McCONVILLE KEEN TO JOIN SPECIAL CLUB
Watching a month of All Ireland finals in the four gaelic games codes will have fired the imagination of players from other counties, but in Crossmaglen ladies footballer Lauren McConville’s case, childhood memories provide plenty of inspiration to dream big.
Lauren’s formidable dad Jim captained Crossmaglen to the first of their All Ireland club titles in 1997 and famous uncle Oisin starred in the Armagh team which claimed the Sam Maguire for the only time in Orchard history in 2002.
Like her three cousins in the current Armagh men’s set-up, James Morgan and brothers Oisin and Rian O’Neill, Lauren would love to reach the holy grail of All Ireland glory during her own career and no doubt the same applies to her promising younger brother Cian.
Now 26, she was the subject of one of the LGFA’s big feature interviews this summer and admitted that being in Croke Park the day the Armagh men won the All Ireland made a huge impression on her seven-year-old self.
Given her family credentials, it was almost inevitable that Lauren would catch the gaelic football bug but being an excited child in the Lower Hogan Stand on that historic day and watching her uncle’s heroics made absolutely sure.
Scoring the only goal in Armagh’s famous 1-12 to 0-14 victory over Kerry helped net Oisin McConville the Man of the Match award and his second All Star, and Lauren still remembers the sheer euphoria very vividly.
“That win was extra special. I may have been just seven at the time, but I still appreciated it as much as everyone else in Croke Park that day. It was unbelievable, I have never seen so many people as happy in one place.
“I even remember the scenes in the local towns afterwards. It meant so much to everyone. The streets of Crossmaglen were filled when we got home that night, it was just a sea of orange,” she recalled.
The local club had shown the way with no fewer than three All Ireland wins in the years leading up to the county team’s triumph and there’s a great picture with this article of the then toddler Lauren in her dad’s arms after an Armagh final.
Croke Park was an almost annual St Patrick’s Day pilgrimage around the turn of the century and, naturally, proud dad Jim had his little girl in the middle of things. It’s fair to say she has enjoyed being in the thick of it ever since when it comes to gaelic football.
Short of stature but big of heart, totally fearless, ferociously competitive and steeped in the sport, McConville has had an excellent Orchard career to date, starting all 67 Armagh matches she has been around for since coming into the county panel.
Never injured or dropped since making her Orchard debut in the opening National League game of 2014, McConville’s consecutive appearances tally would now stand at 94 but for spending a summer in America and a longer sabbatical in Australia more recently.
In her first two seasons in the orange jersey at adult level, Armagh claimed back-to-back promotions in the National League either side of that unforgettable Ulster title triumph for the then 19-year-old Lauren, and reached consecutive All Ireland semi-finals.
McConville captained Crossmaglen to an Armagh Intermediate Championship and Division Two double in 2017, has helped Ulster win the interpro title, was captain of Queen’s University and enjoyed success Down Under both at club level and with New South Wales.
However, winning the All Ireland in county colours remains the ultimate ambition for McConville, who has also still to grace Croke Park in her boots because Armagh haven’t played there since the Intermediate decider back in 2012.
It will be 15 years this Friday since the Orchard’s only appearance to date in the All Ireland ladies showpiece, from which Caroline O’Hanlon and Armagh’s goal-scorer in that agonising one-point defeat to champions Cork, Mairead Tennyson, are the only players left.
Those two plus current captain Kelly Mallon, sisters Sarah and Niamh Marley and Fionnuala McKenna are the only others from the present panel to have played on the hallowed turf of headquarters.
Armagh have been unlucky to miss out on that honour in that they reached the All Ireland last four last season, the only year in the past three that the semi-finals haven’t been held in Croke Park due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
By contrast, their All Ireland quarter-final conquerors last month, Meath, have played in Croke Park four times since last December, taking silverware away with them on three of those occasions, though the Orchard crew can take solace in back-to-back Ulster titles.
Armagh’s recent Ulster title triumph was sweet for everyone involved but especially so for those like McConville who weren’t around for last season’s showpiece win over Monaghan in Clones.
Due to study commitments and also not wanting to be parachuted in when others had been working for longer, McConville didn’t seek an early return to Orchard duty last autumn in spite of having cut short an intended two-year stay in Australia to take up a good job offer.
So, she missed Armagh’s run to the All Ireland semi-finals followed by being crowned provincial champions for the first time in six seasons, as did McKenna and Niamh Marley, both having opted out due to safety fears for their family in relation to the coronavirus surge.
At least all three already had an Ulster Senior Championship medal to their names, having been in James Daly’s side that upset three teams who had been playing two league levels above them that spring to claim the provincial crown in 2014.
But they wanted fresh success this time around, while the entire team were keen to prove a point not only after their All Ireland exit but because opponents Donegal had opted out of the 2020 provincial competition and didn’t appear to recognise Armagh as legitimate champions.
“Our Ulster title win was really, really special for me as I wasn’t on the panel last year. I was just back from Australia at that stage, so it’s nice for me coming back in and having that success,” she told Gaelic Life in an interview recently
“Especially with the crowds being back, there was such a nice atmosphere, although we didn’t exactly want the game to be as tight as it was (Armagh won 3-12 to 3-11). It was great having friends and family there.
“I know the girls were talking a lot going into the game about what was said last year. They probably had a bit of a hump on them because some people were maybe saying that they weren’t fully deserving winners. It was just lovely to be able to go out and prove our point.”
Defeating Donegal meant that, for the second year running, Armagh ended the season with silverware, and they can also take consolation from being knocked out of the All Ireland by the team who went on to be crowned champions, surprise package Meath.
“The Meath match was one of the most disappointing games that I’ve ever played in, there was so much hurt from that. However, with the Ulster final still to come, it was actually nice that it didn’t have to be the end of the season.
“We were buzzing to get back training after the Meath game. We took a rest for a couple of days and we really upped the training from there. The Meath match was a wake-up call, McConville told Gaelic Life.
“Unfortunately, we weren’t in the All Ireland series anymore, but we had the chance to bounce back and at least end the year on a high. It was a chance to sort of redeem yourself, so there was motivation from that too going into the Ulster final.”
Having played as a forward throughout her Orchard career up until this year, McConville was successfully converted to centre half back in a masterstroke by the Armagh management, given her perfect combination of tenacity in defence and attacking threat from deep.
“I was used to being in the forward line but I am always happy to learn and I’ve received great coaching from the management team. I was delighted to take on whatever role they thought was fit for me.
“The driving runs forward, the timing and knowing when to make them, that was probably the biggest challenge for me. You can get caught very easily. I think I grew into it as the season went on and I was happy to play it and felt that I embraced it.”
Dedicated, completely professional, a fast learner and great team woman with plenty of fight and natural leadership skills, McConville is a fantastic asset for Armagh and having her back undoubtedly boosts their hopes of going all the way some season soon.
Rather than feeling burdened by trying to emulate the achievements of her high-profile relatives, she’s grateful for the inspirations close to home while making her own name and doing the family proud as a formidable sportsperson in her own right.
“Oisin has been an inspiration to me growing up and it was just incredible when they were able to win the All Ireland but, even before that, the influence from my dad was there and it was inevitable that I was going to play football,” said McConville in her LGFA interview.
“I grew up watching my dad’s games, and I’d literally have them on replay in the video player from very young. I always loved it. When I turned six, my dad took me to underage training with the boys. From there I never looked back. I’ve played ever since and still love it.
“As well as my dad being into (gaelic) football, my mum Michelle was a great camogie player as well,” explained Lauren, who along with younger sister Aoibheann played alongside their mother as Culloville camogs won the Armagh Junior Championship in 2014!
“I was growing up around the gaelic games. My granny would’ve been really involved in the local club as well. I was always around that, and I loved it. I was kicking football in the back garden and as soon as I was let go to training, it was probably the best day ever for me.”
Thanks in no small part to the exploits of the previous generation of her family and the club’s six All Ireland wins, Crossmaglen became synonymous with gaelic football success rather than as a place more touched than most by the horrors of the internecine conflict.
Born in December 1994 after the symbolic ceasefires, Lauren McConville missed those darkest days and grew up in less troubled times though legacy issues remain until this day, with controversy recently rearing its head around the future of the local police station.
The heavily fortified army base in the border town was a focal point for attacks and cast a shadow both literally and metaphorically over the Crossmaglen Rangers club, with part of their ground being taken over.
“All that would only be a vague memory in my mind, fortunately enough, though I’ve heard the stories over the years. It’s sad what happened in the past and, although things have improved, you really can see how it affected the older generations at the time.
“It’s nice to see that we are starting to move on from all that, however difficult it is. There were years of very poor things happening and the barracks was unsightly, sitting looking over your football pitches.
“The anger going back through the generations of people locally has filtered out through the years and, from both sides, everyone has moved on from those times and great steps have been made.
“They have taken down some of the larger parts of the barracks and there has recently been news that the rest of the police station will be taken down too. That is all part of moving on from this and getting away from the past.
“These things bring back memories that people don’t want now. Fortunately, I don’t have such memories because it was when I was so young or not even born, but nothing was going to stop the club or dilute the passion of our gaelic games community locally.
“Any barriers in the way were overcome and the fact we were able to have so much success as a club over the years is symbolic of how resilient we are and how much gaelic football does mean to us,” reflected one of the most redoubtable battlers Armagh have had.
Like the Crossmaglen community, the sport of ladies gaelic football has emerged from the shadows and begun to thrive and, although Armagh will need to overcome considerable odds to win an All Ireland, the determined McConville has the stomach for that fight.