ORANGE GLOW LIGHTING UP DARK DAYS
Being branded the poster girl of Armagh’s glorious victory over Mayo amuses the affable Aveen Donaldson Bellew, but she undeniably dominated the photographic coverage of the Orchard celebrations in Parnell Park.
There are always defining images from each great sporting triumph and, two Saturdays ago, it was the Crossmaglen woman after the final whistle, with arms spread wide and her joyous smile lighting up a darkening November afternoon as much as her vivid orange jersey.
The humble Bellew wouldn’t have deliberately run towards the cameras, so there was some element of being in the right place at the right time in her ending up as Sportsfile’s special snap, but her sheer happiness captured perfectly the sense of Orchard delight.
As if one wasn’t enough, Aveen also featured in local photographer Brendan Monaghan’s great shot taken moments later of her and Armagh skipper Kelly Mallon hugging happily, two 31-year-old women radiating delight like excited children at Christmas.
“I actually was saying to the girls that I didn’t know when I’d last been that happy, and I suppose the pictures capture that. It was an amazing moment when Catherine’s Marley’s goal went in to put us five ahead with time almost up.
“I could hardly believe we had done it. It was a great feeling for us to get over the line against a top team, especially after three quarter-final defeats in the past three years. It’s a different level of football and I’m still tired and sore, but buzzing!” she reflected four days later.
“At a time when so much sport and other activity has had to stop due to the coronavirus restrictions, we feel fortunate to be playing elite sport, preparing for an All Ireland semi-final and getting so much support. It’s just great,” says Aveen.
Her husband Dermot Bellew, who had to come on and tend to her in the Mayo match after a blow to the face, is the Armagh team physio while younger sister, Gazette columnist Orla Donaldson has recently returned from living in Australia so she had her to celebrate with at home that night.
In an interview with the Gazette a few months ago, Aveen joked about the fridge having been her best friend in lockdown and, although she subsequently captained Crossmaglen to the Division Two title, nobody was sure inter-county football would even go ahead this autumn.
Bellew was committed to going back to complete an Orchard campaign that had started at the end of January but delivered little during an unfulfilling first phase as advance promotion hopefuls Armagh were left floundering near the bottom of NFL Division Two.
Fast forward to the tail end of the year and Armagh are 60 minutes of football away from gracing Croke Park for the All Ireland final the Sunday before Christmas after two wins against traditional rivals Tyrone and that historic triumph over Mayo.
The fact the Ulster semi-final win over the Red Hands was on her home pitch in Crossmaglen made it all the more special, though local primary school teacher Bellew reveals that the situation had looked less promising for her in advance.
“I wasn’t supposed to be starting that day. We’d played Down in a challenge match the week before and I hadn’t a great game. When the team was named at training on the Thursday, I wasn’t included, which was a blow but not entirely unexpected.
“However, Shauna Grey didn’t train that night due to injury so (manager) Ronan (Murphy) told me that, if she wasn’t fit, I’d be in. He had the two scenarios mapped out. It isn’t ideal to be benefiting from an injury to a team-mate, but when I got the message on Friday night, I was delighted to have my chance.
“We hadn’t played a competitive match since the start of March and the team had changed a fair bit so we hardly knew what to expect of ourselves or what Tyrone would be like after the long break.
“However we got off to a fantastic start, kept Tyrone pinned back and scored 4-11 in the first half to set us up for the win. It was a game of two halves and Tyrone did much better, but thankfully we had so much on the board and (full back) Clodagh (McCambridge) had an outstanding game.
“I’d picked up two ticks, so I told the management at the second half water-break and that’s probably why I was taken off, but it was a great experience playing a big game for Armagh on my home pitch and being part of a winning team.
“Unfortunately family couldn’t come in and all the locals who would otherwise have attended, including children from my class in school, but the match was shown live on Facebook so people could watch and we were happy to be through to the Ulster final.
“It was strange going to play Tyrone again just 13 days later and I was actually more nervous for that one than the first time we played them, or for the Mayo match, partly because of the history and also I felt the scoreline didn’t really reflect the game in Cross.
“I knew the amount (of scoring chances) they missed that day and also our tendency to fall away in matches and not finish strongly, not just this season but even at times over the past few years like a league game against Galway I remember, so there was no complacency.
“Playing late on a Friday night was a whole new experience. I was off that week for school Halloween holidays but Dermot had to take the day off work. I had brunch with the Cross girls in the squad, just chilled and went for coffee.
“We got to Breffni Park early, but couldn’t get in to go to the toilet as you aren’t allowed entry until all 30 players are present, so were just hanging about for a bit. It was different doing our warm-up out in the carpark and then the quick turnaround in the changing rooms.”
Tyrone hit a quickfire 1-4 to lead by five after nine minutes, but five first half goals set the orangewomen on course for a comprehensive 6-16 to 3-13 victory under the Breffni floodlights in a game televised live on TG4 and seen by a large audience.
“I’d see some of the Crossmaglen men’s team in the gym and they said it made a great Friday night, watching it with a few beers. It was an entertaining game and then the Mayo match was a fantastic spectacle and exciting contest, so people will want to watch now.
“Armagh supporters would have been delighted to see us winning after the disappointment of the men’s match just before but, beyond that, the game showed ladies football in a positive light. My daddy said some of Aimee’s (Mackin) points were up there with what the likes of Oisin McConville and (Tyrone’s) Stephen O’Neill could have kicked in their time.”
Circumstances this autumn mean that Bellew has found herself filling the orange No 9 jersey so synonymous with superstar Caroline O’Hanlon, and her role in the team also conjures connections with former Crossmaglen greats Bronagh and Alma O’Donnell.
The twins were, respectively, at centre half back and midfield for Armagh back in the glory years of the mid-noughties and, in the current team, Aveen alternates a bit between the two roles to cover Blaithin Mackin’s brilliant attacks from deep.
“I’ve got jokes about ‘taking Caroline’s jersey’ and I’m conscious she has worn No 9 with great distinction for so many years, but she’s not hung up on it and neither am I. It’s all about the team and it’s great to be part of it.
“Obviously Aimee Mackin made the headlines at the weekend, but it was a great team effort and there’s quality beyond that too, keeping everyone on our toes and pushing us hard. It’s been a fairly settled side lately, but management are always warning not to be complacent.
“Our forwards have been brilliant but my clubmate Alex Clarke and Niamh Reel are right in the mix and I’m up against the likes of Shauna, Megan Sheridan and Colleen McKenna for maybe a couple of places between us further back.
“We’ve seen young Grace Ferguson growing in confidence something serious recently, her engine is ridiculous and she’d a big job marking Grace Kelly, who got an All Star nomination last year and has been away playing in the AFLW.
“Grace was out of breath at one of the breaks, but I assured her she was doing unreal, and her support play was exceptional too. She’s just 19 and there are even younger girls on the bench, but everyone is supportive and we’ve confidence in each other.”
Two thirds of Armagh’s matchday squad of 30 are under 25 years old, while Bellew is one of only four players aged more than 26 along with current captain Mallon, vice-captain Sarah Marley and O’Hanlon, who led Armagh to their last All Ireland semi-final in 2015.
Although she has played less at this level than those other members of the 30s club, Bellew has become a valued voice in a largely young squad and brings general experience to the set-up while not particularly relishing the veteran label.
“Me and Kelly wouldn’t consider ourselves as old but there are only four of us over 30 and then a bit of a gap. Sarah had Ulster Club commitments with Lissummon and Caroline wasn’t around for a few sessions when we came back so I started talking a wee bit more.
“I haven’t thought of myself as a senior player for Armagh because of fighting for my own place but, even if I wasn’t necessarily a starter and wasn’t the fittest, I’m used to captaining at club level and being vocal there.
“I felt the onus was on me to give encouragement, bring some maturity, and maybe it’s also partly the teacher in me. But this autumn was a fresh start for the team and, with a few regulars not returning, others saw opportunities so there was real energy and motivation.”
Three wins from three matches since the resumption means they’re now getting ready for an All Ireland semi-final, only the fourth in Orchard history, against reigning champions Dublin but with less pressure than going into that first Tyrone tie last month.
“Me and Dermot were sitting talking about how Armagh have forced our way into the final four teams from the whole of Ireland. We’re both from big GAA families and even his brother is hooked on our team now since the second Tyrone game, so support is growing.
“We’ve put pride back in the jersey, rectified our terrible National League performances from earlier in the year, have beaten a good team in Mayo so the pressure is off, and now we’re really looking forward to having a crack at Dublin. To be the best you must beat the best.”
Aveen was there in Roscommon’s Hyde Park as a 17-year-old supporter for Armagh’s only All Ireland semi-final victory to date, when a team captained by one of her Crossmaglen clubmates Bronagh O’Donnell beat Galway with a nerveless last-kick free from another, Sharon Duncan.
“Back then I idolised those girls. When I was growing up, the Armagh ladies team had about seven Cross representatives. It was a huge honour playing alongside them for the club as a teenager and I was one of a group of friends following them round with county.
“Our representation is smaller now, but at present we’ve myself, Mairead Watters who scored the fourth goal in the win over Cork last summer and (Jamie Clarke’s sister) Alex, who is a real prospect for the future, while Lauren McConville was a regular for five seasons.
“Compared to those who went before, I wouldn’t consider myself the same calibre but being a role model is important, even to the little girls in St Patrick’s PS where I teach, and I’m proud to fly the flag for Crossmaglen in the current team.”
Bellew being a face of the wonderful win against Mayo was fitting though on several levels, not least the fact she has been in the frame for Armagh’s most famous upsets of recent years in spite of finding herself on the fringes for the early years of her Orchard career.
Having briefly featured in the Orchard camogie panel as a teenager and been around the county football set-up on and off since early last decade, including being an unused sub for the 2012 All Ireland Intermediate title win, Donaldson finally made her Orchard debut in Armagh’s first ever victory over Dublin in a 2016 NFL fixture at the Athletic Grounds.
“It was great getting a start after a long wait, and it was a real baptism of fire, playing midfield in the Athletic Grounds against Dublin in Division One, and it was a double-header with a men’s match so I remember the crowd coming in.
“Niamh Marley scored a goal, I think her first for Armagh, on her 24th birthday and I remember being involved in the lead-up to it. We were well ahead but had to hold on to win by a point and I was over the moon,” recalls Aveen, who however lost her place again next day.
She had to wait 11 months for her second start, which coincided with another famous first for Armagh as they beat ladies gaelic’s most successful county, Cork, but after another break from Orchard duty, Donaldson didn’t establish herself in the team until last spring when she was turning 30.
It turned into an eventful season in which she played the All Ireland group game against Cavan six days before her wedding and a delayed honeymoon meant she was free to face Cork eight days after tying the knot with team physio Dermot.
After Armagh’s dramatic capitulation against Cavan when they were edged out by a winning score in injury-time having held a healthy lead early in the second half, Aveen actually lost her starting spot for the crunch clash with Cork.
However, the new Mrs Bellew was on the field as the Orchard outfit upset the odds by beating Cork in a Championship match for the first time thanks to a second half scoring spree which brought four Armagh goals in a 10-minute purple patch.
Armagh have beaten the Dubs before, and won an All Ireland Senior Championship semi-final in the past, so an Orchard victory on Saturday wouldn’t be historic, strictly speaking, but it would undoubtedly be Bellew’s biggest day yet in sport.