STUDENT FERGUSON MAKING THE GRADE
Ballyhegan teenager Grace Ferguson was taking examinations at Queen’s University this past week but, you suspect, none more searching than what was experienced in the previous Saturday’s All Ireland semi-final against Dublin.
Fearless Armagh really put it up to the country’s top team, who are going for four All Ireland titles in a row, and in spite of falling just short in the end, received deserved plaudits for their impressive performance full of fine football as well as defiant fight.
The glare of the spotlight has been bright on Armagh this autumn with a succession of big games televised live, but Ferguson has shone rather than being dazzled and the 19-year-old has relished every minute of featuring in the encouraging Orchard resurgence.
The only teenager in Armagh’s starting team, Ferguson has really established herself since getting the nod at left wing back for the Orchard outfit’s first fixture after the coronavirus shutdown, the Ulster semi-final against Tyrone in Crossmaglen in mid-October.
The orangewomen won well that afternoon, thumped Tyrone again 13 days later in their opening All Ireland group game at Breffni Park before an outstanding display brought Armagh a first ever victory over Mayo to qualify for the last four.
Orchard hopes of reaching Croke Park for a first All Ireland final since 2006 were dashed but, for Ferguson, the positives far outweighed the hurt, just like she salvaged value at a personal level from Armagh’s disappointing National League campaign at the start of the year.
A first league loss to Tyrone since last century was followed by a double-digit defeat in their other home match against newly-promoted Meath before the Orchard outfit’s failed promotion bid was put out of its misery by the pandemic stopping sport.
However, the youthful Ferguson was one of few to bank a bit in the spring, not least the impact she made when introduced as an early sub in that Division Two game against Tyrone the first Sunday of February.
“It was an awful game in Silverbridge and we didn’t play well but I was sent on to mark Niamh Hughes and kept her scoreless and that must have stuck in the manager’s mind for Ronan (Murphy) gave me the same job for the Ulster semi many months later.
“It isn’t that young players don’t care but I think the older ones take defeats more to heart, whether that’s frustrating games in which we perform poorly or in a big matches like against Dublin where the stakes are so high and a loss is tough to take however well we played.
“I’m at a stage where I appreciate playing for Armagh and try to learn from each experience. It was such a privilege to get playing against Dublin at this point of my career and, although I was disappointed afterwards, we can take so much from it individually and as a team.”
Ferguson first came into the Armagh senior squad ahead of last season aged just 17, having been born a couple of years after her then county captain Caoimhe Morgan first wore the orange jersey at adult level, but she wasn’t coming from nowhere.
A graduate of Armagh’s age group system, she had come through the ranks from the lowest levels, building a reputation as a fine prospect who would make the grade for the top team earlier rather than later.
“I started with the county development squad under Denise McDonald from Under 13s. I really liked being involved, how we were taught the basics, and being part of that helps prepare you for each step up. The highlight was winning the Ulster Under 16 A title.”
An academic high-flyer, Ferguson followed her mum and aunties to Our Lady’s Grammar in Newry and, although it wasn’t a gaelic football stronghold – “ we won the Ulster D title in my final year” – she came through to claim an Ulster Schools All Star.
The fact she was brought up into her school’s senior squad while only in second year was also reflective of her potential and, being diminutive in stature as well as young, Grace is still used to having to punch upwards, metaphorically speaking, playing for Armagh.
“You kind of have to get on with it, I’ll hardly grow any more now,” laughs Grace, adding: “You can’t be physically afraid or feel like you can’t cope. There was a huge height difference when I was marking (Mayo’s) Grace Kelly for example.”
There are photographs of Ferguson being towered over by big Niamh O’Neill a fortnight earlier against Tyrone but she had a good game that Halloween weekend in Breffni Park and then kept popping up everywhere in the Mayo match.
“Game by game, you get a bit more confident. I’m officially a defender but you want to get on the ball as well. The first 15 minutes against Mayo was a massive shock and I sort of got winded a bit, but I got great encouragement from all the girls which kept me going.”
Neither carried away nor daunted by the external noise flagging her up as one of the county’s top prospects from an early age, she predictably progressed to the Armagh senior panel while still at school.
“Coming from a smaller rural club, it was quite a culture shock initially but I thought it was great, getting the benefits of training alongside so many top players, the focused fitness work and so forth, all of which could only improve me as a player.”
Ferguson featured in Ballyhegan’s Junior Championship success in 2017 and was a leading light in the Davitts side which reached this season’s Intermediate decider and won the Division Three league title.
“We had a bad start in the final against a far more experienced Lissummon side but fought back very well and our aim will be to go one better last year. The fact we’d been playing at a lower league level was a disadvantage too so promotion should be beneficial for us.”
As well as disrupting sport, the pandemic has affected all areas of life, including Ferguson’s studies at Queen’s where she is now in her second year doing Law with French, having all classes online and operating from home rather than being based in Belfast.
“The student experience has definitely changed from my first term. This has been a strange year but I actually found lockdown ok. Armagh had given us a training plan and some of the girls on the squad struggled to stick at that on their own, but I just brought my wee sister (promising footballer) Maeve with me.”
After Ballyhegan’s loss to Lissummon in the Intermediate decider, it was back into Armagh mode for Ferguson, and they hit the ground running in scoring 4-11 in the opening period en route to a 13-point victory over Tyrone in the Ulster semi before facing them again.
“I was really excited for both Tyrone matches. Although Armagh had beaten them first time, we couldn’t take anything for granted and it was a big occasion with a Friday floodlight match on TV played in a top county stadium at Breffni Park.
“We had definitely improved as a team more than Tyrone had since the spring and beating them again proved that the first win wasn’t just a one-off or down to our fast start that day. I really enjoyed it and was glad we could do all the people watching proud.
“The Mayo match was great too and, against Dublin, although the scoreboard was against us in the early stages I don’t think it really reflected how we were playing. You’re disappointed at the end because we came close, but not downhearted.
“In the early part of the year I don’t think anyone would have predicted how well we would do in the end and, as such a young team with 3-4 mature players, we know we can build on this and keep improving so the future is bright.
“It’s exciting to have this Ulster final now, with the chance to win some silverware and I’ve no doubt everyone will be fully up for facing Monaghan in Clones,” says Ferguson, who admits she has no real recollections of Armagh’s great victory in the corresponding game in 2014.
One of her team-mates Caroline O’Hanlon has played in all of Armagh’s six previous Ulster finals, back to when Ferguson had just finished P1 at school, and Grace greatly admires and appreciates the experienced players she has as mentors within the Orchard set-up.
“You love to see those girls at training, they’re so smart on the ball and just class to watch. It’s brilliant to be there with them. Their experience counts for so much in matches too, they’ve been there in these situations before and don’t drop their heads but keep fighting.
“I understand from working with them that county football is a serious commitment. There’s nothing easy, you have to give everything. You must be consistent, show up well at training and maintain high standards, but the effort feels worthwhile when you get the rewards.
“You can’t take anything for granted, just get out what you put in and learn to deal with ups and downs. Sport is a good lesson for life and football has helped develop me as a person so I feel fortunate to have this,” she enthuses.