McCONVILLE BACK WHERE SHE BELONGS
Anyone who watched Lauren McConville in action against Monaghan in the Athletic Grounds last month would surely subscribe to that adage about the size of the fight in the dog mattering more than the size of the dog in the fight.
Famously short of stature but with a metaphorical heart the size of herself, McConville won some monster turnovers and her personal performance in an unfamiliar role was one of few positives from a disappointing Orchard defeat against their neighbours.
The 26-year-old Crossmaglen woman, who comes from a famous gaelic footballing family, has returned to Orchard duty this term after a two-season absence and it feels like she has never been away.
Her Australian adventure meant missing a couple of inter-county campaigns and she previously spent one summer in America, but other than that Lauren has started all 60 Armagh matches she has been around for since coming into the panel.
The then teenager made her Orchard debut in the opening NFL fixture of 2014, the first of 33 consecutive starts, returned to play all 24 Armagh games in 2017 and 2018 and has been in the run-on line-up for the first three matches of the current campaign.
As durable as she is talented, the fiercely committed McConville has never missed an Armagh match by being injured or dropped, and she’s someone no manager would willingly go to war without.
So, although Armagh have fierce competition for forward places, few would have bet against McConville reclaiming a starting spot this spring even if skipper Kelly Mallon, Catherine Marley and, initially, Eve Lavery hadn’t been sidelined by injury.
Sure enough, she was named in the team for last month’s opening National League game away to Tyrone at Healy Park, which coincidentally had been the venue for her most recent Armagh match, the 2018 All Ireland quarter-final defeat against Donegal.
Again wearing the No 12 jersey as she was on that occasion, McConville lined out on the left of the half forward line, where she was well-equipped to replicate the hard work and direct carrying of Catherine Marley in that position last autumn.
Given the need to reintegrate her into the team, it was something of a surprise when McConville didn’t appear for the second half that day and then when she took up position at centre half back next time out against Monaghan, but both can be explained easily enough.
All ladies National League games have been streamed live this year, but the picture briefly broke up just after McConville won a Tyrone kickout in the first quarter. When it returned, the opposing player was being attended to on the ground and a home free followed.
“I think I may have been too enthusiastic, if that’s possible, in that Omagh match! I’d gotten two ticks from the referee early on and was on my last warning, which I thought was a bit harsh, so management understandably didn’t want to risk a sinbin,” explains Lauren.
“In terms of playing centre half back against Monaghan and Cavan, I suppose management saw an opportunity for me to slot into the backline and I said that I was up for the challenge. I’m actually enjoying being there.
“It’s difficult trying to change from having the mindset of a forward to having one of a back but I have to thank (vice-captain and experienced defender) Sarah Marley for keeping me right in both matches so far.”
McConville’s lack of height might risk the odd ball bouncing over her head on hard pitches in summer but she’s otherwise well qualified for defensive duties as a persistent, fiercely competitive player who has always worked hard when not in possession, including for Ulster.
Those who have followed McConville’s career closely will know she played wing back when Queen’s reached the 2014 O’Connor Cup final and wore the No 6 jersey as skipper of the university side in her final year.
Physically courageous, indeed fairly ferocious, she’s someone who doesn’t mind getting stuck in – McConville’s Crossmaglen manager Peter McConville observes that ‘Lauren loves being in the thick of it’ – and has used being low to the ground as a factor in her favour.
Except perhaps some of Jenny Murphy’s big hits for the Ireland rugby team a few years ago, big plays in defence don’t generally have followers of female sport punching the air or rising to their feet in acclamation behind laptop screens.
However, McConville came up with a few fantastic turnovers for Armagh against both Monaghan and Cavan, somehow stripping the player in possession and coming away with ball that she had no right to win.
On the other hand, the prospect of McConville and that other diminutive dynamo Aoife McCoy being back in tandem as a pair of complete menaces running at opposition defences is something that Armagh followers will have been looking forward to this season.
It remains to be seen how McConville will be utilised by Armagh in the big games ahead but she’s sure to start somewhere if fit, maintaining that remarkable run of never being left out, and Lauren says she’ll happily play whatever role she is asked to.
“I can’t really say that I’ve a preferred position. I’m happy to play wherever is best for the team and wherever the management think I can contribute most,” confirms McConville, who is delighted to be back in the orange jersey this season after an absence of 21 months.
Armagh are under new management now, with Ronan Murphy having replaced Lorraine McCaffrey and Fionnuala McAtamney since then, and the team are training regularly at their brand new base of McKeever Park, an ambitious development by Armagh LGFA.
Some fresh faces have emerged in the past couple of seasons, other players have advanced considerably during McConville’s sabbatical, and a few experienced campaigners have moved on including the then captain Caoimhe Morgan.
Mallon, who was stand-in skipper for McConville’s last two Armagh matches has stepped up as official captain since the start of last season and McConville eagerly joins the chorus of praise for how well the Harps forward has filled what were big boots.
“I’d have to reiterate what everyone has been saying about Kelly in interviews, she really is a true leader and I really admire her for the time and effort she puts in, not just on the pitch but away from it. She sets a great example to the squad as a whole.
“I’m still getting used to playing with the new squad. There are a lot of familiar faces from before but I’m still getting to know some of the newer players on and off the field, especially as we weren’t able to have collective training until a few weeks before the season started.
“I hadn’t had the opportunity to train in Killean until the past couple of months and I must say that it is an excellent facility. It really is a big step forward for ladies football in Armagh and I’m so grateful to Sinead Reel and the County Board for the work they’ve put into it.”
Unlike last year, there isn’t a big gap between the league and provincial championship campaigns, but McConville feels Armagh are in reasonable shape as they prepare to put their Ulster title on the line this Friday in spite of failing to make the Division Two semi-finals.
“I suppose it would be fair to say that we are a bit disappointed with our league campaign, but the two defeats were in very close games, so we aren’t too far away against either Monaghan or Cavan.
“Ideally, we would have been aiming for promotion, but we are just shifting our focus to championship now and are trying to look at the positive side of it (not making the knockout stages) in that we will have more time to compare for the championship campaign.
“It’s a short turnaround period from league to championship but I think, reflecting on the league game against Monaghan, we know where we need to improve and we have been working on that.
“So hopefully we will get over the line at the Athletic Grounds next Friday night. I don’t think the recent league game will have a massive bearing on this championship match, because it was so tight and there wasn’t much between us at all.”
Armagh have home advantage in a tie between two teams who are very familiar with each other and both may have been keeping their powder dry a bit in the league game, with several leading lights on either side absent or playing limited roles.
There will undoubtedly be heightened external expectations of Armagh this summer on the back of last autumn’s Championship performances when they reached the All Ireland semi-finals and won the Ulster title.
That hype may be dampened a bit by the underwhelming League campaign more recently but McConville says, rather than feeling extra pressure or taking confidence from last autumn, Armagh will look within themselves to set the tone for the important period ahead.
“Overall, in terms of ambitions, we know what we’re capable of. We have shown in the past that we are well able to compete with the best teams. Whatever happened either last autumn or in recent weeks won’t change the targets this summer.
“Ulster Championship success is something we aspire to each season and likewise reaching the All Ireland semi-finals. Obviously, both those things were achieved in 2020 but that guarantees nothing now, so we won’t dwell on what went before, good or bad.”
Although home from Australia some months at that stage, McConville didn’t line out for Armagh last autumn for reasons expanded upon in the facing page piece and, with matches being behind closed doors, she had to watch from afar as the Orchard blossomed.
The flag was flown for Crossmaglen by McConville’s successor as club captain Aveen Bellew, who picked up an Irish News Ulster All Star award, while young Alex Clarke showed her potential with an exciting cameo appearance in December’s Clones showpiece.
“I was so delighted for the girls last season and very proud of my own clubmates in particular on their success. It was great to see Aveen playing a pivotal role around the midfield-half back area and also see Alex making her mark at every opportunity,” enthuses Lauren.
Some private envy would have been understandable, but now McConville and three other previous regulars who were absent then are back full of hunger to achieve some fresh success with Armagh.
Along with Mairead Tennyson, Fionnuala McKenna and Niamh Marley, McConville was a starter in Armagh’s last Ulster title triumph, in her debut season of 2014, and now the hope is that the first season of her second coming can also be marked with silverware.
“I knew at the time how special it was to win that 2014 Ulster Senior Championship medal in my first season but, as time goes by, you really realise that those days don’t come around too often so it’s important to cherish them.
AUSSIE ADVENTURE WAS WELL WORTH IT
The one downside to Crossmaglen gaelic footballer Lauren McConville’s memorable life experience of spending the best part of two years in Australia was missing Armagh matches, but she believes the break will be beneficial for her Orchard career moving forward.
McConville also spent the summer of 2016 in the United States but she has given exceptional commitment to the Orchard cause either side of those two breaks and has the bit between her teeth now since returning to the Armagh panel at the start of the year.
“I did miss quite a big chunk of county football, but I do think that the time in Australia refreshed me. I feel more motivated now playing for Armagh than ever before and I’m convinced that break away helped in that aspect,” insists Lauren.
People remember where they were when hearing significant news of a positive or negative nature and it is indicative of McConville’s value that the writer can, even now, recall learning Armagh’s wing forward wizard was bound for the land of Oz.
The news was broken to me by the now Armagh skipper Kelly Mallon minutes after she had won her record eighth All Ireland road bowls title in Tullysaran the day after the Orchard defeat to Donegal in the quarter-final of the 2018 TG4 Senior Championship at Healy Park.
With the then Orchard captain Caoimhe Morgan out injured, Mallon had led Armagh in that match and was still exercised by county thoughts the following morning before writing her name into the history books of her other main sport.
Kelly knew what a loss Lauren would be the following year and, in the end, that absence continued for a second season, but McConville is back now with a vengeance and Mallon is delighted to have one of her top players on board once again.
Having returned from Australia earlier than scheduled last spring to take up a good job offer, McConville might have been back in the orange jersey for the Orchard’s campaign last autumn, but she made a conscious choice to wait until this season.
“I decided to give it a miss last autumn. I just felt that I had already missed the National League and there was a bit of guilt that I hadn’t been part of the original pre-season. So, although I was asked, I chose not to come onto the panel,” she confirms.
“I’d also started a part-time Masters in Food Business Management and Technology through TU Dublin, which was quite time-consuming alongside my work. I just knew at that time I wouldn’t have been able to give county the commitment it requires.
“You asked about how I’ve found the pandemic in general. I think everyone has felt some sort of frustration due to all the coronavirus restrictions but, for me, in terms of timing, it gave me a good opportunity to really work on my studies.
“I was also just happy to be home to my family after a prolonged period away, so I had the novelty of that during the first lockdown,” explains Lauren, whose sporting pedigree has been well documented.
Her dad Jim McConville captained Crossmaglen Rangers to their first All Ireland Club Championship success in 1997 while her famous uncle Oisin McConville has two All Stars to his name and was a key member of Armagh’s historic All Ireland-winning team of 2002.
Lauren’s cousins James Morgan and the O’Neill brothers, Oisin and Rian, are leading lights in the current Armagh men’s county team while her younger brother Cian McConville is a rising star of the sport.
Sporting prowess isn’t restricted to male members of the family, with Lauren and younger sister Aoibheann joining their mum Michelle in the Culloville camogie team which won the Armagh Junior Championship in that code!
McConville had followed Armagh’s matches while away – “I watched as many games as I could, however difficult with the time difference” – including clubmate Mairead Watters scoring what proved the winning goal in the famous upset of Cork two summers ago.
With matches being behind closed doors, McConville was still watching Armagh remotely last autumn but that highly encouraging Orchard campaign certainly whetted her appetite to pull on the orange jersey again in 2021.
“It was a much more straightforward decision to play county football this season, in fact I was dying to get back and have been more or less training towards it since early last December!” she reveals.
“I wanted to give myself the best opportunity to ‘catch up’ I suppose and get my fitness and strength to where it needed to be. Individual training was obviously very difficult when you’re used to a team environment.
“In that regard, I was lucky that my sister Aoibheann accompanied me for quite a few sessions. Then, as restrictions started to ease, myself and (clubmate) Aveen (Bellew) started to do the runs together, which was a bit of a boost.”
When collective training resumed, McConville hit the ground running, earning a spot in the starting team for the opening game last month and now it feels like she had never been away, but there are plenty of fond memories from Australia to cherish.
“Looking back on my time in Australia, I am so happy that I went there and experienced the country and the culture. It was a different lifestyle over there, very easy-going and of course the weather was a huge bonus.
“The best way I could describe it would be like being back at university but without having to live like a student! We went on plenty of holidays and trips. The GAA was a massive part of my experience over there and being part of that family helped curb any homesickness.
“I consider myself fortunate to have joined, and enjoy so much success with, the Michael Cusacks club in Sydney and also get the opportunity to represent News South Wales at the inter-state championships.”
Unsurprisingly, the Orchard county star made quite an impression on the field during her time Down Under, trying her hand at Aussie Rules and playing camogie for Cusacks as well as tasting considerable success in gaelic football.
“The standard in both codes over there was very high with so many ex-pats present,” explains Lauren who played alongside the likes of former Mayo skipper Sarah Tierney and Limerick’s Linda Lodge as well as a good sprinkling of fellow Orchard county natives.
Along with her housemates, Ulster Gazette columnist Orla Donaldson and Orlaith Murtagh, who was working as nurse in Sydney during the original lockdown, McConville was part of a four-strong Crossmaglen contingent completed by Natasha Hughes.
“Although I didn’t bring home any camogie medals, we had a lot of success at the football, winning the Melbourne sevens, our own Cuascks tournament and a couple of other tournaments run by clubs.
“We won the New South Wales Championship that season after a dramatic final when we needed a last second goal from Carrickcruppen’s Caoimhe Murray (the former Armagh forward) to take the game to extra-time!”
Along with Tierney, Lodge and Donegal goalkeeper Laura Gallagher, McConville was selected for the New South Wales state team who went on to be crowned Australian champions in October 2019 and she made the Aussie All Stars line-up for good measure.
Although Lauren decided to stay on for a second year in Australia, by the time Cusacks retained their crown last season, as brought to life for Gazette readers by Donaldson, McConville was back home, having embarked upon a new chapter of her professional life.
“I had been home for a visit at Christmas 2019 and during that time I was offered a job with ABP Food Group in Newry, where I had completed my work placement as part of my Queen’s University degree (in Food Science).
“Although I was heading back to Australia in January, I decided to accept the offer for it was a good opportunity and my visa was due to expire last October. That meant I would be coming home to begin my new job as assistant Technical Manager for ABP in May.
“Of course, Covid-19 hit not long afterwards which made things even more uneasy being on the other side of the world and probably confirmed that I was doing the right thing by going home.
“In spite of the restrictions on international travel, the journey home wasn’t overly awkward, though there was some difficulty getting a flight as my original one was cancelled due to the pandemic.”
McConville’s travel itch seems to have been satisfactorily scratched and, with a good job and further qualifications pending, her full focus for the foreseeable future would appear to be on building her career, playing football for Armagh and both gaelic codes for Crossmaglen.
However, you wonder whether McConville might be tempted back Down Under at some stage to join the ranks of Irishwomen playing in the AFLW having dabbled quite impressively at the indigenous sport during her time in Australia.
LAUREN RETURN A BIG BOOST FOR CROSS
It was no surprise that the brilliant Lauren McConville played the starring role as Crossmaglen got their first victory since returning to Division One of the McGuinness Plumbing League last Monday night, beating Grange 7-11 to 7-6.
An away win against Grange, who had won at Carrickcruppen last time out, isn’t easily achieved and the result underlines why top flight newcomers Cross seemed more equipped to come up than their main rivals for promotion last summer, Lissummon.
Heavily reliant on Armagh’s Marley sisters, Lissummon are currently languishing at the bottom of Division Two after a few bad beatings, but Cross have much greater depth and a number of promising players ready to be tested at a higher level to aid their development.
“Division One is where we need to be playing if we want to develop and compete properly when it comes to the Senior Championship. We do have plenty of young players coming through, which is great, and although it is tough at this level, they are well fit for it.
“Some of the younger players who I wouldn’t have played with before I left for Australia, like Caoimhe Dooley, Eimear McMahon and Lucy Duffy have really made their mark on the team,” muses McConville, who was back with Crossmaglen last summer after missing 2019.
“Our high number of dual players definitely is a challenge, especially with two county contingents and so many Armagh matches, but we’re a good dual club and it’s great to be competing in the top tier in both codes.
“I’m planning to play club camogie myself this season and am looking forward to it,” reveals Lauren, who transferred from Culloville last season, following younger sister Aoibheann, a fellow footballer for Crossmaglen who has really begun catching the eye at club level.