One of the great pleasures of following Armagh’s recent resurgence has been watching Catherine Marley blossoming in the orange jersey worn with such distinction by her father Noel and three sisters before her.
Fearlessly physical, increasingly confident and now well established in the side, the powerful wing forward is supplementing her hard work with regular scores and has been a significant factor in a hugely encouraging autumn for the Orchard outfit.
If Armagh match Mayo’s nine All Star nominations from last season, the 24-year-old Craigavon Hospital physiotherapist should be on the shortlist, but nobody knows better than Catherine Marley that recognition can take time to come.
For so long a fringe figure in this set-up, partly due to a series of serious or ill-timed injuries, including a fractured cheekbone, ruptured cruciate and torn hamstring, Catherine’s persistence paid off when she finally made her big breakthrough last summer.
She started a Championship match with her three big sisters for the first time in the famous upset of Cork, kicked two fine points in the All Ireland quarter-final defeat to Mayo two weeks later and hasn’t looked back since.
Having grasped her overdue opportunity and nailed down a starting spot, now it’s all about adding value to the team and the woman they call Kitty has been bringing plenty to the party this autumn.
Being at the heart of the action is better than sitting on the bench and Armagh making the business end of the All Ireland Senior Championship is preferable to watching from afar as other teams battle it out in the big games.
However the more involved you are, the more intense the emotion and, just as the victory over Mayo was a huge high, likewise the Dublin defeat was a real low, with the heroic Orchard display scant consolation in the aftermath.
“I’ve never felt this shattered after a defeat, but then I’ve never played in as big a game, with the stakes so high. I was in the pits on Sunday. I’d watched the match straight away when I came home the night before and again on the Sunday morning,” she reflects.
“We’ve had great support this autumn but for the first few days I found it hard to even appreciate people saying we played so well or that they were proud of us. But I felt better being back at work and then seeing team-mates in Monday night’s recovery session helped.”
With their three All Ireland Championship matches all televised by TG4, two impressive victories followed by that brave battle against Dublin, and more people at home during lockdown, Armagh have been in the spotlight this autumn more than usual.
“That increased interest is welcome but there’s some pressure comes with that. The fact you’re playing Dublin brings its own spotlight, and they’ve had such success in recent years while most of our team hadn’t played in a semi-final. Framed like that, it’s a daunting job.
“Maybe that contributed to us falling quite a bit behind early on but, although people have remarked on our ‘terrible start’, I think that was more based on the scoreboard than the play. We didn’t feel out of our depth at any time.”
Armagh’s elder stateswoman Caroline O’Hanlon and another of the team’s most senior figures Aoife McCoy have remarked in recent interviews on Kitty’s significant contribution this autumn and how they feel she has benefited from starring in Lissummon’s Intermediate title triumph.
“Absolutely. The main thing with me would be my confidence. Things began going well with the club and that carried over into Armagh. I’ve always given my all but being denied football by the initial lockdown has also brought home the importance of enjoying playing.
“My role with Armagh is completely different to Lissummon, it’s primarily based upon hard work and that’s something I know I can deliver as it comes from the heart. I’m not the most skilful player perhaps but I’ll run until I can run no more.
“It was such a struggle getting (Armagh) game-time earlier in my career never mind regular starts and then when you do get a go you’re afraid of messing up and nearly expect to be the first taken off.
“But I’ve become more comfortable since last summer and that helps how you play and vice versa. As a forward, it’s good to get some scores, but also by being an attacking threat I can distract some of the defensive focus away from Aimee (Mackin) or Kelly (Mallon).
“Because of my running role, I haven’t always the legs to shoot, so knowing when to get the ball in to our dangerous inside forwards is important too. The more we play together the more effective that connection.
“I got a goal in the Ulster semi-final and then that one at the end of the Mayo match was satisfying for it not only made the game safe for Armagh but also helped me move on from hitting the keeper at close range with the goal chance against Tyrone two weeks earlier. It was a great ball from Aimee to set me up and putting it away was a nice moment.”
The youngest Marley sibling was put forward for an on-camera interview with the BBC ahead of the semi-final and is increasingly finding her voice within the Orchard camp as part of an emerging generation of officer class starts to put their own stamp on things.
“I’m old school so when I joined the squad initially, I knew my place as a young girl. I felt you had to earn the right to speak up. Now I’m making a contribution on the field, I’ve far more confidence to talk and chip in, and feel like I’m more respected.”
Catherine’s Orchard career has been a slow burn but she has come a long way from the excited teenager who watched with admiration as her elders and betters brought home the bacon by beating a Monaghan team going for five Ulster titles in a row in 2014.
When the orangewomen were last crowned Ulster champions six years ago, Catherine was still a schoolgirl, just glad to be part of Armagh’s matchday panel for that unforgettable final against this weekend’s opponents, at the same venue.
“I played no part on the day, but it was complete elation, the best feeling imaginable. In contrast to my big sister Sarah, who was cruelly robbed by injury, I knew it wasn’t my time to be on. I was so proud of (sisters) Caoimhe and Niamh and pleased for them.”
Caoimhe hung up her inter-county boots back in January and Niamh opted out this autumn due to coronavirus concerns, so this time it will be those two who are cheering on Sarah and Catherine rather than the other way round.
That cheering will have to be done at home however with this final being behind closed doors in contrast to 2014 when the men’s match afterwards meant there were over 20,000 people packing Clones when Armagh did their spine-tingling lap of honour.
“I’d come into the panel the previous winter while still Lower Sixth at school, but that Ulster final was when I realised how I was willing to do whatever it took to get there with Armagh. It has taken six years (to play in an Ulster final), but a win would make that wait worthwhile.
“Once the edge started fading from the Dublin defeat, the nerves have begun kicking in for the Ulster final now we know it has been brought forward. It’s a massive match for us and I know all too well how these opportunities shouldn’t be taken for granted.
“I want to win it for Sarah. She has been so unlucky with Ulster finals, either ending up on the losing side or missing the times Armagh won through injury. Sarah is such an inspiration for me because back in the day she too had to fight hard for an opening.
“With the changed date, the final has come quite quickly after the Dublin defeat but I think that’s good as it is making us move on rather than wallowing in self-pity, picking at the scabs and over-analysing everything about the last match.
“Likewise, we can’t think that, because we did well against a much-fancied Dublin team in the All Ireland semis that we’ve some entitlement to beat Monaghan. We’re under no illusions about the task ahead, will need to prepare well and pull out all the stops.
“The (mid-October) semi-final feels like a long time ago now but that was the match which paved the way for our All Ireland run. We had lost some players and there were doubts but we had a fantastic start against Tyrone, confidence soared and we won well.
“It was strange facing them again 13 days later and, in spite of having won by 13 points in Crossmaglen, we knew we couldn’t go into the rematch complacent. This time Tyrone got ahead early on but we came back and ended up posting 6-16.
“We kept playing good football in the Mayo match too although the opposition was stronger now and, even against Dublin, we tried to take the game to them rather than holding back because of their reputation. Although unfortunately it wasn’t enough for victory, I’d say that approach paid off.
“Even seeing photos from the Dublin match still makes me emotional but there were plenty of positives in defeat and hopefully the confidence from that performance can help us put our best foot forward in this Ulster final. I can’t wait for it now,” Catherine concluded.