June 14th, 2021


Richard Bullick

Turning 18 is regarded as a landmark moment in anyone’s young life but very few will have the opportunity to celebrate becoming an adult in quite the way multi-talented teenager Emily Druse did last weekend.

You can’t imagine many have doubled up as the official anthem singer before the game on their first matchday as a county footballer, but Druse did just that in the Athletic Grounds last Sunday when Armagh met Monaghan.

These highlights coming just two days after her big birthday made it a wonderful weekend Emily will never forget, though impressive personal achievements and performing for audiences are nothing new to this irrepressible, precocious young woman.

Not only is the outgoing St Catherine’s College Head Girl a very promising sportswoman with a lovely voice, but also an accomplished pianist who has got her Grade 8, a budding actress and academically gifted enough to have her sights set on becoming a doctor.

Among many achievements, she even nailed second place in Northern Ireland in GCSE Journalism so there’s some unease she might be marking my homework too, backed by those impeccable credentials!

Inasmuch as children’s comics still exist, you could easily conjure a character called The Druse, with a regular ‘The amazing adventures of Emily’ slot depicting her doing all those things she excels in.

You wouldn’t even need to employ much poetic license to make the character captivating and Druse’s sparkling personality, sense of fun and that scampish, playful face full of mischief would all feed into the literary creation.

She has an impressive manner to go with her range of talents and possesses plenty of well-placed confidence, but this evidently very intelligent individual doesn’t lack self-awareness either and has a reflective way with her rather than being boastful.

Druse has represented her school with honour and distinction in so many ways through the years, yet she leaves St Catherine’s proclaiming great gratitude for the opportunities presented to her and the support she received as a pupil.

Likewise, Emily expresses deep appreciation to her clubmate and county skipper Kelly Mallon for making what happened last Sunday possible instead of just taking it for granted because she knows she’s good enough to be on the big stage as a footballer and a singer.

When the county came knocking earlier in the year, young Druse declined the invitation to join the panel, just like she had done last autumn, in this case because she wanted to focus on her studies in what were fraught, uncertain times due to the pandemic.

That was understandable, with outstanding grades being needed to confirm her ticket to study Medicine at Queen’s from this September, but Mallon lingered in the background, ready to dangle the bait again when the time was right.  This time, Druse bit!

“Armagh had been mentioned to me last autumn and again at the start of the year but, even from talking to past pupils I knew what an important period it was academically, compounded by there being so much uncertainty this year with the pandemic disruption,” explains Emily.

“I felt that I needed to have my personal priorities straight during the spring period, so I thanked Armagh for the opportunity but said no.  It’s an honour to be asked and you don’t turn county down lightly but thankfully Kelly raised it again as soon as my exams were over.

“It’s a big commitment, every Tuesday and Thursday evening and obviously Sundays, but I’m fairly free now except for a part-time job and wanted to give it a shot.  School is finished now, with exams all wrapped up three weeks ago, so it’s work and football all the way now!”

The Ulster Gazette last spoke to Emily a few weeks into her final year at St Catherine’s, not long after she had been appointed Head Girl, at a time when school had resumed after many months of absence but with infection numbers rising ominously again.

“My last school year was very broken up.  It was hard coming in after the long lockdown since Christmas, and being faced right away with exams and assessment in class, effectively replacing our cancelled formal A-level exams.

“We were thrust straight into that, expected to perform to our highest standard, so it was stressful and there’s a huge relief that it’s over.  There was a lot already set in stone (towards predicting grades) but it was still definitely all to play for.

“The school did it very well, giving pupils every opportunity to show what they could do and achieve their best possible outcome.  So, it was an intense period, but I’d definitely choose the hard work over the ball being out of my court in terms of influencing grades.”

Apart from the academic disruption and implications for future career path, the coronavirus restrictions severely curtailed the school-leaving experience for pupils last year and that rite of passage is still constrained somewhat this summer.

“We had a lovely Leavers’ Mass in the cathedral with music and readings.  There were no parents present but it was so good all the same,” enthuses Emily, who naturally played a prominent part in proceedings.

Although currently on maternity leave, PE teacher Ciara Marley, Emily’s coach when the St Catherine’s U16s footballers became the first female team from any Orchard county school to be crowned All Ireland champions for any age group back in April 2019, attended.

“Mrs Marley was at the Mass and it was great to see her.  She’s been like a second mummy to me and we’ll always share amazing memories from football,” says Druse, and the admiration is mutual, with coach Ciara a self-confessed fan of this model pupil.

“I’d go back to St Catherine’s in the morning if I could.  I always loved school and my years there have given me so much, but you don’t really realise when you’re young that it’s the best time of your life.

“Our formal is booked for late June, though that’s still probably provisional at this stage.  It’s hard to believe school is finished for me after a strange final 15 months and now we’re waiting anxiously for A-level results day on August 10.”

Having done all she could to ensure that news will be good, Druse’s focus has switched to gaelic football and the exciting new challenge of rubbing shoulders with the county’s top players at training two evenings a week.

Two of the Orchard’s present panel, former captains Caroline O’Hanlon and Mairead Tennyson, are more than twice Druse’s age and first featured for Armagh before Emily was even born but she has settled in well, with the presence of a few familiar faces helping.

Not only is Druse’s clubmate Mallon the county captain, her Harps skipper Fionnuala McKenna is back in the Orchard ranks this season too and the panel includes two other teenage Abbey Park prospects in Tiarna McVeigh and Megan McShane.

“Everyone was so welcoming and it’s so good having the four other Harps girls there because it’s scary going up into that environment.  At your club you feel established but now you’re in a big sea and can feel lost at the start.

“It’s great to be there though and I can already tell that it is improving my skill, fitness and confidence, which will be beneficial for club football and also Armagh Minors.  I’m involved with that team too and the managers will liaise about the practicalities.

“In terms of the senior set-up, I’m pushing more now at training than initially.  It’s important to remember you’ve been brought in for a reason, because someone believes you have the potential to play county football.

“So I’m there to learn and progressively prove myself and try to get a position in the next few years.  It will take patience, commitment and hard work but I’m a competitive person and ultimately you want to develop, improve, progress and make an impact.”

Druse captained Armagh Under 14s to an Ulster B title in 2017, the season she also made her Harps senior debut and, as well as winning that All Ireland title with St Catherine’s two years later, she went on to claim an Ulster Schools All Star award.

Player of the Match in the final when Harps won their first ever Armagh Minor Championship in October 2019, Druse then scored a hat-trick in the Ulster quarter-final and she made her mark last season as the club claimed their first senior county title this century.

The youngest player in the Harps side, like she was in Sunday’s Armagh squad at Breffni Park, the diminutive Druse is an absolute bundle of energy on the field and a very adaptable player who punches way above her weight.

In the nicest possible way, she’s like a hungry little dog, always snapping at the heels of opponents, pouncing on scraps, fetching and carrying, and she loves streaming forward with pace and purpose from corner back or wing back.

By nice coincidence, the first time that Druse’s name appeared in a matchday squad was on her birthday as the LGFA publishes full lists on their website on Friday lunchtimes.  She was handed the No 28 jersey for the Sunday showdown with Monaghan in the Athletic Grounds.

“It definitely was very surreal.  Putting on the jersey, just looking around you and thinking of the standard of player you’re sharing the changing room with.  It’s what you aspire to as a young girl so it’s great to be there but you’re pinching yourself a bit too.

“During the week I’d been looking back at old photos, of when us young ones were excited to get pictures with the club’s big star Fionnuala McKenna and now I was sitting there beside her in the changing room with our Armagh jerseys on!”

Of course, McKenna and Druse are still technically teacher and pupil in the same school, and in fact the former had found herself in a similar position back when she initially came into a county team featuring Caoimhe Morgan.

Sport is littered with tales and images of youngsters growing up to play with their heroes including Jacob Stockdale with Rory Best, Andrew Trimble with David Humphreys or Nicole Cronin and Eve Higgins with Fiona Coghlan in rugby.

Incidentally, the younger sisters of Emily and Casey, Elsie Druse and Mia Mullan respectively, were both trialling for the Armagh Under 14 squad at the weekend, further evidence that the sporting production line never stops.

Emily’s Harps clubmate McShane, who joined the panel last autumn, has yet to take the field for Armagh so Druse wasn’t necessarily expecting any action against Monaghan, but that didn’t mean it would be a quiet afternoon for the Orchard outfit’s freshest face.

Druse unexpectedly popped up as the pre-match anthem singer, though the fact she coped perfectly well with the responsibility wouldn’t have surprised anyone who knows her abundance of talent and ability to taking things in her assured stride.

She has the singing voice and necessary confidence, and has experience of turning up and performing from an amateur dramatics career which has left her as at home gracing the Market Place Theatre stage in costume as the Athletic Grounds pitch in playing kit!

One of those people who are annoyingly good at nearly everything but thankfully likeable with it, Emily has capably played the lead roles in productions of Annie (Annie) and High School Musical (Gabriela), so last Sunday was well within her comfort zone.

“Kelly had texted me a few days before the match, asking me if I would like to do it.  I couldn’t turn the opportunity down, even though I was worried my voice might not be at its best after the birthday celebrations!,” says Druse, who was still wearing her fake nails.

“I’d never sung the anthem before any match, so it was quite something to do it for the first time on my first day in an Armagh jersey!  Singing and playing football are two of my favourite things, so it was kind of fitting to be bringing both together on such a proud day.

“Singing is something that I enjoy so much.  I think playing the piano started it all off in making me realise I was musical.  My dad’s side of the family are very musical.  I’ve been singing at funerals, school masses and weddings for a few years now.

“However, this was something new and obviously it mustn’t often happen like this for, when I went up to do it, the two men with the microphone were saying they hadn’t seen a player doing it before a game for many years.

“I wasn’t dreading it or anything but there were some nerves, not least because I didn’t want to let anyone down, especially Kelly, for without her I wouldn’t have been standing there in that Armagh jersey with microphone in hand.

“She has believed in, and encouraged, me as a footballer and lining up the opportunity to sing the anthem was the sort of thoughtful gesture that’s typical of her.  Kelly’s such a figurehead in local ladies football, enormously respected and rightly so.

“At Harps, as such a senior figure, she always looks out for the young ones and looks after us but also, as a fellow player, she genuinely treats us like we’re her real mates and equals, so it feels like there’s no age gap within the team.

“It’s already apparent to me that it’s the same in the county set-up, she holds everything together and everyone really looks up to her.  Sarah Marley (stand-in skipper with Mallon currently out injured) is some woman too so we’re very lucky.”

Druse was surprised that the Monaghan game was Sarah’s first time to captain a team at the age of 35.  It was also the first time Mallon wasn’t listed in an Armagh matchday squad, injured or otherwise, since she came into the panel in 2009 when Emily was just five!

It is sometimes said that to travel is better than to arrive, meaning that something much anticipated or sought after can prove anti-climactic or unfulfilling when experienced, but that didn’t apply to Druse’s rendition of Amhran na bhFiann.

“No, I definitely enjoyed it.  It felt really special and well worth any stress or worry which went with it or in advance.  I’m sick of watching it back now though, I need to delete the app!  Maybe I’ll get to do it again sometime that I’ve a less croaky voice!” she chuckles happily.

“The reaction afterwards was lovely though.  There was footage and photos shared on social media and plenty of nice comments.  It’s something I can always look back on that helped make my first matchday with Armagh very special indeed.”

Even if she doesn’t get cast as a small but perfectly-formed superhero in a children’s comic, we can already regard Druse – who Mallon describes as ‘a great girl with a very bright future’ – as a role model and poster girl for the teenage generation.  With so much more to come.