O’HARE MOVING FORWARD WITH ARMAGH
Caroline O’Hare is as excited ahead of starting a new chapter in her Armagh gaelic career this evening (Tue) at 30 years old as she was when getting her first county call-up literally half a lifetime ago aged just 15.
The Mullaghbawn woman will be there when Armagh get back together at Killean for their first team training session since being crowned Ulster champions last December, a triumph which O’Hare watched from afar.
She had stepped away at the end of the previous season, bringing the curtain down on the Armagh goalkeeping phase of a long career in which O’Hare has mainly made her name as a prolific forward at club level.
Although willing to pull on the gloves in an emergency if first choice keeper Anna Carr gets injured, O’Hare has returned to fight for game-time up front for Armagh in spite of the embarrassment of forward riches in Ronan Murphy’s squad.
Considering the fierce competition there will be among the plethora of notable Orchard attackers, it is testament to O’Hare’s hunger, self-belief, ambition and determination that she is throwing herself into the Armagh mix at this stage.
Caroline O’Hanlon, Eve Lavery, Aoife McCoy, Catherine Marley, Aimee Mackin and skipper Kelly Mallon proved formidable first choice forwards for all the big games last autumn as Armagh reached the All Ireland semis before claiming the provincial crown.
That left the unlucky Niamh Reel as a sub while there was an exciting cameo in the Ulster final from teenager Alex Clarke and O’Hanlon often namechecks towering newcomer Dearbhla Coleman as a forward with a lot of potential.
Mairead Watters, who scored what proved the winning Armagh goal in the famous upset of Cork in the summer of 2019, was also there in the matchday squads along with promising schoolgirls Corinna Doyle from Granemore and Grange’s Hannah Duffy.
Now we can add Crossmaglen’s Lauren McConville and Armagh Harps skipper Fionnuala McKenna, two established stars who are returning to Orchard duty, hot prospect Casey Mullan and O’Hare herself into a mouth-watering mix.
“Every one of those girls is there for a reason. We’re probably all prolific scorers for our clubs but each have something different to offer. I feel that I can be up there and that’s why I’m willing to give it a go,” she insists.
As a competitive person she’ll want to play obviously, but just fighting for a forward place will make O’Hare happy initially and serve a therapeutic purpose given that the previous phase of her Orchard career at the other end of the pitch had an unhappy ending.
Initially a reluctant netminder, O’Hare took to the goalkeeping job brilliantly as an effective first choice between the Armagh posts for the best part of three seasons until the axe fell in a devastating way when she wasn’t expecting it.
Armagh had relinquished a double-digit lead in their opening All Ireland group game away to Cavan in July 2019 and being beaten in injury-time meant they needed to scalp Cork in a championship match for the first time ever two weeks later to remain in the competition.
Joint managers Lorraine McCaffrey and Fionnuala McAtamney made some changes to their starting team, the most stark of which saw O’Hare replaced in the No 1 jersey by Carrickcruppen’s Carr, who played an important part in the orangewomen’s wonderful win.
Changing goalkeeper in a range of sports tends to be a bigger deal than tweaking outfield formations so, although Carr was a worthy rival for the starting spot, O’Hare was the established incumbent and didn’t see the change coming. Or get a heads-up.
“When I was dropped for that game against Cork, it came out of the blue. The team was read out at training on the Thursday evening and I wasn’t in it. I hadn’t been spoken to beforehand and we were straight off the field afterwards.
“I got messages that night from Anna and our captain Caoimhe Morgan which were appreciated. When I was getting on the bus for the match on the Saturday, management said they hadn’t had time to call me aside, but I think that was a weak excuse.
“That said, I was buzzing for Anna and did what I could to help prepare her to face Cork and for the All Ireland quarter-final against Mayo which followed. We’d always worked well together, pushed each other hard and she was unlucky to be benching before.
“I largely ended up in nets because Anna was away at university in England and not always available. There wasn’t much between us and we wondered who would get the nod at times, but just at that stage I was the player in possession so it came as a shock.”
After that Orchard campaign, it was straight into the club championships and Mullaghbawn made the Intermediate decider but took a bad beating by Granemore in the Athletic Grounds, an experience which helped convince Caroline to change course.
“I’d done three years as Armagh goalkeeper, primarily because the team needed me to do it, and there were good days but also lows like the two Ulster finals against Donegal when they scored so many goals,” she reflects.
“Obviously being dropped for the Cork clash and the way it was handled was demoralising but there were other factors too, not least the fact it had got to the stage where being Armagh goalkeeper was making me a less effective footballer at club level.”
Mullaghbawn have been heavily reliant on their marquee forward and long-time taliswoman to produce top performances on a regular basis, but delivering those isn’t straightforward when your focus has been on a very different role elsewhere.
“The pressure is always on me to perform for Mullaghbawn, but county had first call and being a goalkeeper with Armagh meant I couldn’t train much with the club, my fitness (for outfield) wasn’t what it needed to be and my shooting wasn’t up to standard,” she says.
So stepping away was right for O’Hare herself but she was able to do so on a guilt-free basis knowing that the future of Armagh goalkeeping was, literally, in good hands with the excellent Carr, who she still supports as a well-informed friend.
“Losing my place was a big blow but there was absolutely no bitterness towards Anna. She’s a phenomenal keeper and is still young so should have 10 years left in nets for Armagh. I’ll continue to help her in any way I can but definitely don’t want the gloves!”
Luckily Carr avoided injury last autumn as otherwise captain Mallon, the team’s influential full forward, would have had to go in nets, just like she ended up doing in different circumstances in O’Hare’s first season as Armagh’s regular goalkeeper.
With O’Hare and Carr both sidelined by injury, Mullaghbawn goalkeeper Ellen McVerry made her first Armagh appearance against Westmeath in the 2017 All Ireland qualifier in Dunleer but got sinbinned towards the end.
That was the season Mallon wasn’t able to play outfield for Sean O’Kane’s side due to niggling injury issues, though Kelly came on in nets that day and was selected as Armagh goalkeeper for the All Ireland quarter-final against Kerry which followed!
Although she doesn’t want to waste time, energy or focus on goalkeeping preparations as she fights for a forward place, O’Hare reveals that she has “said to Shane (McCormack) that I’d be back-up if they were stuck.”
Former Kildare keeper McCormack is the new assistant manager to Murphy, replacing Tommy Stevenson, while former Armagh No 1 Denise Hagan has been added to the backroom team, but actual current options to cover Carr may be thinner on the ground.
The Orchard captain or new recruit from rugby, Leah McGoldrick, could do a job in nets if need be but it would make more sense for O’Hare to put her hand up in a crisis and her willingness to do will no doubt be welcome relief for Mallon.
Mallon’s leadership was a significant factor in the transformation of the Orchard outfit’s fortunes from last spring’s poor National League campaign to their heroics in the autumn and O’Hare holds her skipper in high regard.
“Kelly is a brilliant captain. She is so fair for every single player in the squad, she’ll talk to everyone and boost them. She’s actually quite reserved as a person but really cares about her players, know what makes each of them tick and can relate well to all.
“As an experienced player and very professional in her approach, she has earned authority and has the full respect of the playing group. I think the value of a strong, proactive captain can be underestimated,” reflects Caroline, which bring us back to her early Armagh days.
O’Hare’s first Orchard call-up came in an era when the age threshold for involvement in senior county panels was lower than now and the invitation came from none other than Armagh’s iconic captain of the time, Crossmaglen legend Bronagh O’Donnell!
“Armagh had just finished their National League campaign and I was playing for Mullaghbawn against Crossmaglen in Silverbridge. My team-mate Mairead Tennyson, herself a county player, said the O’Donnell twins wanted to speak to me after the game.
“They asked if I would join the county panel and come to training on the Tuesday night! I wasn’t due to turn 16 until that November so something like that couldn’t happen now but back then it was allowed so I went along.
“It was a great learning experience and I loved every minute. Bronagh and Alma were supreme players for Armagh ladies and among the best in Ireland, but you were also looking round the team bus at the likes of Patricia McAvoy, Aileen Matthews and Caoimhe Marley.”
The orangewomen were crowned Ulster champions for the first time ever that summer and went on to reach the All Ireland final in what was their first senior season, agonisingly losing out by a single point to champions Cork in the Croke Park showpiece.
“Those were crazy times and it was amazing for a young girl just to be part of. I remember the police escort to Croke Park and the homecomings. I was a child coming into a squad full of grown-ups but it matured me and helped prepare me for adult life.”
Understandably, she didn’t get on the field for Armagh that season and had to bide her time for a taste of the action subsequently but, at that stage, just being around her heroes and soaking up plenty was sufficient for this promising player.
Unfortunately, of course, curves aren’t always continuously upwards and, six years later, Armagh were back in Croke Park playing in the Intermediate decider rather than the main match and, rather then being established by this stage, O’Hare just got a cameo as sub.
She hit six points in an NFL Division Three game against Wexford in Culloville the following February, when Mallon top-scored with 1-4, but couldn’t nail down a regular starting spot and actually left the panel later that year.
So, she missed the productive campaigns of 2014 and 2015 when Armagh secured back-to-back NFL promotions, won their first Ulster title in seven seasons, and reached consecutive All Ireland semi-finals under James Daly and then didn’t return under Ronan Clarke either.
History repeated itself last season when Armagh again tasted success the year after O’Hare stepped back but, rather than considering herself a scud or being bitter, she salutes last autumn’s achievements and is excited to be returning to a set-up with a positive vibe.
“I wasn’t especially surprised as I knew the quality was there, but it was good to see them coming so far, girls I knew well and had trained with. Though it was hard too, the feeling that I could have been there, whether as a keeper or a forward,” is her honest response.
“I’d been asked (back) a couple of times during the year but didn’t take up the invitation. So, with matches being behind closed doors due to the pandemic, I just spent the Dublin game (All Ireland semi-final) at home roaring and shouting at the TV!
“Kelly had been in the shop around Christmas and I told her I was thinking about it (going back to county). A few weeks later, she messaged me saying that (manager) Ronan (Murphy) was waiting to hear from me, so I contacted him.
“The girls had already been given their (fitness) programmes so I caught up with that. We all had a remote meeting too with Shane McCormack, who had come in since last season, but I’m definitely looking forward to getting together on Tuesday evening at Killean.
“This will be my first time meeting Ronan and Shane face to face. They’ve probably never seen me play and Ronan didn’t even know I was a forward. When I got in touch, he assumed I was wanting to come back as a goalkeeper.
“The prospect of three Ulster derbies in the National League will rekindle rivalries so that will excite everyone and it’s good that now we have firm fixtures to work towards with Armagh whereas we’re not just sure what’s happening at club level yet.
“However, it was great to be back with Mullaghbawn last week. Being able to train as a group again, even keeping our distance, was refreshing for we hadn’t been together for so many months.”
They are in a better place coming into this season, whenever it gets underway, than last July when Mullaghbawn suffered a home hammering in their opening league game against Lissummon, who ran up an astonishing 10-17 on the evening.
“We had no manager at that stage but there was a guy there watching, Sean McEvoy from Mayobridge. He came in and took us, really tightened things up and we were very competitive against Lissummon in the Intermediate Championship four weeks later.
“Sean is with us again this season and isn’t taking Mayobridge Under 16 girls too this time so we will have his full football focus. He’s good and works on the right things. Winning the Intermediate Championship is our aim and Division Two should be good preparation.”
As well as getting back to training with her gaelic club and now county team, Newry sports store manager O’Hare is looking forward to opening up to the public again next Friday for the first time since Christmas.
“It feels like we’re getting back to some normality now. We closed the doors on Christmas Eve. I’ve been working away, including going in mornings four days a week to do stuff for online orders, but it’s strange not dealing with customers face-to-face.
“I’m expecting it will be busy because there are already players on asking about gloves, mouthguards and football boots with the new season starting,” says O’Hare, who believes the current rising tide for female sport will help float all boats.
Just like Armagh’s heroics last autumn and Aimee Mackin’s award wins will inspire young gaels locally, the Northern Ireland women’s soccer side’s success this month is sure to inspire more girls to take up that form of football.
An accomplished soccer player herself who has faced the likes of current Northern Ireland captain Marissa Callaghan in the past, O’Hare didn’t turn out for Armagh City last season and is set to give gaelic football and that Orchard comeback her full focus in 2021.