CLODAGH GROWING INTO LEADER ROLE
When matches are excruciatingly close, small moments matter a lot and every act towards the end of the breathless drama are brought into sharp focus at the time and poured over afterwards with regret or rejoicing.
In the closing stages of Armagh’s first ever victory over Mayo two Saturdays ago, which took the Orchard outfit into the All Ireland semi-finals for just the fourth time, Aoife McCoy made a wonderful run right into the opposition box but in the end shot straight at the goalkeeper.
As Mayo broke away with just two points between the teams, you wondered whether the failure to get any score from that attack could prove very costly and the alarm bells were ringing, but fantastic full back Clodagh McCambridge came to the Orchard’s rescue.
The top-class Clann Eireann defender made a priceless intervention, getting her hand in with perfect timing to deflect the ball way from full forward Rachel Kearns as she bore down upon the Armagh goal and then, crucially, getting to it first to gobble up possession.
McCambridge cleared her lines and, from there, the orangewomen worked their way upfield patiently, keeping possession and running down the clock before Aimee Mackin’s well-weighted ball set up Catherine Marley for the goal which clinched a great win for Armagh.
The four Armagh goals, and Mackin’s wonder point with a brilliant banana kick, skipper Kelly Mallon scoring with her weaker left foot and Anna Carr’s stunning save were all memorable moments but no more so than that well-executed, crucial turnover from McCambridge.
Defenders don’t always get the credit deserved but McCambridge got a highlights package all to herself after Armagh beat Tyrone in the Ulster Senior Championship semi-final last month because her full back predecessor Caoimhe Morgan gave her Player of the Match.
Match co-commentator Morgan may have an understandable soft spot for defenders, but the reel of McCambridge’s best moments in the Crossmaglen match was like a veritable masterclass and showed her award was well deserved.
Even on a night when the Orchard hit 6-16 at the other end, Clodagh’s follow-up performance as Armagh beat Tyrone for the second time in 13 days in their opening All Ireland group game at Breffni Park on Halloween weekend earned special praise from respected pundits.
In the biggest games, you have to fight for inches and cover every blade of grass and the 23-year-old McCambridge came out on top too when it mattered in Parnell Park against Mayo.
The outstanding defender of her generation in the Orchard county, Clodagh’s emergence over the past few years has been very welcome with the established Armagh rearguard growing old together, and she has become a real rock in the team.
Unless she has a stinker in Breffni Park this Saturday it is hard to imagine McCambridge not being worthy of a place on the All Stars shortlist regardless of who wins, and she is the complete package for full back in terms of physical attributes, skills and mentality.
A former Head Girl at Assumption Grammar School in Ballynahinch, you can imagine Clodagh having been a model pupil, for she comes across as a capable and ambitious but modest and dignified young woman, well-mannered and quietly spoken.
Behind that soft smile and impeccable presentation is a determined and highly-competitive person who holds herself to high standards and has the sort of confidence which comes from having done the hard work in advance and left little to chance.
“At that point, I sort of felt that I was going to get any ball that came in towards me. There was a resolve to do whatever it took to get over the line and a real belief we could do it, but naturally there was great relief when Catherine got that goal,” reflects Clodagh.
That inner steel and understated ambition is evident too in how she talks self-critically about Armagh’s failures earlier in the year or an uncharacteristically barren domestic season for Lurgan giants Clann Eireann.
Clodagh is a naturally agreeable girl who was very helpful, pleasant and professional to deal with in arranging and doing this interview, but she has real resilience and drive as evidenced by her constant commute from her Dublin base for Armagh training.
“I’m working down in Dublin but the travelling doesn’t bother me too much. It’s something you just have to do and I wouldn’t think of not playing for Armagh because of it,” says the former age group netball international who has captained NI Premier League club Kingsway.
“At the time I took a step back from representative netball I’d too much on my plate and needed to focus. Occasionally you wonder what might have been when big international tournaments are on but I’m getting great fulfilment from football so there are no real regrets.”
She first featured for Armagh after finishing school in the summer of 2015, having been brought into the squad after the orangewomen won the NFL Division Two title, and was handed a shock start in the All Ireland quarter-final against Donegal.
“I’d come on against Westmeath the match before but, to be honest, I was a bit surprised to get my first start in such a big game. Naturally I wanted to play, but felt nervous and not wanting to do anything stupid.
“I was probably a bit overwhelmed, the game passed me by and I was brought off before half-time but thankfully we won and (manager) James (Daly) assured me those precious chunks of game-time would stand to me, just like would be the case for someone like Tiarna McVeigh now.”
Even though Morgan was a dramatic withdrawal from that 2015 All Ireland semi-final against this weekend’s last four opponents Dublin due to a hitherto undisclosed pregnancy, McCambridge didn’t feature in the Orchard defeat at Parnell Park.
However, with Morgan on maternity leave at the start of the next season, new Queen’s student Clodagh was handed the responsibility of filling the Armagh great’s No 3 jersey by new Orchard boss Ronan Clarke.
“I played full back for Queen’s in a challenge match against Armagh in pre-season and really enjoyed it. Ronan must have thought I did ok for he put me in there at the start of our National League campaign, which started with an away win against Tyrone.
“I learnt a lot that season. Playing challenge games initially, I didn’t realise how much responsibility came with full back. (Experienced clubmate) Sinead McCleary told me I’d need to be talking more, to be the eyes of the team.”
Armagh briefly topped the Division One table courtesy of victories over Tyrone, Kerry and Monaghan and, although losses against Mayo and Galway followed, they then recorded a first ever victory over Dublin in the Athletic Grounds at the start of April!
“I always remember that game, it was a double header with an Armagh men’s match. We were well ahead but there was just a point in at the end. The crowd was growing and you could hear the support. I couldn’t believe we had beaten them.”
Morgan was back by then but Clodagh had a good game too when Armagh got a great away win over the Dubs, now under their current boss Mick Bohan, at Abbotstown the following spring, in the most recent clash between the counties.
“Whenever I was playing alongside some of the older ones, I felt less pressure. They were so experienced and you had them to rely upon. I could just focus on doing my own job and they coached me and gave me direction.”
She had established herself from the start of that 2016 season so this is her fifth year as an Armagh regular, a period in which they have had ups and downs, with some grounds for fresh hope but also a fair bit of frustration and disappointment.
There have been three failed attempts to return to Division One, two Ulster final losses and a hat-trick of All Ireland quarter-final defeats, with Armagh getting through four management teams in five seasons but Clodagh has kept pressing forward with unflinching commitment.
“I try to take every game as it comes and not think too much about some grand plan. When you get to an All Ireland quarter-final or whatever and lose it can be heart-breaking but I’d never not play for Armagh just to avoid the possibility of those setbacks.
“You must keep driving on and knowing why you want to be there. I’ve enjoyed every management team I’ve worked with and played alongside a lot of great girls but my commitment to Armagh doesn’t depend on who happens to be around,” she says, reflecting a mentality like that which has sustained Caroline O’Hanlon for nearly two decades.
“I’ve felt there’s a lot of potential there with Armagh and at the minute we’re playing with more confidence and have some momentum. I really enjoyed the Mayo match, mainly because we won, but it was also a great advert for ladies football.
“Obviously if we’d lost, that wouldn’t have been much consolation, but it’s great for young girls getting to watch that quality of football. Even when I was growing up, I wouldn’t have had been as aware Armagh matches were on. The sport’s profile has really increased.”
Her latest Armagh manager taught Clodagh ICT in her early years at Assumption – “I call him Ronan at training but he’s stored in my phone as Mr Murphy!” – and McCambridge has a couple of clubmates in the team in Tiarna Grimes and Niamh Coleman.
The trio were especially hungry for county football to return after experiencing rare disappointment in club colours during the domestic season when Clann Eireann relinquished their Orchard Championship crown and didn’t win the league title either.
There was also a desire to atone for Armagh’s disappointing performance in the spring when they slipped to two home defeats and never looked like challenging for promotion in an NFL Division Two campaign cut short by the arrival of coronavirus.
“The start of this season seems like a lifetime ago. We had started to train for it this time last year, which is just surreal. For me personally, the break gave me a chance to reflect on my own game and I knew that I could be better.
“I wasn’t getting as many turnovers as I would have liked so that was something I wanted to improve, though obviously it was hard to know what would happen with the season. I knew when the chance came, that I’d appreciate being able to play again.
“Lockdown wasn’t too bad for me initially and there was some novelty in working from home, though I missed the social aspect of the office. When I was training by myself, I’d space to think but it was great when the club started back and likewise with county, everybody was buzzing.
“I was frustrated with the club season, especially being beaten by Harps in the quarter-final. I knew I could have done more and it was a long enough month until county training was permitted to start,” says McCambridge, who has already five Armagh Senior Championship medals to her name!
“Nobody wants to be less successful than before but it was a very competitive club season and Armagh are hopefully benefiting from others having got that taste of winning big games and the confidence which comes with that.”
It was difficult for outsiders to predict how well Armagh might emerge from their seven-month hiatus and McCambridge admits to similar uncertainty within the Orchard camp, but they certainly hit the ground running, notching up 4-11 in the first half of their Ulster Senior Championship semi-final against Tyrone in Crossmaglen.
“A good few of the girls had been saying going into that game that they didn’t know what way things were going to go. Tyrone had beaten us in the league and I think having a point to prove really drove us to do the best we could.
“We won well and I was really proud of everyone. We’ve been known to be slow starters in the past and were coming off such a long lay-off so it was satisfying to come out of the blocks so quickly and really lay the foundations for a vital victory.”
The modest McCambridge needs prompted to talk about her own personal performance but admits that “it’s good to be recognised. The forwards generally get the credit and they do deserve it but it’s nice when it’s a defender for a change.
“That award went to me as an individual and I was pleased with how I played but we think in terms of a defensive unit in which we each have a stake. (Goalkeeper) Anna (Carr) is in behind, telling me where to go and those in front are effective at breaking upfield.
“At the start of the league, I felt the tenacity wasn’t there enough but things have been working well lately, with a focus on good communication and we’ve built trust at the back even though the long break meant it took time to get used to playing together again.
“There was a lot of talk after Tyrone scored 3-13 against us in Breffni Park and some people were worried in the context of how strong Mayo’s forward division was, but we get good tests from marking our own top class attackers in training.
“We talked about winning our individual battles and Tiarna (Grimes) had a great game against Sarah Rowe, who had scored 2-9 against Tyrone the week before but was restricted to two points in our match.”
With some seasoned campaigners moving on and more young guns breaking through, McCambridge is now one of Armagh’s more experienced players and, although naturally less vocal than Morgan, has started to take on more of a leadership role.
“I definitely feel a responsibility now in that regard. Even thinking about the team last year, most of the backline has changed and I’ve come to the realisation that the onus is on me to speak out more and give more direction.
“Obviously (vice-captain) Sarah Marley is a very experienced player and I’ve noticed Anna is also talking more in matches and at training too. Teams evolve and now we’re the ones who have been there longer than others.
“So I suppose I’m taking on more leadership responsibility and am really enjoying that. You become more confident when you’ve gained some experience and one of my strengths would be not dwelling too much on what has gone in a game.
“Part of stepping up personally is wanting every ball that comes into the defence to come my way. I feel that I read the game pretty well and am also fairly fast so will back myself and, at this level, you need to be physically fit to take the hits too.
“I remember being hit hard early on in the first 10 minutes of last year’s All Ireland quarter-final against Mayo and it really taking it out of me,” admits McCambridge, an impressive physical specimen with a good burst of pace.
She feels full back is her preferred position, musing: “Whenever it’s going well, definitely, though if I get six or seven goals past me, maybe not! But I do actually like the pressure, the challenge of facing forwards, those one-on-one contests and working with team-mates.
“Dublin have very good forwards but we’re really relishing this semi-final for big games like this don’t come around too often – it’s feels like I’ve been around Armagh for long enough now but our last semi was just after I came in.
“A few have played before but we’ve a completely different team to then and everyone’s very excited to have this opportunity. It will undoubtedly be another step-up but our focus will be on what we can do, not Dublin’s big reputation,” concludes a woman who has been on the winning team both times she has played them!