TEACHER COLEMAN ALSO STILL LEARNING
When Armagh LGFA decided to follow their February Fitness Challenge with a few fun activities the next month to keep the base engaged during the enforced footballing famine, Niamh Coleman was the obvious candidate to front the TikTok segment.
“(County Chairperson) Sinead Reel has great ideas and she came up with the ‘March Madness’ challenges to generate a bit of entertainment during lockdown, with Armagh players roped in to help out,” explains the midfielder from Clann Eireann.
“I’m probably not the youngest on the team now, but we’re all into TikTok. (Armagh manager) Ronan Murphy calls me ‘the dancer’ and I work in the local youth club, so I suppose it was natural to get me involved with that one!”.
Coleman embraced her role well, posting enthusiastic responses to each entry uploaded to Armagh’s social media platforms and even going the extra mile to delight a young fan based the other side of the Atlantic.
“I commented back to everyone who put entries in, including this girl from New York, Brinan O’Sullivan. Her mum then got in contact with me and explained Brinan would like one of the black Armagh jerseys, but they couldn’t get one delivered to America.
“So I got the jersey ordered to my house and posted it over. They put up photos of Brinan wearing it and she looked so happy and proud. It’s good to see Armagh represented elsewhere in the world,” says Niamh, who wrote a nice card to go with the package.
She’s happily down with the kids, an expression which itself has probably become dated, and still just 22 but, as an Ulster Senior Championship-winning midfielder for Armagh and now working as a schoolteacher, Coleman’s life has kept progressing during the pandemic.
Her involvement with the TikTok challenge and the thoughtful gesture sending the jersey brought home how our county stars can be heroes in the eyes of young girls, but Niamh insists she doesn’t think of herself as a role model as such at this stage.
“I honestly would say no, maybe because I feel like I’m still looking up to team-mates who are role models for me, the likes of Caroline O’Hanlon, Aimee Mackin and our captain Kelly Mallon,” reflects a young woman with a light-hearted youthfulness about her.
Being junior hasn’t stopped Coleman making a significant contribution to the Orchard cause, especially that exciting campaign last autumn which saw Armagh reach the All Ireland semi-finals and only lose narrowly to holders Dublin before being crowned Ulster champions.
The fantastic spirit in the Orchard camp appeared a significant factor in Armagh’s great run and, like others, Coleman credits inspirational skipper Mallon’s leadership and pastoral support for that productive environment.
“Kelly is amazing. She just has a way with anybody, in terms of being able to talk to players, and actively includes everybody. Kelly’s a real leader and yet so approachable as well. She’s so lovely and fully deserves the status she has as captain.”
The societal shutdown since Christmas means Armagh have just returned to collective training these past few weeks in preparation for the delayed start to what is a condensed National League later this month, and they’re enjoying being back together.
“Yeah, it’s great. It’s been a while since December but the good vibe is definitely still there. Last season made us realise we really are up there able to compete with the top teams and we must use that belief to push on.”
By contrast, when Armagh assembled last September, they had a lot to prove after a disappointing National League campaign mercifully cut short by the first coronavirus shutdown six months earlier.
Coleman hadn’t been part of the spring panel as she was in Liverpool doing her teacher training at that stage and then she had to sit out Clann Eireann’s club campaign with an injured shoulder, so was coming into the autumn hungry for football.
There was uncertainty about how Armagh would do after the long lay-off given previous poor form and disrupted preparations, but they hit the ground running in their Ulster semi against Tyrone, rattling up 4-11 in the opening period in Crossmaglen, and never looked back.
“It was exciting but nerve-wracking too. I knew things hadn’t gone well for Armagh in the National League and, although there wasn’t a negative vibe, everyone was a wee bit unsure of where we were at.
“But the players knew we were capable of better, we were well up for it and that was evident in that first half against Tyrone. The strong start obviously boosted our confidence. It turned out to be a brilliant afternoon for us and I really enjoyed it.”
They met Tyrone again 13 days later on a floodlit Friday night in Breffni Park live on TG4, netting five first half goals en route to a 12-point victory this time, and followed up with a first ever victory over Mayo in their second All Ireland group game to qualify for the semis.
“I think things just kind of clicked for us. A lot of the team are quite young, players who have come up through the age groups together who are finding our feet now at senior level, mixed with more experienced girls.
“It was a big bonus all our matches being televised too. I know Covid is awful but that (consequence) was great for Armagh, and ladies football in general. I do shifts in the wee local shop and there were people of all ages saying ‘good luck’ or ‘well played’.
“The downside was playing behind closed doors but the positive was that we’ve gained supporters who hadn’t seen us play before. Thankfully the way we were able to play, and the other teams too, showed ladies football in its best light.
“By the end, I like to think people weren’t watching just because they’d nowhere to go due to the coronavirus restrictions. Hopefully we can keep playing well, getting good results and adding to the interest that has built up.”
Ladies football put its best foot forward for a previously unsuspecting public and the bar is being raised all the time, not least in the physical stakes like the men’s game, though Coleman admits she hasn’t her captain and fellow blonde Mallon’s love of pumping iron!
“It’s a different type of football to what it was. We have a good strength and conditioning coach in Tiarna Grimes’ brother Ruairi, though I’m not a big gym-goer myself. I really wish I loved the gym like Tiarna and Clodagh (McCambridge) but I’m not really a big fan.”
Whatever about that slightly sheepish confession, the athletic Coleman managed to cope physically as Armagh went toe to toe with the top teams last autumn, including Dublin in that pulsating semi-final when they threatened to topple the then three-in-a-row champions.
“Obviously Dublin have been top dogs for years now so we can take encouragement from running them close. However, we certainly can’t take for granted that it will be the same this year. We must work hard to emulate last season before thinking about going further.”
Those are encouragingly wise words from a relatively young player possibly seen as slightly flaky earlier in her career and reflects how winning that Ulster title has simply whetted Armagh’s appetite rather than satisfying their hunger.
“Winning the Ulster final in Clones is definitely, definitely up there with my sporting highlights so far. The weather was lovely, you wouldn’t have known it was December, and Monaghan gave us a really tough game, so it was satisfying getting over the line.
“Everyone worked so hard right to the end and showed we have that bit of fight in us. Getting some silverware was a big boost because we’d worked hard all autumn and done well so it would have been a pity to have nothing to show for that.”
Along with Colleen McKenna, Niamh had jointly captained Armagh Minors to their historic Ulster Championship success back in 2016 under the management of her dad Tommy Coleman, the young Orchard crew claiming the top prize after picking up two B titles.
“The details are a bit blurred because it feels that long ago but I really enjoyed my underage football with Armagh, that group growing up together. We really knew each other and how we played, and we got on so well.
“It was great to end our time (as Minors) on a real high after so much hard work. Winning the Ulster title proved that Armagh have upcoming talent and obviously some of those girls are in the senior squad now, with Blaithin (Mackin) already winning an All Star.”
Niamh’s younger sister, Dearbhla, who joined her in the senior squad last autumn though has yet to take the field for Armagh, also featured in that Minor success so, with their dad there too, it was a real family affair for these sporty Colemans.
“Dad played football for Armagh and my mum (Avoureen) played camogie for Armagh so we were always around sport and I’ve played as long as I can remember. I dabbled in everything in school before focusing on football once I got to uni.”
An outstanding gaelic footballer in her teens, Niamh won three Ulster Schools All Stars, represented Armagh age group teams and enjoyed great success with her local club Clann Eireann, including being part of Under 16, Minor and Senior county title wins in 2014!
However, she really excelled in handball too, winning multiple Ulster and All Ireland titles in singles and doubles, a fab four gold medals for Team Ireland in her age group at the 2012 World Championships in Dublin plus two more in Canada in 2015!
“We have a handball alley up beside the social club,” says Coleman, explaining how Lurgan is such a hotbed for a sport that her clubmate Megan McCann still shines in and which her younger sister Dearbha and another useful footballer Meabh McCambridge both played too.
“We were going up to football when I was in P7. The handball had a stall, I was asked to register and the rest is history. Unfortunately, I don’t play any now but whenever I drive past the alley on a good day, I do hanker for it a bit!”
Sibling Dearbhla, who turned 20 in January, is currently in the Northern Ireland netball training squad and the towering goal shooter will hope to make the cut if the girls in green qualify for next year’s Commonwealth Games and the 2023 World Cup.
“I played netball in St Mary’s (Junior High School) but Clann Eireann didn’t have a junior club then and there was no netball when I moved on to St Michael’s. Dearbhla, however, went to (Lisburn club) Kingsway where the McCambridges were playing and she has stuck at it.
“I actually registered with the Clann Eireann netball team this past season, but it was wiped out. I’ll probably do so again for next season. It’s mainly during the winter when football is quieter, and the skills are very transferable.
“Dearbhla has played international level for the various age groups, including the Youth World Cup in Botswana. Like myself, she’s not really a gym-goer but the incentive is there to work hard and hopefully feature in the next World Cup in South Africa.
“Caroline O’Hanlon is the Northern Ireland captain and Dearbhla gets on well with her around the Armagh football too. It’s nice for me having my sister on the panel, especially as our parents couldn’t come to the Ulster final. We had to phone them on the way home.
“It’s lovely they’re both so supportive of our sport. Dad lives and breathes (gaelic) football every day. He’s never off the phone to people. It’s a great bond we have with him. He knows how much he enjoyed it and the friends he made through it so encourages us.”
Coleman studied Health, Physical Activity and Sport at Stranmillis College, which made her eligible to play gaelic football for Queen’s University, with whom she won the O’Connor Shield in 2019, before finishing her teacher training over in Liverpool.
“I graduated in July past and started subbing but I’ve been lucky getting into St Francis PS here in Lurgan and I’ll be there until June. I’m definitely enjoying it and there’s a great buzz,” says Niamh, who says she always wanted to teach.
“My mum works in a local primary school and my dad is the caretaker in St Francis. I’ve helped out in Clann Eireann Youth Club over the years and my mum has been working there all along too, so it was probably inevitable I’d end up teaching.
“The school has been so supportive when I’ve been playing for Armagh too. A lot of our girls would be attached to another local club, Clan na Gael, but they love watching Miss Coleman playing on television!” she chuckles.
Niamh herself had hero-worshipped ladies footballers as a young girl and had plenty of aspirational figures on her doorstep for Clann Eireann have dominated the Orchard domestic scene since the mid-noughties and had a significant contingent on the county team.
“When I was asked in school ‘who inspires you?’, it was our club’s big names. My go-to was Mags (McAlinden). We went on busses to support them in big Armagh games. Most of those girls are still around the club and are great to go to for advice even now.”
Coleman has four Senior Championship medals to her name already with the club but had to watch helplessly last summer as Clann Eireann were dethroned by Armagh Harps, who won the quarter-final at Abbey Park and went on to claim their first county title this century.
“I’d torn ligaments in my shoulder in a friendly last July just before the competitive club season started. I was in a sling for eight weeks. No injury is nice, but it was a nightmare watching while we were knocked out.”
Former Armagh manager James Daly is back at the helm with Clann Eireann, who won every domestic match they played under him in his previous two-season spell which produced championship and league doubles both in 2016 and 2017.
“It’s great to have James back in, I really like him as a manager. Everyone was hurt last year and now we want to make amends. We were missing a good few starters, but fair play to Harps who were the better team that night and fully deserved to win.
“Everyone’s glad to be back at the club, not just for football but because it’s a case of friends getting together again. However, we’ll work hard too because club football in Armagh has become much more competitive and we’ll need to be at our best as a team.
“I welcome that though because for a few years there we were winning games easily too often. Beating teams by a lot isn’t beneficial for anybody so it’s great to see others stepping up and challenging. That can only be good for Armagh football.”
There’ll be fierce competition too for places in the Armagh team in the coming weeks with the likes of Fionnuala McKenna and Leah McGoldrick coming into the mix in the middle of the field along with incumbents Coleman and Aveen Donaldson Bellew.
“I was lucky to have Dearbhla to train with during lockdown but it’s easier with all the girls around you. We’ve trained hard on our own and now as a group. Match fitness is another things, but our in-house games have really been beneficial.
“These past few weeks have flown in, there’s a positive vibe and we want to get going,” enthuses Niamh, who was first brought into the Armagh panel by Sean O’Kane in 2017 and will have a rival in the on-field fashion stakes this season with Lauren McConville back.
“I’d always a problem with hair in my face. My mum told me to clip it back but then we found that a headband did the job. Lauren generally goes for a bandana and I always wear a headband so you can’t directly compare,” she laughs.