November 10th, 2021


Richard Bullick

It is no surprise to see leading local sportswoman Kelly Mallon’s name among a number of eminent individuals nominated for the Cordelias Foundation’s Armagh People of the Year awards and she undoubtedly deserves to be in the frame for recognition.

Her season ended with two disappointing defeats in the space of a few days in club colours, compounded by a broken ankle, but it has been another year of fantastic achievement in the sporting sphere for the 32-year-old ABC Council officer from Madden.

After fighting back from injury issues earlier in the year, inspirational skipper Mallon led the Armagh gaelic football county team to a second consecutive Ulster Senior Championship success, only the second woman in history to have done so.

Mallon then won a record-extending ninth All Ireland senior road bowls title, reclaiming a crown which she had lost before the pandemic struck and consolidating her status as the leading lady in the history of the sport.

To complete a hat-trick of triumphs in the space of a few short weeks, the powerful full forward top scored in the Orchard county final and picked up Player of the Match as the Armagh Harps footballers won a second successive Senior Championship.

Last autumn, Mallon had captained Armagh to their first Ulster Senior Championship success for six seasons having earlier played a leading role in helping Harps end a 22-year-wait to claim another county title.

She would have been a strong contender for Sportswoman of the Year had the ABC Awards not been scrapped due to the pandemic but will have even stronger credentials next time round on the back of this autumn’s string of achievements.

However, while great role model Mallon is well worthy of recognition based upon purely sporting criteria for her outstanding success incredible dedication and resilience, it is wider considerations which should help tilt the scales in her favour for Person of the Year.

As someone who has experienced personal kindness myself from this tough sportswoman with a warm heart, this writer has also been struck by the string of touching tributes paid to her by club and county team-mates in interviews with me over the past 12 months.

The latest is Armagh vice-captain Sarah Marley, who led the county team in Mallon’s absence at the start of this season and really appreciated being invited by Kelly to receive the silverware with her after the Orchard outfit defeated Donegal in August’s Ulster final.

“I didn’t expect Kelly to call me up.  I was so delighted we won and would have been happy enough watching her lifting the trophy, but it was a lovely touch and a really generous thing for her to do.

“Sharing the trophy lift was a very special moment which meant the absolute world to me.  I was overwhelmed and got quite emotional but it’s a memory which I’ll always treasure,” reflected Marley.

A trawl through those quotes from fellow players suggests that thoughtful, generous gestures appear par for the course for Mallon along with her ability to reach out and relate to team-mates of all ages in the county squad and at club level.

The then schoolgirl Emily Druse revealed how clubmate Mallon had given her the chance to be the pre-match anthem singer in the Athletic Grounds on her first day togging out as a member of the Armagh senior squad back in June.

“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 quickly became apparent to me that it’s the same in the county set-up, she holds everything together and everyone really looks up to her,” enthused Druse, a perspective confirmed by multiple players.

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Lurgan native Tiarna Grimes was grateful for Mallon passing on to her the opportunity to do some Joe Wicks-style workout videos for the LGFA on the basis it would be beneficial for her career in the fitness industry, and she is evidently a fan of her county captain in general.

“There was a fantastic spirit (last) autumn and it’s the closest we’ve been as a team.  That bond between us undoubtedly helped performances on the field and, in turn, winning generates a real feel-good factor.

“So much credit for that atmosphere must go to Kelly and it’s great to have her there as captain.  She’d always text us individually to see how we are and is so caring towards her players.  Her on and off-field leadership is a real asset for Armagh,” reflected Grimes.

Grimes’ Clann Eireann clubmate Niamh Coleman also spoke of that personal touch in an interview with the Gazette a few months later and she too credited Mallon’s inspirational leadership and pastoral support for creating such a 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,” said Coleman.

The eulogising of Mallon hasn’t been confirmed to the emerging generation either, with her fellow 30-something, Crossmaglen captain Aveen Donaldson Bellew, joining the chorus of admiration ahead of last November’s All Ireland semi-final.

“Kelly really is our Captain Fantastic.  She’s totally invested in Armagh and the amount of work she does behind the scenes is phenomenal.  Kelly’s always thinking ahead and never switches off from her responsibilities and a tireless drive to make Armagh better.

“I remember back in her earlier years, Kelly was one of those who came to football, did her thing and left.  She was completely professional but stayed in the background.  Now she’s stepped up to really lead from the front and is immersed in everything.

“She’s a really good leader and, when she speaks, people listen.  I know my young clubmate Alex Clarke eats up everything she says but I also look up to Kelly even though I’m actually a few months older than her,” admitted Bellew.

Another Crossmaglen stalwart, Lauren McConville, an Armagh regular since the start of 2014, just returned to Orchard duty this season after a couple of years in Australia and she too has been impressed by the woman who became county captain during her absence.

“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 gets a great example to the squad as a whole,” said McConville.

Harps prospects Tiarna McVeigh and Megan McShane came into the county panel for the first time last season as teenagers, an experience made easier by having clubmate Mallon as captain, and they were thrilled to see her lead Armagh to that Ulster title.

“It was daunting at first but Kelly was so good at taking us under her wing.  Getting to watch her lift the Ulster Championship trophy after the year we’ve had together really was a special moment and an honour which Kelly richly deserved,” said McShane last Christmas.

“She’s a superb role model and I’m really grateful for her support at a personal level.  Kelly has taken me under her wing with Armagh, but she’s just so good to all the younger girls, teaching us and encouraging us and making sure we really feel part of everything,” was McVeigh’s verdict in an earlier interview.

The two youngest players in the Harps side, Druse and Casey Mullan, had also spoken last autumn about what an influential figure Mallon had been in the cathedral city club’s first Senior Championship success of their lifetimes, including her supportive presence.

“As a forward, I look up to Kelly so much.  She’s not just a great player but is always there helping me, saying well done or giving valuable advice or keeping my head up when something goes wrong.  It’s great getting to play with her,” said Mullan.

“Even when we were at our lowest point in the semi, I never had any doubt.  We fought back brilliantly with Kelly leading the way with another huge game and, when they cut our lead from eight points to two towards the end, she went round settling everyone,” added Druse.

“It’s great having the county captain as a team-mate and Kelly is so supportive of fellow players and a real leader.  She’s very experienced, professional and resilient and was able to come back in after injury and deliver a top performance for us straight away.”

At the other end of the age scale, there was a glowing appraisal from Harps stalwart Paula Powell Enright, the only remaining player from their 1998 county title triumph, of what makes Mallon such a special player.

“Kelly is a powerhouse in the air with hands like glue that can catch a ball comfortably at great heights.  An excellent fielder of the ball, she has also perfected the dummy to destroy defences on many occasions,” said Enright.

“A very unselfish player who always puts the team before personal glory, Kelly is hugely skilful and a relentless scorer from frees and plays.  She’s a professional who gets the job done and a very influential figure for both her teams whose has real presence on the pitch.

Enright’s view was echoed by the Armagh Harps manager Paddy McShane, who described his taliswoman Mallon, the top scorer in both winning county finals, as “a joy to watch and a delight to manage.”

“Kelly is an amazing athlete and a complete professional who knows what she needs to do and how to manage her body.  I’m mates with former men’s footballers who marvel at how strong she is, especially catching high balls.

“Kelly Mallon is a phenomenal local sportswoman we should all get behind and, from managing her at club level, I’ve the privilege of getting to see up close what a complete professional she is – first on the pitch and last off it at training,” he said.

The most recent Harps player to pay tribute to Mallon in an interview with this newspaper last month was Eimear O’Kane, who has been a rival camogie club captain but is glad that they are on the same side on the football field.

“Kelly’s brilliant.  She’s always encouraging us, telling everyone to keep their heads up and back themselves and not worry too much about mistakes.  She’s a real role model, quite quiet but speaks with authority and very effectively, so everyone listens,” said O’Kane.

In addition to all her achievements in gaelic football and road bowls, all-rounder Mallon also captained Madden camogs to their first county title in more than three decades back in 2014, winning Player of the Match in the final for good measure.

Kelly’s sporting prowess is impressive, but those nice compliments paid by team-mates must mean as much in the Person of the Year stakes along with her human qualities of kindness, warmth and amiability.

Even amid the excited celebrations after the Ulster final in Clones last December, the typically compassionate Mallon’s victorious captain’s speech had words of solidarity and comfort for those for whom the pandemic had brought hardship and distress.

“This has been, and continues to be, a devastating time for many families across the country and indeed the world.  Look after your loved ones during this time and be mindful of those who may be lonely or isolated.  We will get through this together,” she said.

Clearly loved and revered by team-mates, a great ambassador for Armagh gaelic and female sport, the humble and modest Mallon has seldom got the wider recognition she should for her achievements, commitment and quiet efforts for others.

She undoubtedly deserves support in this Armagh People of the Year contest.  To get behind her at the shortlisting stage, either text ‘VOTE KELLY MALLON’ to 07599 124888 or email the same three words to before 5pm this Friday (November 12).