REAL McCOY DAZZLES UNDER THE LIGHTS
When Armagh hammered Tyrone in last month’s Ulster Senior Championship semi-final, rattling up 4-11 in a prolific first half, one notable name missing from the scoresheet was that of Aoife McCoy.
With the neighbours due to clash again in an All Ireland group game 13 days later, there was talk of Tyrone having more scoring capacity to call upon given that they hit the woodwork several times in Crossmaglen and were regularly thwarted by brilliant Orchard defending.
However, anyone who watches Armagh regularly knew the same applied to them and diminutive Dromintee dynamo McCoy came to the party in stunning style with a brilliant hat-trick of goals on a floodlit Friday night at Breffni Park as the orangewomen won 6-16 to 3-13.
With the match televised live and the armchair audience swelled by the coronavirus restrictions currently keeping people at home more than in normal times, the 26-year-old’s timing couldn’t have been better.
All ladies gaelic eyes nationwide were on Breffni, for this was the opening game of the 2020 TG4 Championships, while the entertainment served up and Armagh’s impressive performance should encourage casual watchers from the Orchard county to tune in again.
The irony is that ultimate team woman McCoy isn’t normally a show-stealer even though she has been a first choice forward for Armagh throughout the past seven seasons and county Player of the Year in both 2015 and 2017.
She’s a fantastic carrier with a great eye for goal, but the hard-working McCoy is also something of an unsung hero who toils tirelessly for the Orchard cause and can easily be overlooked when the Orchard outfit’s fire-power is being discussed.
Sure enough, fit-again dual All Star Aimee Mackin was given the Player of the Match award ahead of McCoy, a rather cliched choice which raised some eyebrows, and she dominated media discussions before and after the game along with the great Caroline O’Hanlon.
The external tendency to focus on Armagh’s marquee names is nothing new, but there was novelty value for McCoy in hearing her name mentioned on the sports bulletin on RTE 2FM at 10pm, while this writer was able to relay the fact she had featured likewise on Newstalk.
Her hat-trick also made headlines elsewhere, like leading Irish sports website The 42, accompanied by photos capturing one or more of her goals. Even for the modest McCoy, it was nice icing on the cake from a special if somewhat surreal evening.
Playing a Championship match under floodlights on a Friday night at the end of October behind closed doors was an entirely new experience for McCoy and her colleagues, but all went well as Armagh got Halloween weekend underway with a bang.
“It was very strange alright, including not travelling to and from an Armagh match on a team bus. Initially when I heard it was going to be on a Friday night, I had reservations, but I booked the day off work, made sure I ate at the appropriate times and so forth,” she explains.
“Obviously I appreciate the logistics could be more difficult for others depending on their job but, thankfully, from my perspective all went well and then come Saturday morning I’d still the whole weekend free to relax, watch some of the other games or do my own thing.
“The other nice thing was the amount of feedback from people who were watching. I’d so many messages, maybe because of the hat-trick to some extent, but I think we were all aware of the increased interest compared to most matches.”
McCoy’s goals to points ratio over the course of her Orchard career is more equal than most players and she has netted three times for Armagh in an least one National League game before, but her first hat-trick in a Championship match was something to savour.
“It’s a team sport so the win was what mattered most. I’m normally more involved in assists for others but getting some scores is part of my job as a forward and naturally I was absolutely delighted to hit a hat-trick in what was a big game for us.
“When we played Tyrone in Crossmaglen, Caroline and Aimee were the focal point. Caroline got a lot of room which she exploited very effectively and Aimee hit a fair few scores in her first Armagh match back after long-term injury.
“(Manager) Ronan (Murphy) made the point that the focus would inevitably be on them so there was a need and opportunity for the rest of us to step up and I think that’s what happened in Breffni Park.
“Travelling to the match, my sister Sinead (the team liaison officer) said to me ‘just go for it tonight’ and, playing in the middle at centre half forward, the space seemed to open up for me a bit. The chances came and I took them, like I think most forwards would,” insists the self-effacing Aoife.
Along with playing down the quality of her own goals, McCoy is quick to deflect credit to those around her and highlights the contribution of two forwards who have established themselves more recently in the team, Catherine Marley and Eve Lavery.
“I have to say that those two girls have come on brilliantly. They’d always have been in the mix as obvious subs to bring on but breaking into the starting team proved difficult, for we’ve a lot of forwards fighting for spots.
“However, Catherine has really taken her chance since last summer and Eve has now got a run of starts too. They play the wing forward roles really well, combining attacking threat with working off the ball.
“At times people praise me for doing a lot of work but Catherine is one of the hardest working players you’ll come across. She has really come into her own and her physicality is part of that.
“There are similarities with her sisters in that regard and she’s brave enough to put her head where others wouldn’t put their boot. I said to her after our last Tyrone match that she must be in bits after the effort she put in and the hits she took.
“Catherine is also scoring consistently for Armagh and I definitely think there’s a confidence factor in that, both from becoming a regular in the team, and also the fact she’s such a prominent player for her club Lissummon who shone in their Intermediate title win.”
Hearing McCoy speak approvingly of fellow players progressing is a reminder that she herself has graduated into a senior figure in this evolving Armagh set-up, not only a top performer of proven pedigree but a valuable leader with a lot of experience under her belt.
She’s now the fifth oldest player in the team and has played the fourth most Armagh matches of anyone in the present panel with only the iconic O’Hanlon, current skipper Kelly Mallon and deputy Sarah Marley ahead of her on that list.
“I obviously do feel like a senior player at this stage with informal leadership responsibilities in the context of a young squad, though I don’t think that age comes into it as such – I’m still not really that old!” she insists.
“I’d a conversation with (then Armagh player) Maebh Moriarty the time of my birthday in April last year. She wrongly guessed I must be turning 30 and was mortified to hear it was just 25 but explained it was because it felt like I’ve been around ladies football for so long.”
McCoy came straight into the starting team after joining the county panel ahead of the 2014 season, shining in that year’s Ulster title triumph and a team which under her Dromintee clubmate James Daly secured back-to-back NFL promotions and reached consecutive All Ireland semi-finals.
She couldn’t start the 2015 All Ireland semi against Dublin due to a knee injury, so would like to get a crack at them in the corresponding game this time, and spent the following summer in America but has never once been dropped from the Armagh starting team.
That means McCoy has been first choice under five different managements in her seven seasons, with accolades including Ulster selection, inclusion in the NFL Team of the League, a Gaelic Life Ulster Club All Star and those two Armagh Player of the Year awards.
“It’s rare that a player will make the starting team straight away so myself and Lauren McConville were lucky coming in new when we did and being part of such success in our first couple of seasons with Armagh,” muses McCoy.
There have been ups and downs for Armagh in more recent years, with the lows including this season’s truncated National League campaign before the coronavirus shutdown, which came after a 10-point humbling by Meath for the Orchard crew, who had already lost at home to Tyrone.
“You never want to finish a season on a low note, and having no matches for seven months meant the Meath match felt like that, though who knows how we’d have done had our last two league games against Cavan and Monaghan gone ahead at the time.
“We were diabolical against Tyrone all across the field, and the same against Meath. We put the Tyrone defeat down to an off-day but the Meath match was a real kick up the backside.
“Maybe we underestimated teams, or read too much into easy wins against the two weakest sides but we definitely did ourselves no favours and had to accept criticism. Everyone took a good look at themselves and we were determined to make amends when we got the chance.
“That was a long time coming due to the pandemic and then the club season. Lockdown was tough enough for I live up in Lisburn, not round the corner from mum and dad, and for a good while didn’t see my family.
“I did quite well in maintaining my physical fitness, but missed football for my mental health. It was unknown what would happen, in terms of when sport might be back, so I always kept ticking over. I took up road-running and did home workouts, but it’s very different to training as part of a team.”
A domestic season like no other didn’t commence until mid-July and, along with all the coronavirus-related adjustments, there was another big difference for McCoy as her club Dromintee and neighbouring Forkhill came together to field an amalgamated team at adult level.
The two clubs had fought out a thrilling Intermediate final in 2018 which Dromintee edged by a point after extra-time but both have found themselves struggling for numbers so extended the collaboration between the clubs which previous existed at underage level.
People predicted big things for Dromahill after winning their opening game in Division One but they took a terrible tanking in the Senior Championship quarter-final from Carrickcruppen, for whom O’Hanlon netted six times including a devastating quickfire hat-trick early on.
“Disappointing as our results turned out, I really enjoyed being able to dedicate myself 100 percent to club football for the season which can’t normally happen due to county commitments. You do your best when you’re there but this time it felt like I was giving everything,” reflects Aoife.
“We were joined with a great bunch of girls, some of whom I already knew from county. We got good numbers at training, morale was high and people were motivated though obviously when you put what were two teams together, the new team takes time to gel football-wise.
“We actually got a good win against Grange in our opening game but had a disastrous start against Cruppen in the Championship. Heads did go down a bit, but I don’t think the one-sided scoreline (10-10 to 1-5) reflected any lack of pride due to it being an amalgamated team.
“I don’t know what way things will be next year but unless either club has unearthed extra players, we’ll be back together and I’ll look forward to that. I think we can make our mark on what is now an excitingly competitive club scene in Armagh.”
You imagine McCoy along with the Clann Eireann contingent and any others not involved at the business end of the club championships must have been chomping at the bit to get back with Armagh and maybe brought the greatest energy to the environment when county training resumed.
“I suppose some of us were looking on enviously as such while other clubs fought for the championship and league trophies so the hunger was there for players such as me but, to be fair, someone like Kelly was always as invested in Armagh as she was with Harps.
“Until they had finished their provincial club campaign, she had to limit her participation in training but was very much around. The Harps success was a fresh story in Armagh, likewise with Shanes winning the league and Lissummon got the Intermediate title.
“The players involved in those successes came back in with a spring in their step and the rest of us had that hunger from missing out but we all came to Armagh knowing we had work to do and a point to prove after those poor performances and results earlier in the year.
“We knew we were going to be playing Tyrone twice in quick succession and were well up for facing them after the earlier loss in Silverbridge. We respected Tyrone as an up and coming team who had been making significant progress but knew we could beat them.
“Coming out of the Ulster semi with a good win boosted our confidence but we were ready for another tough battle in Breffni, not least because the overall stats for the Crossmaglen game weren’t as one-sided as the scoreline and we knew they would be smarting.”
McCoy could have had a goal in the first Tyrone tie but Aimee Mackin picked out her sibling Blathin instead with the scoring pass as both women were running off her shoulder, though software engineer Aoife’s Crossmaglen famine soon became Breffni feast.
“The space opened up a bit in front for my first goal, the second came from a free won by Catherine and quick thinking by Kelly to play it to me, and then for the third one Kelly looped up the overhead pass. I don’t how she saw me, maybe she just heard me roaring for the ball!
“Although I’d scored the two goals in the first half, I wasn’t thinking beyond that and the notion of getting a hat-trick wasn’t in my head. But when the ball came to me from Kelly, the space opened up and I made the chance count.
“I think Caroline realised about the hat-trick before I did! When you’re in the game and the adrenalin is going you’re just focused on the next task. But of course it was nice for me, especially when we won.
“My sister was there afterwards with me, she was chuffed to bits and my team-mates were happy for me too but to be honest I think the goals were mainly a matter of being in the right place at the right time,” insists McCoy with an admirable modesty which hardly does her majors justice.
McCoy’s parents are faithful followers of Aoife and Armagh, being among the small band of Orchard supporters present for last July’s famous scalping of Cork in Tullamore, but like everyone else they weren’t able to be in Breffni for her hat-trick.
“Obviously ladies football doesn’t draw big crowds like men’s matches most of the time but it has been a bit different recently not even having family members in attendance. I like knowing Mum and Dad are there and it’s nice to have them after the game.
“Unfortunately, due to Covid-19 that’s isn’t possible at present but it was great they could watch it live at home and naturally they were delighted from me. My boyfriend’s family are from Lisburn and haven’t much interest in the gaelic but they were able to watch too.
“We’re lucky that both our group games are being televised live on TG4 but it’s great that every match in this year’s All Ireland Championships at all levels are being shown somewhere, which wouldn’t have happened in normal circumstances.”
“Actually, once the ball is thrown in I wouldn’t normally even notice anything beyond the pitch. I remember that 2014 Ulster final we won in Clones when there was a huge crowd coming in ahead of the men’s match afterwards but I didn’t realise the extent of it until the final whistle.”
Their respective victories over Tyrone means that, like last year, Armagh will now meet Mayo in a straight shootout for a place in the All Ireland semis, this time in a Group Four decider rather than a quarter-final, but it amounts to the same thing.
When the draw was made, all three teams probably regarded it as a favourable group given that both Armagh and Tyrone had got within three points of Mayo last season while the western women were probably glad to avoid the likes of Donegal or Kerry.
“We don’t have anything to fear against Mayo. Unlike Cork and Dublin, they’re a team we haven’t beaten during my career, but I don’t think that’s because we’re inferior as such,” insists McCoy.
“In the 2017 Division One game at Clonmore, we lost by five having kicked something like nine more wides than them and in last year’s quarter-final we made unforced errors. We’ve shown we can compete with top teams and anyone will under-estimate us at their peril.
“I never thought about the possibility of Tyrone supposedly doing us a favour by beating Mayo, meaning a narrow loss this coming weekend might still have been enough to take us through to the semis. That would have been no basis for facing Dublin anyway.
“It’s do or die against Mayo, we have to beat them. We’ve had a great start to the autumn with two wins against Tyrone but this will be up another level because they’re a top four team. That’s a challenge we’ll relish and which should hopefully bring the best out of us.
“Mayo’s margin on Saturday shows why we weren’t getting carried away with our own convincing victories over Tyrone but I absolutely believe we can raise our game and think we have a brilliant chance of reaching what would be a first semi-final for many of this squad.
“We’ve an Ulster final to come at some stage too though that isn’t our focus for now. It’s very different to any other year in terms of the calendar, weather and so forth. Tuesday night was the first time it was properly freezing at training but everyone’s excited to be there.
“It’s exactly a year since we started pre-season training. So much has changed since then in ways we couldn’t have imagined but it’s great to be back playing football after the long gap and so much uncertainty.
“The wins against Tyrone helped put the poor first phase of the season to bed and now we’ve the opportunity to go on and show we can win big games and achieve something special for Armagh,” enthuses McCoy.