Manager James Daly is standing down from the helm of Orchard champions Clann Eireann to concentrate on the task of steering Fermanagh to an All Ireland Junior title triumph next season.
The much-travelled Dromintee man was appointed Erne boss last autumn but doubled jobbed by remaining at the Clann Eireann helm due to a sense of unfinished business from the club’s 2021 campaign.
Seeking to reclaim the Orchard crown relinquished the previous season, the Lurgan giants were pipped in last year’s Buttercrane Senior semi-final by two late goals from champions Armagh Harps.
That was the first time that Daly had tasted defeat within Armagh in three seasons as Clann Eireann manager, having gone through his first two-year stint in the role with a 100 percent record in completing back-to-back domestic doubles in 2016 and 2017.
Clann Eireann romped to the McGuinness Plumbing League title this season, winning every game and famously scoring an astonishing 21-51 in the course of registering three comprehensive victories in the space of seven days in June.
When the Buttercrane Senior Championship came around, they put Shane O’Neills to the sword after a slow start in Camlough, dethroned champions Harps with a worthy win in the semi-final and then overcame old adversaries Carrickcruppen after a replay.
That triumph in Crossmaglen gave Clann Eireann an 11th county title in 17 seasons and there was great rejoicing that the cherished Marie Hoye Cup had been brought back to Lurgan for the first time this decade.
One unfortunate consequence for Clann Eireann of the domestic showpiece going to a replay was that they had just a week to prepare for facing provincial champions Donaghmoyne in Ulster Club quarter-final.
Having to take on Ulster’s most successful club, who recently clinched a 20th Monaghan county title in a row, in their own backyard was the toughest possible draw and Clann Eireann were duly defeated 2-13 to 0-7.
Clann Eireann’s cause wasn’t helped by the absence of the holidaying Aoibhinn Henderson and injured former county captain Maebh Moriarty, while ex-Armagh great Sinead McCleary and rising star Meabh McCambridge had also picked up significant knocks the week before.
The Clann Eireann loss continues the comparatively poor record of Orchard champions at provincial level over the past decade and a half with the Lurgan club, Carrickcruppen and Armagh Harps all failing to make much impression in Ulster.
There is sufficient quality and depth in this squad to have high expectations but, in light of the difficult draw, mitigating circumstances and relief at getting the Marie Hoye Cup back after a brief famine, both Daly and captain Niamh Henderson have been philosophical.
“We came into this game with nothing to lose, we just said that we’d go out and try our best and put it up to them. There were a few hard decisions there throughout the match but the girls didn’t give up.
“We did what we had to do this year, we won the Armagh Championship and got the Marie Hoye Cup back and that’s our main take-away from this year,” Henderson told our sister platform Your Lurgan afterwards.
“The supporters have been great throughout the whole year, I’m so proud of all the girls and a big thank you to James for managing us this year and getting us to where we needed to be. We saw today how high the level is in Ulster and that’s what we need to strive towards.”
The formidable Daly has signed off with just one domestic defeat in four seasons as Clann Eireann boss and, even though he’d have liked a provincial run, there was an acknowledgement that Donaghmoyne were worthy winners in the Ulster quarter-final.
“We’d lost Maebh Mo to an injury from the county final, Aoibhinn wasn’t available and a couple of players were carrying knocks. We’d have liked a two-week turnaround but things didn’t work out that way because of the replay,” he reflected.
“Obviously Donaghmoyne away was a very tough draw to start with. They’ve a remarkable record, they’re Ulster champions and have been All Ireland champions and they know what it takes. They were excellent against us and all credit to them for the win.
“Cathriona McConnell is a fabulous footballer who could still play for most county teams. Our girls will learn that this is the standard, this is the level you need to get to but they’ve grown a lot in the last two years and kept playing to the final whistle here.
“We’d a tough championship in Armagh and, although disappointed not to have gone any further in Ulster, winning the county title this season and getting the Marie Hoye Cup back was very important to the club and we achieved that.
“At a personal level, although I’d taken on the Fermanagh job, because of the way we got knocked out of the Armagh Championship last season I just figured that I wanted to come back because there was that sense of unfinished business.
“It’s a lot to be trying to do two teams so I’m going to concentrate on Fermanagh ladies next year but there’s a lot of potential left in this squad so I’m sure Clann Eireann will put the right person in place to take these girls a bit closer to that elusive Ulster Championship success.
“As with my first stint there, I’ve really enjoyed being back with Clann Eireann the past couple of years, working with a lot of girls I’d managed before but it’s only three weeks now until we’re back at it with Fermanagh – no rest for the wicked!” he laughs.
The Armagh replay was the fifth final which Daly had been involved in as a manager this season and the first victory as Fermanagh had lost the Ulster Junior game against Antrim and then been beaten by the Saffrons after a drawn All Ireland third tier decider.
With retired Orchard captain Caoimhe Morgan as his number two, Daly will hope to steer Fermanagh to some silverware next season, though recently-relegated Down will be formidable opponents provincially and also Sligo at national level.
Daly is going into his 10th season as an inter-county manager, having spent a successful four-season spell at the helm of his native Armagh followed by a year in charge of Longford and then three in Cavan as Breffni boss before his current Fermanagh role.
Clann Eireann had five players in this season’s Armagh squad in All Star Clodagh McCambridge, the ever-improving Niamh Coleman, newcomer Cait Towe, regular of the past few years Tiarna Grimes and Megan McCann.
Moriarty, McCleary and Mags McAlinden are distinguished ex-county footballers while the latter’s two sisters Catherine and Grainne have also worn the orange jersey at adult level in the past as have the Henderson siblings, Niamh and Aoibhinn.
Both Hendersons along with Dearbhla Coleman and Meabh McCambridge, younger sisters of Niamh and Clodagh respectively, could be involved with Armagh if they wish and Niamh Murray has emerged as a significant forward for the club.
There is other young talent on the books such as last year’s Armagh Minors captain Anna McStay, Eimear McConaghy who started the county final against Cruppen, Roisin Mulligan and Lily Towe.
Shauna O’Hagan, Rhona O’Mahony, Sarah Henderson, Aine Downey, Martina Hoye, Laura McAreavey and Julie Henderson are a few familiar names not around now but Aine Hoye, Aoife Kane, Alana Doran and Niamh McDaid are recognisable back-up players.
With such a strong squad, and enough depth in the club to field a second string team in Division Three and the Junior Championship, Clann Eireann will go into 2023 as Orchard county title favourites as they have done every year since the second half of the noughties.
Their one arguable weakness is the absence of an imposing, prolific forward like Aimee Mackin, Kelly Mallon or Alex Clarke but the team is very good overall with plenty of versatile players who can chip in with useful scores.
Whether they can retain their domestic crown and go on to challenge hard for an Ulster title remains to be seen and could depend partly upon their next managerial appointment as Daly has left big boots to fill.
Tommy Coleman, father of Niamh and Dearbhla, would be an attractive candidate after steering Clann Eireann’s male footballers to a first county title in nearly six decades last year but he is set to be in big demand from men’s teams.
Denise Hagan, now Jordan, has recently taken on the role of number two to new Armagh manager Shane McCormack so she may be too busy but other Clann Eireann grandees such as O’Hagan, O’Mahony and Mags McAlinden could come into the mix.
Bringing in an outsider from Fermanagh definitely didn’t work for Clann Eireann in 2020 but the club could look within the county, perhaps to the wife-and-husband team of Ciara and Paddy Marley who steered St Catherine’s College to All Ireland glory a few years ago.