It’s probably fair to say that Emma Conlon and Clonmore have been less on our radar recently than late last decade when she was a teenager in the county panel and their newly-formed adult ladies side contested back-to-back Armagh Junior finals.
However, both the current club captain and her team have been progressing nicely away from the limelight and are relishing the opportunity to put their best foot forward in Friday night’s Buttercrane Junior Championship showpiece.
The decider against Derrynoose will take place (8pm) at Lurgan’s Davitt Park, where Clonmore recorded an impressive 4-8 to 1-6 semi-final victory over a fancied Eire Og team who were playing on their own doorstep.
Eire Og had only lost last season’s Junior final to fellow Lurgan club St Peter’s after extra-time and pipped Clonmore to second place in Division Three of the McGuinness Plumbing League this year, so beating them by double digits was a great effort from Conlon’s side.
As a seeded side due to their league position, Clonmore received a bye into the quarter-finals where they thumped Middletown 6-14 to 2-2, whereas fourth division Derrynoose have had to win three games to reach the showpiece.
They triumphed 4-10 to 4-8 at hitherto unbeaten Division Four title winners St Paul’s in the tie of the preliminary round before crushing Clann Eireann Seconds 6-20 to 2-4 and then defeating Tir na nOg 8-9 to 6-4 in a high-scoring semi in Keady.
Considering the Portadown women were worthy winners of the Division Three title this season, that 11-point victory confirmed Derrynoose as a serious threat to Clonmore’s hopes of being crowned Junior champions at the third attempt.
However, captain Conlon feels Clonmore are much better equipped going into this decider than when beaten by Mullabrack at the Athletic Grounds in 2018 or the disappointing defeat to Clan na Gael in Portadown some 12 months later.
“It’s brilliant being back in the final again after a few years and the whole team is very excited. We were in a couple before and fell short but feel that we’re definitely a better team now and more balanced,” she says.
“This is still only our fifth season in existence, so we’re still quite new, but there has been great progression in female football in Clonmore over recent years with teams at the various age groups and more girls in the club than boys.”
Conlon and her contemporaries played for Grange as schoolgirls before Clonmore had their own adult ladies side and the fondness with which she is still remembered there is testament not only to Emma’s footballing ability but personal likeability.
Now a pharmacy undergraduate at Queen’s University, she comes across in the interview as a good ambassador for her club, articulate and capable but modest in manner and it’s not hard to see why the 22-year-old is Clonmore captain.
She and vice-captain Sarah Quigley were in the senior county panel under Lorraine McCaffrey and Fionnuala McAtamney, memorably making their first Armagh appearances in the impressive victory over Cavan on their own club pitch in February 2019.
“That was a very proud day for us and definitely a big deal, especially with the match being in Clonmore, and it was nice to get the opportunity. We both really enjoyed it, but were probably a bit young at the time.
“I’d love to be back involved with Armagh again in the future but would definitely have to improve and put in a lot of work to have a chance of making it as a county footballer,” reflects Conlon candidly.
Most of her university football last winter was for Queen’s Seconds rather than an O’Connor Cup team with a strong Orchard core but this is Conlon’s second season as captain of Clonmore, a role which she is relishing.
“It’s nice to have the responsibility and it’s important to have a good relationship with all the players. Myself and (vice-captain) Sarah have played together right through our careers, including at school, and she’s a big leader.
“We’re managed by James Grimley, Niall Gorman and Brendan Donaghy and a fair few of the team also play camogie for Port Mor. There’s Niamh and Aoife Forker, myself and sister Tara, who is just back from shoulder surgery, Riona Cunningham and Rebecca Donaghy.
“It’s busy but good, not least because it gives you two chances of championship success! We’ve really enjoyed combining both, even when it has meant a lot of travelling up and down from Belfast.”
With Port Mor’s race run in the camogie for 2022, the full focus for Conlon and her colleagues is on Clonmore and this bid to get their hands on championship silverware for the first time after those two defeats in their early years.
“We got to that first final courtesy of two walkovers, which was a strange situation, and we were well beaten by Mullabrack but it was an experience playing in the Athletic Grounds. The following year’s defeat by Clan na Gael was more disappointing though.
“Having won Division Four that season, we had hardly lost all year and were more confident for that final, but didn’t do ourselves justice against another up-and-coming team who have continued doing well since. That defeat hurt much more than the year before.
“Since then, we went back down to the fourth division but were put up to Division Three for this season because of new teams coming into the bottom tier and we’ve benefited from facing good opposition.
“We lost to Eire Og at the start of the season and were beaten both times by Tir na nOg, but it was an encouraging campaign. Eire Og edged us for third place by a point but we showed in the championship match how much we’ve progressed since the league game.
“Our quarter-final win over Middletown was probably comfortable enough, though it felt like a more competitive match than the scoreline suggests. Eire Og was a significant step up, but we knew we had it in us to beat them and it was a good team effort.”
Friday’s decider will be played on the same Davitt Park pitch and Conlon is relishing the fact it is an evening game – “personally I love playing under the lights as I think it adds to the atmosphere” – at the start of a weekend of Buttercrane Championship finals.
Having joined forces with Middletown as an amalgamated team called Craobh Ciaran over recent years, Derrynoose are playing in their own name again this season and can call upon a host of rising stars who have made them a real force at age group level.
“I think it will be a tight game. Derrynoose have good underage talent coming through and they were an important part of the Craobh Ciaran team which was strong when we played them in previous seasons.”
Conlon reveals that she has played further forward at times this season but her strong showing at centre half back against Eire Og saw the Clonmore skipper selected for the Sideline Eye Team of the Week.
“That’s something I wasn’t expecting but it’s always nice to get a bit of recognition, not just for myself but the club, as the Clonmore jersey was there as part of the graphic produced to show the line-up,” says Conlon, who will be a key figure for her team in Friday’s final.
The Clonmore defence will have their hands full against a Derrynoose side who have scored 18-39 in this championship campaign and possess a quality forward in Armagh Minors star Maeve Lennon, who shone when Craobh Ciaran won the 2020 Junior final at Davitt Park.