McCANN RELISHING LIFE IN THE FAST LANE
Megan McCann wouldn’t have been crowned a world champion in age group handball or become a three-time Ulster Schools All Star in ladies gaelic football if she wasn’t an ambitious, talented and competitive person from an early age.
There’s still plenty more that the 22-year-old from Lurgan wants to achieve too, including getting increased game-time for the Armagh gaelic county team as a stepping stone to earning a starting spot in spite of fierce competition for places.
That squad depth may make chances harder to come by for aspiring players, but McCann has grown to embrace being part of a quality panel which can realistically challenge for the sport’s top prize rather than wishing selection came more easily like in weaker counties.
The Stranmillis College trainee teacher has her sights set on helping Queen’s University secure a place at this month’s O’Connor Cup finals weekend and her club Clann Eireann to reclaim the Orchard county title later in the year.
Having hit her interim target by reaching a national handball final in January just past, Megan is intent on keeping pushing upwards in the individual sport she has already made a significant name in rather than resting on her laurels.
However, what was striking when interviewing this well-spoken, positive, personable young woman was the pleasingly self-effacing, gracious way in which McCann contextualised her successful sporting career to date.
McCann has so much to be proud of from her teenage years, which featured regular silverware wins with school and club, but she generously acknowledges good fortune in being part of a Lurgan golden generation and team environments conducive to success.
There’s no doubt that in team sport you are reliant on others, but few would use the word ‘lucky’ so often as McCann in talking about notable achievements and it is nice to see someone being grateful for the opportunities which have come their way.
Her sporting schedule has been busy the past few weeks since reaching that handball decider, with the Queen’s and Armagh matches coming thick and fast, but it’s an exciting time too and McCann isn’t complaining.
“Yes, it’s mad at the minute between uni and county football, but after all the pandemic disruption we appreciate playing sport more and any sacrifices feel well worthwhile. You’re glad to be able to do it and anyway I’m well used to the juggling at this stage,” she reflects.
In the media, there’s a tendency to apply labels so McCann may best be known as the ‘champion handballer’, but we shouldn’t overlook Megan’s membership of a pretty exclusive club for those with three Ulster Schools ladies football All Stars to their name.
“Winning those All Stars and playing in the interpro tournaments really shaped me into the player I am today because firstly you were competing with the best girls from other schools for selection and then taking on all the top players from other provinces with Ulster.
“Coming through with such a talented generation was a huge help, because we were playing in Ulster finals with our school [St Michael’s Grammar became part of the new St Ronan’s College during her time] and also having success with Clann Eireann age group teams.
“Playing big games and winning was normal and the confidence from that helps you as an individual to believe in your skills and capabilities coming up against girls from other schools at the trials. You backed yourself and played without fear,” she reflects.
“I got an All Star three years in a row. We became the first Ulster Schools team ever to win the interpro title and retained it the following season with my clubmate Cait Towe as captain. I missed out on the tournament in my final year as I was spending three months in America.”
Orchard ace Blaithin Mackin was part of that history-making group of January 2017 while Michelle Magee of St Dominic’s Belfast shone in midfield the following year just before heading to Australia to play netball for Northern Ireland at the Commonwealth Games.
“It was nice to have a few Lurgan girls in those squads but also the experience of mixing with players from elsewhere, a little like the Queen’s set-up now actually. Those teams provide a fantastic chance for players from smaller clubs or counties to show how good they are.”
McCann was also part of an historic success with Armagh Minors in 2016 when they became the first female Orchard county team to be crowned Ulster Under 18 champions, with her club colleague Tommy Coleman as manager and his daughter Niamh joint captain.
“That’s another lovely memory to look back on. I was so lucky to be part of a great team which had the likes of Blaithin and Niamh. There was a significant Clann Eireann contingent with Cait and younger ones like Dearbhla Coleman and Meabh McCambridge there too.
“Armagh had been building towards that Ulster Minor title win with players who had come up through the age groups together, but for a while the Donegal girls just seemed bigger and we wondered what they were feeding them!” she laughs.
So McCann was part of Armagh Minors and Ulster Schools sides which achieved historical breakthroughs and at the heart of teams which enjoyed great success in the colours of St Michael’s / St Ronan’s and Clann Eireann.
“Myself and Cait Towe played a year younger when we made the Under 15 C final. St Michael’s hadn’t been in an Ulster final before so the whole school was out for it and I remember the atmosphere. That was our first taste of it and then things kind of took off.
“We won Ulster C, B and then A titles and I was lucky enough to captain our Under 16s in the 2016 All Ireland final. We were beaten by a team from Portlaoise, but that group went on to win the Ulster Schools Cup as seniors so there are many great memories.
“With Clann Eireann, we won multiple championships coming through the age groups, actually only losing once, to our Lurgan rivals Clan na Gael. We got one Ulster Minor title but were beaten by Bredagh (Down) and Errigal Ciaran (Tyrone) the following two years.”
She was part of a very successful Clann Eireann senior set-up from the age of 15, playing alongside her heroes in a squad packed with Armagh players past and present including Mags McAlinden, Shauna O’Hagan, Sinead McCleary and Maebh Moriarty.
The old guard have become bit-part players in more recent years, some stepping back to start families, and a new Armagh generation headed by the club’s first ever All Star Clodagh McCambridge has come to the fore, but McCann still respects her elders.
“We’re actually the county players now but still look to them for reassurance. They’ve taught us so much and been great role models. Sinead McCleary came back in last season after about five years away and just slotted straight in.”
Whatever about that ongoing due deference to Clann Eireann’s elder stateswomen, McCann has been carving out her own niche in the often overlooked GAA code of handball, where she has established herself as a household name. Tell me more, Megan?
“In basic terms, there are three forms of handball. The two that I focus on are ‘one-wall’, which is played in the summer, and ‘40×20’ which is indoors and features four walls. There’s a strong tradition of handball in Lurgan and plenty of people play especially when young.
“You go through ranking tournaments during a season and if you do well in those it gets you a better draw in the All Ireland Championship. At the minute I’m ranked No3 in Ireland at senior level, which was my goal for this year.
“I came through the age groups but had a rocky period and didn’t make the Ireland team for the 2015 World Championships in Calgary, Canada. When you’re young, you think your world is coming to an end when something like that happens.
“You have to win the relevant national title to get on the Irish team but those who don’t have the option of competing in the worlds as an unaligned individual. I ended up coming home with three golds and a silver (in the Under 15 category) so that was my big breakthrough.
“At that age handball was my whole world so not making the Irish team was devastating, but in some ways it took the pressure off for I had nothing to lose when I went to the worlds separately, though there was also some motivation to show what I could do.”
She humours my layman’s assertion that the sport could be crudely characterised as ‘squash by hand’ – “that’s probably the best way to explain it” – before offering a beginner’s guide to how handball is structured.
“January’s ‘Handball Nationals’ is the second biggest tournament of the year and I caused an upset in this year’s semi by defeating Fiona Tully to reach my first senior 40×20 final, where I was lost out to Cork’s Catriona Casey.
“I was delighted to reach the final for it’s something I hadn’t done before and I’ve been knocking on the door for a while. There has been some self-doubt, but you have to trust the process and believe it will come together at some stage.
“I beat world champion Martina McMahon from Limerick in one-wall just before the pandemic came along,” says Megan, who enjoys the balance between being part of a team in gaelic football and everything resting on herself in handball.
“It’s a question people ask all the time, and I couldn’t choose. In an individual sport, your destiny is in your own hands and only you can change it, whereas with a team, management decides who goes on the field for starters and it’s a collective effort from a big group.
“Team sport has a sociable aspect, which I enjoy, and you have others to rely upon, but I also like the fact you’ve nobody to blame in handball and there’s more you can control. There are positives and negatives, but I probably get the best of both worlds.
“That said, playing two sports means balancing commitments and at times you wonder whether one could compromise the other. Over the years, when setting goals out, I’ve often asked myself whether I went to be an elite handballer or push harder with Armagh.
“But I’ve concluded I’m so lucky and blessed to be able to do both. I love the Armagh set-up which has such a high calibre of players and management do everything they can for our well-being in order to optimise performance. They look at what you’re doing.
“Pre-pandemic, I was burning the candle at both ends but now I know it’s not about training harder but smarter. The likes of Caroline O’Hanlon and Kelly Mallon are great role models in showing how you can manage everything effectively and do well in more than one sport.”
A good physical specimen who operates around the middle of the field, she has “drifted in and out” of the county panel over recent years and has yet to start an Armagh match at adult level because of fierce competition for places but understands that has a silver lining.
“Feeling frustrated at having to bide my time was definitely a downfall of mine over the years. I’d come through such a culture of success with school and club, wasn’t used to being on the bench and increasingly saw girls my age starting for their county teams.
“I’m still ambitious obviously but I’ve come to appreciate the standard of player in front of me. Look at who we have in Armagh, the quality is insane. There’s a really high bar, but that fantastic squad depth has helped bring us Ulster titles the past two seasons.
“You want to be part of a squad which can win things rather than just playing in a team without hope. Armagh has a lot of players who can contribute, and you need to do well when called upon,” says McCann, who has come off the bench in the first two NFL fixtures.
She has been enjoying her football for Queen’s and a ‘great experience’ playing in the O’Connor Cup for the first time over recent weeks for a squad containing an astonishing 11 Armagh girls against strong southern sides packed with county footballers.
“It’s a great environment, playing with and against girls your own age from a wide range of counties, so in that sense it reminds me a bit of Ulster Schools and the interpros. There are so many top players in the various university sides. It’s a real learning curve.
“You’re just constantly developing and our management of Mark Doran and (fellow Armagh footballer) Fionnuala McKenna do a good job. We’ve a game against NUIG this Wednesday which we must win to reach the O’Connor Cup finals weekend,” she explains.