For most young Armagh gaels, the Athletic Grounds is the metaphorical ‘field of dreams’ but this weekend’s Buttercrane Intermediate Championship final at Orchard headquarters could be billed as the ‘dream of Fields’ for the Mullabrack captain.
Emma Fields suffered heartbreak back in 2017 as the Mullabrack women were beaten by Ballyhegan in the Junior final and she was in Australia the following autumn when her club claimed their first championship silverware at adult level by eclipsing Clonmore.
Five years on from the clubs contesting that Junior game, Mullabrack will meet Ballyhegan in Saturday’s Intermediate decider at the Athletic Grounds (3pm) and nobody will be more motivated than skipper Fields.
If she gets to lift the trophy, it would be the biggest moment in the history of Mullabrack ladies, belatedly exorcise the ghosts of that old loss to Ballyhegan and also mean that Fields finally gets her hands on a championship medal after missing out on the previous success.
“The fact we’re playing Ballyhegan again brings back memories from five years ago. There was huge heartache from that final, the anguish of being beaten by a point, and I was so deflated afterwards for I knew that was probably my only shot at a Junior medal.
“I absolutely believed that Mullabrack would have a great chance of winning it the following season when I’d be away and they duly did so. It was bitter-sweet for me, missing out at a personal level but being delighted for the girls and proud of my club,” reflects Fields.
It was an unfortunate anomaly that Fields missed out on that silverware win because she has been a real stalwart of Mullabrack ladies football from its inception back in the noughties, both as a player and also in a coaching capacity.
“I started playing adult football back in 2007, having just turned 13 that April! Josie McSorley had got football for girls going in 2005 and the senior team was formed after that so I’ve been there from the beginning really.
“Myself, Shauna Gallogly, Kathryn Rice and maybe Frances Boyce would probably be the only originals left at this stage though around half of our present squad were there for that Junior title win in 2017,” explains Emma.
There has been an influx of fresh faces since then, which isn’t remotely surprising considering that Mullabrack’s underage record in recent years would make them the envy of many much bigger clubs.
As someone heavily involved in that vibrant youth section, it is a great source of pride to Fields that nine of the Under 14s she took with the then club captain Christina Crilly in 2017 will be togging out for this weekend’s Intermediate decider.
“The underage girls definitely carry the flag for our club. Our teams have done well, we’ve had players in county panels and it should augur well for a bright future for Mullabrack at adult level in the years ahead.
“Playing alongside some of those young girls from our 2017 Feile team is a great feeling. I remember the first night the Lennon twins, Eabha and Ellen, who are now mainstays of our senior side, came along to play Under 14s.
“They hadn’t played football before but the ball stuck to their hands like glue even at that first session. It’s been brilliant watching their progression,” enthuses Emma, who began playing gaelic football herself at the age of 10.
“I remember Kevin Gallogly coming into our school when I was in P6 so I started relatively late compared to the wee Under 6s and Under 8s that I help out with in Mullabrack now. We had age group gaps too back in the day so I played for Armagh Harps at Under 16 level.”
Mullabrack have lost their former Ulster Schools All Star goalkeeper Chloe Kelly to Harps this season, a considerable blow, but they can call upon half a dozen of the Ballymacnab camogs who are going for a fourth county title on the trot in that code.
County camog Tierna Maguire, Aine Maguire, the Lennon twins, Kate Crilly and high-profile eco-campaigner Emer Rafferty – Armagh’s answer to Greta Thunberg but pleasanter – are all doubling up in terms of championship campaigns with their respective clubs this autumn.
Back in 2013, there were multiple players involved in Grange’s first Intermediate title triumph in ladies football and Tullysaran’s Senior Championship success, and Fields sees parallels in the relationship between Mullabrack and Ballymacnab.
“That close link has always been there. I played camogie myself at Ballymacnab back when I was at primary school. It’s a busy schedule for the dual players but when the two teams are going well it all adds to the positive vibe.”
The fact Mullabrack’s camogie contingent are used to playing and winning big games in the Athletic Grounds over recent years should help, while a numbers of others have happy memories of that 2018 Junior football final victory.
Mullabrack brought great support to the cathedral city that day, as they had done for the Ballyhegan game the year before, and Fields is anticipating another strong turnout this Saturday as a team managed by Paul Hughes and Colin McCooey seek to make history.
“I suppose we’d be seen as a small country club but there are a lot of passionate people involved. I remember the Feile in 2017 and so many making the trip to Cavan. There’s a picture of the stand and it was all Mullabrack!
“My granda Eddie Rice was in that photo. He passed away that December so that made it particularly poignant,” says Emma, for whom involvement in Mullabrack GFC is very much a family affair.
Her mum Marion Fields feels like a permanent part of the set-up while she has a trio of first cousins in the team – Mairead Rice, Aine Rice and Ciara O’Hanlon – while Kathryn Rice is Emma’s second cousin and vice-captain Shauna Gallogly is related too.
Shauna’ sister Maria Gallogly, a star of the Junior title-winning team of 2018 who then suffered a horror injury in the club’s first provincial championship match, is studying in Liverpool but Fields anticipates having around 25 players togging out for the final.
“It wasn’t always like that in terms of numbers for our league games, what with camogie commitments and so forth,” admits Fields, whose side finished mid-table in Division Two of the McGuinness Plumbing League.
Well beaten by eventual title winners Dromahill in the opening game, Mullabrack bounced back with a high-scoring home win over Mullaghbawn and edged a derby battle at Lissummon before losing by double digits at home to Clan na Gael.
This season’s strange schedule saw Mullabrack play those four league games by mid-May and only three more thereafter, with June bringing a 32-point pasting at Ballyhegan and 24-point home hammering of Granemore.
Mullabrack’s last league game was way back on July 5, meaning an astonishing gap of 81 days in competitive matches by the time they played Cullyhanna in their championship semi having got a bye into the last four.
However, they hit the ground running in impressive fashion against a team from one league level lower than Mullabrack but who were coming off the back of a good away win at Mullaghbawn in the quarter-finals.
Playing with the wind behind them, Mullabrack profited from winning numerous opposition kickouts, scored a couple of goals early on in laying the foundations for a 24-point interval lead and ultimately won 7-14 to 0-8.
“We knew Cullyhanna had won at Mullaghbawn, a team who had reached the final twice in the last three seasons, and they’d beaten us in a league game two years ago so we went into the semi-final expecting a real battle but it turned out to be a straightforward win for us.
“Interestingly they opted to play into the wind and that helped us build a comfortable lead. We won’t get carried away with the scoreline, but it was a pleasing performance which we can take some confidence from and everyone really played for each other.”
Ironically, Cullyhanna were also the opponents for Ballymacnab’s camogie semi-final, but beating Ballyhegan, who have reached the decider by crushing Sarsfields 5-14 to 1-7 and Clan na Gael 5-11 to 0-9, will undeniably be a tougher job
Facing Ballyhegan in a final will be a familiar feeling for Fields, who is happy to own the tag of underdogs against strong opponents who have a couple of current county players in Eve Lavery and Grace Ferguson, both of whom made the Irish News Ulster All Stars shortlist.
“We suffered that huge loss (9-15 to 1-7) against Ballyhegan in the league and are under no illusions that they’ll be favourites for the final. They had an impressive victory over Clan na Gael in the semis and were runners-up to Lissummon two years ago.
“However, we certainly aren’t going to make up the numbers. Everyone’s really excited about heading to the Athletic Grounds to play in a championship final with a lot of support behind us and we’ll be giving it everything we have to bring home the trophy,” she vows.
Faraway Fields was green with envy when Crilly and Frances Boyce led Mullabrack to that historic triumph four years ago but her hope is that she will get her hands on an ever higher-profile prize this weekend.
Gallogly got the Player of the Match award after scoring a hat-trick in that 2018 Junior final victory over Clonmore and the experienced forward will need to step up again as Mullabrack try to turn the tables on Ballyhegan in the first game of Saturday’s double bill of finals.