out of the panel at times in the intervening period.
She did hit the net in last summer’s Ulster semi-final victory over Monaghan in the Athletic Grounds and also raised a green flag there in early March as Armagh lost to Meath in NFL Division Two in their last outing before the coronavirus shutdown.
“There’s so much competition for places with Armagh, especially in the forwards, but I do feel like I’m improving. I was in and out of the panel a bit before but being there all the time the past couple of years has made me more confident.”
One of Eve’s main rivals for an Armagh starting spot is Lissummon’s main forward Catherine Marley but, in this Sunday’s club final, Lavery is more likely to be up against her captaincy counterpart Niamh Marley in midfield so it won’t be a direct comparison.
“I’ll probably come across each of the (four) Marleys on the field at some stage! They’re obviously big players in the Lissummon side. We’ll be back with Armagh afterwards but for now that’s not at the front of my mind, it’s all about the club
“We’re a good wee close team and, the way this season has been, we have quality time together rather than some of us having to split between Ballyhegan and Armagh. I want to play county football but it’s been enjoyable being with the girls each session.
“Ballyhegan has got a great mix of youth and experience. I still look up to Kate and Brenda McCormack and the younger ones just starting probably look up to me. Everyone works well together and we’ve Moya O’Gorman doing a lot for the team in the background.”
One of the more experienced players, 2017 Junior Championship winning captain Ciara McKeever might be available for Sunday’s decider after having a reasonable excuse for missing the semi-final as Eve explains.
“Ciara played against Sarsfields in the quarter-final and also our crucial league game at Clan na Gael in between, but our semi was in Cullyhanna at 8pm on a Friday and she was getting married the next morning!
“I think she’s having a staycation honeymoon around Ireland, but she could be back for the final. She was brilliant against Clan na Gael, when we got an away win which secured the Division Three title.
“With the leagues getting completed properly in spite of coronavirus, hopefully promotion applies as it would any other year as I’d love us to get into the higher division to help push us forward. I think if we were in Division Two this season, we’d have done well.”
The only league game Ballyhegan lost this summer was away to Cullyhanna, where they went and won that Intermediate Championship semi-final a few weeks later, and Lavery reflects that their sole defeat so far in 2020 had a silver lining.
“We’d won our first couple of league games quite easily and hadn’t enough edge going into the Cullyhanna match. The loss was a wake-up call, let us see what our weaknesses were and we’ve learned from those mistakes.”
The major outbreak of Covid-19 in Lurgan meant their scheduled semi-final having to be moved from its intended neutral venue of Davitt Park to Cullyhanna at short notice, but Ballyhegan took that change on the chin.
“We were pleased that the game was fixed for Lurgan, especially as we’d played and beaten Clan na Gael on the same pitch the week before, and it was obviously a lot closer for us than Cullyhanna.
“Initially a few of the girls were a bit annoyed when it was switched to Cullyhanna, but I just told the players it would still be the same posts and same ball, we’d just have to leave a bit earlier.
“It was probably bigger for Cullyhanna, getting home advantage rather than what would have been a long journey to Lurgan, but we won at their place in last season’s quarter-final when we came back from 10 points down and showed how much fight there is in this group.
“Our quarter-final against Sarsfields was one-sided (3-23 to 0-3) so we were grateful for that close league game at Clan na Gael as preparation for facing Cullyhanna. We’d a point to prove after losing to them a few weeks earlier but we were also able to take confidence from knowing we’d won there in the championship last season.
“We got goals, at good times, which helped us into a healthy lead and that made the evening a bit more comfortable though Cullyhanna kept picking off points and it was a very competitive match,” she says of Ballyhegan’s 5-4 to 2-7 triumph.
“So now we’re into the final and everyone’s already buzzing. Most of the girls have happy memories of our 2017 Junior win so we’re all looking forward to another big day out and the few who were too young then are excited that their chance has come around.
“Thinking back three years on there’s so much that still makes me smile. It was a great group of girls, we put in huge effort and the whole club was behind us. It hadn’t been an easy year as one of the girls (Sarah-Louise Doherty) had a bad car accident, though thankfully she’s back playing now and flying.
“Especially for the non-county girls it was a great experience playing in the Athletic Grounds, and we beat Mullabrack after a hard-fought game. Then we went on a run in the Ulster Junior Championship, which was another great journey for all of us.”
It looks like there will be a ladies provincial club championship this autumn after all, unlike in the men’s game, but to get there Ballyhegan will have to defeat a formidable Lissummon side who won the Intermediate title in 2015 and were regraded down again last winter.
“It’s a while since we’ve played Lissummon. I remember us going for a league game and I was in charge of bringing the jerseys that day, but I forgot them and my dad had to drive over,” she confesses with a self-deprecating giggle.
Lavery has grown into responsibility since and will have a central role on Sunday, not just as captain but Ballyhegan’s star player, and being up against imposing opposition skipper Niamh Marley – who gave a rampant Player of the Match performance when Lissummon won the 2015 final – in midfield.
“Being captain is a nice honour, but one of the most important parts of the job is leading by example and, as one of our county players, making sure I perform myself for the team. I know the girls look to me and that does drive me on.
“If I can play well it will help our chances but I’ve got great faith in the players around me, from the experienced players through to great prospects like Caitlin McCormack who did very well in the semi-final,” says Eve, who is likely to be partnered in midfield by young fellow Armagh panellist Grace Ferguson.
Lissummon, whose hopes of taking the Division Two title effectively ended by a home defeat against Crossmaglen, reached this final by beating Mullaghbawn and Killeavy, who both play at a higher league level than Ballyhegan’s opponents so far.