ORCHARD ACE EYES CROKER RETURN
Semple Stadium in Thurles was scheduled to be the latest stop in an incredible career which has earned Caroline O’Hanlon inclusion in a newly-published book celebrating Northern Ireland’s greatest sportspeople of the past century.
The 36-year-old Bessbrook woman is the sole female gaelic footballer and single netballer to make the cut for featuring in ‘100 Ulster Sporting Legends’ by Steven Beacom. She’s also the only member of the current Armagh team to have played in an All Ireland final.
A veteran of the 2006 Croke Park showpiece, when newly promoted Armagh only lost by an agonising single point to reigning champions Cork, O’Hanlon’s hoping that a new Orchard crop will book their tickets this weekend to the sport’s biggest game.
There was relief when Saturday’s All Ireland semi-final against Dublin was switched to the much closer Breffni Park in Cavan, but even Tipperary was relatively local for O’Hanlon, whose sporting journey has taken her to Australia, America and the Far East.
She’s used to commuting to England on a regular basis to train with her British SuperLeague netball team Manchester Thunder and has often found herself playing either side of the channel in two sports on the same weekend.
Now in her 19th consecutive season in Armagh gaelic’s orange jersey, she’s had 11 All Star nominations and three awards, the most recent being in 2014 when O’Hanlon also won All Ireland Player of the Year.
In the middle of last decade, O’Hanlon captained Armagh to back-to-back promotions in the National League, their most recent Ulster Senior Championship success and consecutive All Ireland semi-final appearances.
Armagh’s most recent All Ireland semi five years ago, against this weekend’s opponents Dublin, was O’Hanlon’s last game as official captain, though tournament broadcasters TG4 don’t appear to have realised yet that the Orchard taliswoman is no longer skipper.
Evocative images from that September afternoon in 2015 include O’Hanlon hunkered down in tears after the final whistle, then sitting sadly on the grass in the middle of Parnell Park long after others had cleared away.
Manager James Daly stood down after a successful four-season spell at the helm and some may have wondered whether the then 31-year-old O’Hanlon might be contemplating calling time on her Orchard career.
Armagh are on their fourth management team in five seasons since then, and their third captain, but O’Hanlon remains and, by neat coincidence, Parnell Park was the backdrop two weekends ago for the landmark win which has put the Orchard county centre stage again.
When Armagh last won a quarter-final, against Donegal in 2015, O’Hanlon had to watch helplessly for the final few minutes of a thrilling game after being sinbinned but she was there in the thick of things at the end this month.
In between Clodagh McCambridge’s brilliant turnover at the back and Catherine Marley’s clinching goal, the most experienced player on the field typically took control as Armagh sought to keep possession and run down the clock.
After the hooter there was an embrace between the evergreen veteran and Ballyhegan teenager Grace Ferguson, who was still too young to walk or talk when O’Hanlon first featured for the team but has stepped up so well this autumn.
There’s a photo of O’Hanlon hugging Niamh Coleman, the latest of a long line of Clann Eireann club rivals she has operated around the middle of the field for Armagh with which includes Sinead McCleary, Niamh Henderson, Maebh Moriarty and Tiarna Grimes.
O’Hanlon has probably been part of more midfield duos for Armagh than former England cricket captain Alistair Cook famously had opening partners in his Test career, virtually ever-present in the No 9 jersey through many years and several eras.
Things have been a little different this autumn, however, with O’Hanlon wearing the unfamiliar No 13 in the two All Ireland group games after not being officially listed to start in last month’s Ulster semi-final against Tyrone.
She was considered extremely doubtful for that game with the hamstring problem clearly in evidence during the Camlough derby back in September, but this famously fast healer was on the field from the start in Crossmaglen.
Her absolutely sublime ball to Aimee Mackin in the first few minutes gave her fellow All Star an early goal on her return from a cruciate rupture and Armagh haven’t looked back since in running up three impressive victories in three matches.
“I was injured coming into the championship and feel like I’m just getting back to fitness. I’ve been playing in a slightly different position, but it’s about trying to get the balance right for the team and that’s fine by me – it’s not about any number,” she explains.
“To be honest, we didn’t know what way things were going to go this autumn and perhaps have surprised ourselves as much as anyone else, but players came back in good condition and new combinations have worked well and everyone’s enjoying being involved.”
New-look Armagh have made the breakthrough to the All Ireland last four after three consecutive quarter-final defeats and have also another Ulster Senior Championship showpiece to look forward after being beaten in the last two provincial deciders.
“Naturally there has been a significant turnover in the squad in the past five years and some of the players who have come in since 2015 or were young girls who hadn’t established themselves back then are really maturing now.
“Blaithin Mackin wasn’t there then but she’s now a force to be reckoned with and has achieved a new level of maturity. She’s one of the best players in the country at this stage, has plenty of experience and is still young.
“She is a player who has caught the eye but I’d also highlight the work-rate off the ball of (midfield pair) Aveen Donaldson and Niamh Coleman, which isn’t recognised as much, and (wing forwards) Eve Lavery and Kitty (Catherine Marley).
“Kitty is weighing in with scores regularly too and showing her quality. Those are four players who are probably underestimated but they’re doing a lot of the work and we certainly know their value.
“Tiarna Grimes marked Sarah Rowe very effectively last Saturday, when she just scored two points having hit 2-9 against Tyrone. The game before, Tiarna was pushing up, contributing to the attack and scoring a point. People are doing whatever the team needs from them.
“I thought our defence were excellent in Parnell Park. There have been brilliant individual performances from defenders in the past few weeks, but they’re also working well as a unit, really trusting each other and giving confidence to the team.
“All are willing to work hard, do what the team needs and put their bodies on the line. I’ve never doubted the quality that’s there and they showed it against a potent Mayo team. My (Carrickcruppen) clubmate Anna Carr’s kickouts give us an important platform too.”
The Orchard outfit’s fortunes this autumn have contrasted sharply with a disappointing first phase of the year when they were left languishing in sixth place in NFL Division Two when the coronavirus shutdown came in early March.
There was a first league loss to Tyrone this century at the start of February and Armagh’s last outing ahead of the unscheduled break resulted in a double-digit home humbling by newly-promoted Meath at the Athletic Grounds.
External expectations were quite low, given the disappointing spring and news of setbacks such as some experienced people leaving the panel, key players like the Mackin sisters self-isolating and doubts over star turn O’Hanlon’s fitness.
“We didn’t have a good league campaign and would openly acknowledge that. It was then difficult coming off a long lay-off and not having had much contact as a group, though I think the clubs can take great credit.
“Players returned to Armagh in good shape and I think players like Catherine and Eve have come back with real confidence from having got consistent time with their clubs and being such central players in those environments.”
In the past, Armagh have arguably been over-reliant on O’Hanlon’s absolute brilliance and she scored an incredible 15-43 from midfield in 2014, the season she captained the Orchard county to that unforgettable Ulster title triumph and won All Ireland Player of the Year.
Easily Armagh’s greatest ever female footballer, O’Hanlon is more than happy to relinquish the spotlight to Aimee Mackin now, while filling a new role further forward and not even wearing her trademark No 9 jersey.
Although she made no scoreboard contribution in the Mayo match after weighing in both times against Tyrone, O’Hanlon remains a highly influential figure for Armagh who is still bringing an awful lot to the table.
She downplayed her personal contribution in a television interview after Armagh beat Mayo, self-deprecatingly depicting herself as a mere distraction for the opposition while others do damage, but Caroline’s experience certainly counted in the closing stages at Parnell Park.
“If teams are too reliant on one or two players, that won’t be enough against the best sides. Aimee dominated the scoring in the Mayo match and was brilliant, but all six forwards scored against Tyrone in the first group game and having that threat makes us harder to stop.
“Obviously Aimee is deadly if we can get her the ball in space. For whatever reason, Mayo didn’t seem to play a sweeper and, if she has opportunities to go one-to-one, she’s so hard to contain and will get scores.”
O’Hanlon has achieved so much in an inter-county career stretching right back to 2002 but the fire still burns brightly for fresh success, so her commitment to the Orchard cause continues in spite of an incredibly busy schedule.
When we did this interview last Wednesday morning, she was in the airport heading off to train with netball’s British SuperLeague champions Manchester Thunder for whom the Northern Ireland captain, a real fan favourite, has signed for a fourth season.
The national team are trying to get going again, with most squad sessions set to take place across the water too as Aussie head coach Dan Ryan and an increasing number of our top players are based in England.
Her professional life as a doctor is demanding enough but especially challenging during the coronavirus pandemic, with O’Hanlon working three days a week as a GP in Newry and helping provide cover for a community Covid centre.
“As you’d imagine, work is very, very busy between our daily practice in Newry where we’re doing a lot of telephone triage as well as some appointments and covering the Covid centre in Banbridge but, unlike in the spring, it’s great to have the outlet of sport.
“Like with the Armagh gaelic, training with Thunder netball again feels like my normality. We won the title last year and were going well early on in our defence of it back in the spring when the curtain came down. Everyone’s looking forward to the new SuperLeague season now.”
O’Hanlon has spoken about being grateful for the exemptions which have applied to elite sportspeople this autumn in interviews with Lurgan journalist Eugene Creaney ahead of the Mayo match and on TG4 straight after the game.
“As a sportsperson, I feel fortunate that we can continue, but as a doctor I understand the need for restrictions and the importance of keeping people safe. I do get asked about the mitigation measures from a professional perspective and it’s clear that health is the priority for sporting organisations like the LGFA. There are rigid protocols in place, strictly applied.”
From Manchester commutes to working in Newry and Banbridge, Armagh training at locations from their new base at Killean on Sunday to Silverbridge and Derrymacash on the shores of Lough Neagh, O’Hanlon is still covering a lot of ground just like she does on the field.
Juggling is nothing new for O’Hanlon, for whom handling a busy schedule is second nature and she has always kept going with Armagh gaelic and Northern Ireland netball over the past 18 years through the highs and lows, ups and downs, driven by a compelling mix of hope, pride, belief and desire.
Sources say O’Hanlon has been exceptionally engaged in the Armagh set-up this autumn, effectively forming part of an overall management group comprising Ronan Murphy, Tommy Stevenson, Shane Bannon, skipper Kelly Mallon, vice-captain Sarah Marley and herself.
The only player in the present panel to have been on the winning side in an All Ireland semi-final, way back in 2006, she captained the Orchard outfit in the other two and is now the oldest member of a largely young squad.
Two thirds of the 30 are aged under 25 with only four more than 27 but the 36-year-old O’Hanlon is enjoying the fresh energy in the Orchard camp and excited about being back at the business end of the All Ireland Senior Championship.
Armagh haven’t won silverware or reached the All Ireland semis since 2015 but, in spite of falling at the quarter-final hurdle in each of the past three years and losing those last two Ulster finals, O’Hanlon has never lost hope that success could come again.
“Playing for your county is a source of pride and down through the years I’ve always wanted to wear the orange jersey at every opportunity, but what has also motivated me has been the feeling that there is enough quality in Armagh for us to be successful.
“Whenever I’ve played elsewhere, with Ulster or on All Stars tours, I’ve realised the talent in Armagh is comparable. People further afield don’t know about it maybe because there’s too much focus on one or two players.
“We’ve got great quality throughout the team and, even beyond that, the likes of (reserve forwards) Niamh Reel, Alex Clarke and Dearbhla Coleman and others are ready if called upon.”
From those despondent scenes at Parnell Park after the 2015 semi to being back there beating Mayo more than five years later to set up another crack at reaching the final, O’Hanlon has stayed the course and kept the faith.
Armagh’s first ever victory over Mayo two weekends ago generated a lot of feel-good factor both within the Orchard camp and among the many people watching as it was a great game of football and a superb performance from the women in orange.
“We haven’t played Mayo very much in competitive matches but that was our first ever victory over them and, more importantly, puts us into the All Ireland semi-finals for the first time in a while, which is something we target every year.
“With the two clubs in Camlough, we’ve always had a good tradition where I come from of a strong interest in gaelic football, but with lockdown that has been broadened. The Mayo match showcased the quality of our sport, though we aren’t out to put on an exhibition.
“We’re getting great support through social media messages and, although it’s unfortunate fans can’t come, it’s great that games are being broadcast and I find that I’m spending most of my own weekends watching gaelic and other sports at present.”
Dublin are going for a fourth All Ireland title, but were pushed hard by Donegal and Waterford in their group games and have been beaten twice by Armagh in NFL fixtures in recent years.
“All through the years, we’ve had a confidence can beat any team on our day. In the past year or so we’ve scored four goals in each of the victories over Cork and Mayo. We’ve beaten Dublin before and have no fear of them.
“We won’t be focusing too much on the opposition. It’s about us backing up a good performance against Mayo because at times we have lacked consistency. We still have plenty to work on and think we can play better again in terms of strategy and execution.
“Beating Galway in 2006 was unforgettable, but I’m the only player left from that team and a lot of this squad don’t even remember Armagh winning an All Ireland semi-final never mind being involved so there’s a real hunger for fresh success,” she says.
Caroline’s involvement in All Ireland finals days the past six years has been as an RTE radio pundit, match co-commentator and even Sunday Game studio guest, but one of the sport’s all-time greats would love to grace Croke Park again as a player.
Saturday’s semi may have been switched to Cavan from Thurles but victory this weekend and the next stop on O’Hanlon’s sporting journey will be that great gaelic games citadel in north Dublin the Sunday before Christmas.