June 14th, 2021

Richard Bullick

Sarah Marley is one of those unsung heroes in life who often flies below the radar and seldom gets anything close to the credit or recognition she undoubtedly deserves.

With skipper Kelly Mallon sidelined by injury, long-serving vice-captain Marley had the honour of leading Armagh ladies for the first time in last weekend’s National League opener against Tyrone at Healy Park.

However, with no photographers present for various reasons and access for others restricted due to pandemic protocols, no image was captured for posterity of Armagh’s stand-in skipper performing the captain’s pre-match formalities.

Of course, captain handshakes aren’t even permitted at present anyway because of the risk of coronavirus transmission, so circumstances conspired against Sarah having her ceremonial moment, not that this most modest sportswoman would crave personal limelight.

But, to counter-balance last Sunday’s lack of photos, we’ve chosen to give Sarah the show she deserves here with no fewer than 10 images from her gaelic career, with a mix of action shots and other pictures capturing some of the success she has enjoyed.

At the age of 35, last weekend was understood to be the first time that lifelong faithful foot-soldier Sarah had captained a gaelic football team at any level, which coincidentally was also the case when Mallon first did the job.

Ironically, Mallon led Armagh for the first time when filling in for Sarah’s injured older sister Caoimhe Morgan for the 2018 All Ireland group game against Cork in Ballinasloe and now the wheel has come full circle.

After captain Morgan announced her retirement from inter-county football in January of last year after two decades in the orange jersey, Mallon was appointed as skipper with Lissummon stalwart Sarah Marley as her deputy.

Harps forward Mallon played all 10 Armagh matches last season either side of the first coronavirus shutdown, but hamstring trouble has sidelined the Orchard captain at the start of the current campaign.

Mallon’s misfortune has handed Marley, the second of four sisters to follow dad Noel as an Orchard county footballer, the huge honour of formally leading Armagh on a temporary basis and, naturally enough, big sister Caoimhe is exceptionally proud.

“I am truly delighted that Sarah got to captain Armagh for the first time last Sunday.  She has been such a fantastic servant for our county over many years and embodies all that is good about a leader both on and off the pitch.

“Sarah is completely selfless, she trains like no-one else and is always concerned about the welfare of her team-mates.  Armagh ladies is very lucky to have her, as an excellent corner back who just gets better, and as a valuable leader.

“As her older sister, I am very proud of all that Sarah has accomplished and the manner in which she respects the Armagh jersey which means so much in our family.  She gives everything, not just during games but in preparing professionally to be the best she can be.

“Getting to captain the county team is a great honour for any player, but Sarah is all about the team first and foremost so winning was the most important thing and thankfully Armagh marked the occasion by beating Tyrone in Healy Park!” reflects Caoimhe.

Sarah first featured in the county panel as a young fringe figure as Armagh began making waves coming into the mid-noughties but a cruciate rupture and studying in Dublin meant she wasn’t around when the Orchard reached their only All Ireland final to date in 2006.

She returned to the set-up, playing in midfield alongside Caroline O’Hanlon in the 2010 Ulster final loss to Monaghan before becoming established at corner back from the start of James Daly’s successful four-season spell as manager.

A virtual ever-present in the last line of the Orchard defence for most of the past decade, a broken ankle meant Marley missed Armagh’s surprise Ulster title triumph in 2014 between back-to-back National League promotions for Daly’s ladies.

Armagh were then beaten by Donegal in the provincial finals of 2018 and 2019, so the entire team were delighted for Sarah when she finally got her overdue Ulster Senior Championship medal last December when Armagh overcame Monaghan in the Clones showpiece.

The popular Portadown solicitor commands the utmost respect within the playing group, as a person of great integrity and someone Daly has described as being as good a professional as he has ever worked with in managing many teams through the years.

“I was pleased Sarah got the chance to captain Armagh last weekend because it’s a real honour which couldn’t have happened to a better person.  She’s a smashing girl and a top professional,” says an admiring Daly.

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“Sarah will go down in my book as one of my most favourite players that I’ve ever managed, along with my own daughter Katie and the girls from my club Dromintee, and I’d also call her a very good friend.

“It’s a long time since I managed Armagh but we’ve always kept in touch through the years.  Along with the county team, I had the privilege of managing her at Queen’s when she was doing her Masters.

“That year (2013), Queen’s won the O’Connor Cup for the first and only time in their history and Sarah’s quiet leadership was an important factor for us.  She’s obviously very intelligent, a good people person and sets an excellent example.”

Like a fine wine, Sarah Marley has appeared to keep getting better with age, and along with being one of the most tenacious corner backs in the country, she has ventured forward more regularly in recent seasons, carrying effectively from defence.

Marley was named in the Team of Division Two at the NFL Awards in 2018, went on to be crowned Armagh Player of the Year for that season and would have been in the frame for a nomination had there been an All Stars shortlist for 2020.

However, winning that much-coveted Ulster title meant the world to Sarah, and like everyone else, she has high hopes that Armagh can challenge for All Ireland glory in the coming months after that encouraging campaign last autumn.

Sarah will happily hand back the official leadership duties to Mallon when the Orchard’s Captain Fantastic is fully fit again, but standing in as skipper will be something this humble but special lady of Armagh football can always remember with pride.

Ironically, Sarah’s first outing as captain coincided with the lowest Marley representation in an Armagh matchday squad in nearly a decade, with Caoimhe retired, Niamh not yet brought back into the fold fully after an absence and Catherine ruled out by injury.