A feature by Richard Bullick on our Armagh star Lauren McConville in last month’s issue of Local Women Sport magazine, since when she has been top-scorer in the All Stars exhibition match in Texas, helped Armagh win in Croke Park and been named in the NFL Team of Division Two! The May edition of Local Women Sport is currently in the shops.
LAUREN LIVING UP TO FAMILY REPUTATION –
CROSSMAGLEN’S McCONVILLE A SHINING STAR
Our LGFA Player of the Year finalist Lauren McConville comes from such a decorated Crossmaglen gaelic footballing family that it would be easy to overlook just how outstanding the Armagh ace is in her own right.
The 28-year-old has a big weekend coming up this month, having been shortlisted for the inaugural Local Women Sport Awards the night before Armagh go to Croke Park in the NFL Division Two final, aiming to clinch the title, trophy and all-important promotion on offer.
LWS Team of the Year finalists Armagh completed a hat-trick of Ulster Senior Championship successes last summer but are desperate to secure a return to the National League’s top flight at the sixth time of asking.
Last April’s divisional decider was McConville’s first time to follow a number of family members by gracing the hallowed turf of Croke Park, more than eight years after her Orchard debut, but being beaten by Kerry made it a disappointing day in the end.
“We were delighted to retain our Ulster title last season, and make it three in a row, which Armagh had never done before, but National League promotion has eluded us in recent years and getting back to Division One is an important priority for us,” says McConville.
“Playing all the top teams on a regular basis would undoubtedly be beneficial for our ongoing development so we’ve worked hard in this first phase of the season in the quest to get out of Division Two. We’ve won every game so far but there are plenty of things to improve upon.”
The formidable McConville may be small in stature but she’s a proverbial giant of Armagh gaelic and now, after making the shortlist for a second year running, is one of only five female Orchard heroes in history to have received more than one national All Star nomination.
Earlier last autumn, she had picked up an Irish News Ulster All Star for a second consecutive season having also made the 2022 NFL Team of Division Two at centre half back seven years after featuring in the same ceremonial line-up as a wing forward.
Both national All Star nominations have come since McConville’s successful switch to defence following a sabbatical Down Under, where she secured a state championship medal in Sydney, represented New South Wales and won an award playing Aussie Rules at club level.
Lauren previously spent a summer in the United States but otherwise, at time of writing, she has played 86 Armagh matches without ever being injured or dropped in an Orchard career which began back at the beginning of 2014, when she established herself as a starter right away.
McConville achieved Ulster Schools All Star status a decade ago as a pupil of Our Lady’s Grammar in Newry, where she received an award for ‘excellent attendance’, reflecting the diligence, dedication and dependability which are among her hallmarks.
What Lauren lacks in height, she makes up for in ferocious combativeness and tenacity, an incredibly determined player who is utterly relentless and never gives up, qualities which were to the fore when she helped Ulster to an interpro title triumph in 2016.
A supreme professional who is always a pleasure to deal with, McConville is intensely serious about her football but also an awful lot of fun, a small woman with a big personality whose skills include dancing, composing poems and tremendous mimicry.
Unsurprisingly, she is also successful in her professional life and recently achieved First Class Honours from TU Dublin in her Masters in Food Business Management and Technology, alongside working as Assistant Technical Manager for ABP Food Group.
Player of the Match when Armagh Minors won the 2011 All Ireland B final, her primary degree was in Food Science at Queen’s, for whom she lined out in the 2014 O’Connor Cup final as a fresher and then had the honour of captaining in her final year at the university.
At club level, a young McConville captained a then unfancied Crossmaglen to an Armagh Intermediate Championship and Division Two double back in 2017 and is the obvious successor to her fellow LWS LGFA Player of the Year finalist Kelly Mallon as county captain when the time comes.
A very effective forward for Armagh earlier in her career, where her bustling presence, pace and deceptive power repeatedly posed problems for defenders, the impressive McConville once ran up the astonishing tally of 10-10 for Crossmaglen in a club match.
Since coming home from Australia, she has played more of a deeper role in the amber and black with the precocious Alex Clarke providing the chief threat closer to goal, but McConville remains the most sparkling jewel in Crossmaglen’s crown.
Managers Maria O’Donnell, with whom she played in the Armagh Intermediate decider defeat to Grange a decade ago, and Peter McMahon paid glowing tribute to McConville on the back of her first All Star nomination in 2021 and she is a great role model for the club’s young players.
Lauren enjoyed winning the Armagh Division Two title alongside sister Aoibheann after returning from Australia in 2020 and the pair – who look quite alike with their trademark headbands – also now play for Crossmaglen in camogie having transferred from Culloville.
Aoibheann has joined her older sibling in Shane McCormack’s county panel this season and made her first Armagh appearance off the bench against Westmeath in the Athletic Grounds on St Patrick’s weekend when Lauren’s goal set the hosts on course for a win which clinched the Orchard’s tickets to Croke Park with a round of regular league games to spare.
The elder McConville could play inter-county camogie too based on ability, but her full focus is on the bigger ball code and adding to the three Ulster Senior Championships plus NFL Division Three and Division Two titles already won with Armagh.
An astute reader of the game who is physically fearless and sticks claustrophobically close to opposition forwards, Lauren looks like she actually relishes defending and has shown herself well capable of fulfilling her duties when the opposition have the ball.
When you combine that with her fantastic counter-attacking capacity from deep and good judgement regarding when to pour forward with pace and intent, McConville is a real asset for Armagh who can help propel the Orchard county to All Ireland glory for the first time.
Her county footballer dad Jim McConville captained Crossmaglen to the first of their All Ireland title triumphs at club level back in 1997 and famous uncle Oisin needs no introduction as a double All Star forward.
Last autumn was the 20th anniversary of Armagh’s men being crowned All Ireland champions for the sole occasion in Orchard history, with Oisin McConville netting the only goal in the Croke Park showpiece win over Kerry.
Top pundit Oisin McConville is now manager of Wicklow, while Lauren’s first cousins James Morgan and the O’Neill brothers, Oisin and Rian, have been Armagh regulars in recent years, and her younger brother Cian is also part of the county panel now.
The two O’Neill brothers were Armagh’s only men’s All Star nominees in 2021 and Orchard captain Rian was unlucky not to be a recipient for the first time last autumn after being crowned Ulster Footballer of the Year.
Rising star Cian McConville top-scored with eight points in a Player of the Match performance as Crossmaglen reclaimed the Orchard crown by beating Granemore after losing the previous two county finals to Maghery and Clann Eireann respectively.
Last December, Lauren completed a fantastic family hat-trick in the space of 24 hours by being crowned County Player of the Year as Armagh LGFA celebrated a successful season for their representative teams at the Carrickdale Hotel.
At the Armagh GAA awards dinner in Newry’s Canal Court the night before, cousin Rian had been named men’s County Player of the Year while her younger brother Cian picked up the Clubs Player of the Year accolade on the back of his prolific county final feats.
“I was absolutely delighted for Cian being recognised for I see the work that he puts in, and also Rian who was widely regarded as unlucky not to get an All Star this year. There’s a lot of pressure playing for the Armagh men’s side but he has done well,” declares Lauren.
The previous autumn, Cian had been on the losing side for Cross in the county final the day after the ladies All Stars banquet in Dublin, at which first-time nominee Lauren was accompanied by proud parents Jim and Michelle along with her sister.
Just to illustrate that the sporting genes don’t all come from the McConville side of the family, Monaghan native Michelle lined out alongside daughters Lauren and Aoibheann when Culloville camogs won the Armagh Junior Championship back in 2014.
It’s fair to say though that the family is primarily associated with gaelic football, stretching back to Lauren’s great uncle Gene Morgan playing for Armagh in the 1953 All Ireland final, and she is certainly living up to the weighty expectations placed upon her.
Childhood memories provided plenty of inspiration for the Crossmaglen girl to dream big and she acknowledges that being in Croke Park the day the Armagh men won the All Ireland made a huge impression on the then seven-year-old.
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 in 2002 and watching her uncle’s heroics made absolutely sure. She remembers the sheer euphoria very vividly.
“That Armagh win was very special. I may have been very young 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 recalls, with a degree of wonder even now.
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 photo of the then toddler Lauren in her dad’s arms as he prepared to hoist silverware as Crossmaglen skipper.
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.
Rather than feeling burdened by trying to emulate the achievement 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 gaelic football.
“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.
“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.”
Among McConville’s many admirers is the manager who was delighted to get her into his Armagh senior set-up as a teenager early last decade, James Daly, and the now Fermanagh gaffer has followed her career with interest and pride down through the years.
“Obviously Lauren comes from an outstanding gaelic football family but she’s up there as a superstar in her own right. She’s a smashing girl and was always an absolute pleasure to manage, whether with the county or at Queen’s or Ulster in the interpros,” he enthuses.
“There was some persuasion needed to get her to Armagh because Lauren likes to think things through and only commit if she can give 100 percent. I was delighted to get her on board because I knew her qualities and that, if she came, she’d be all-in.
“Lauren’s a quality footballer with power, pace and scoring threat, but talent alone won’t cut it at the highest level so her success comes down to ticking all those other boxes too in terms of ambition, competitiveness, doing the gym work and leaving no stone unturned.
“Right from the start with Armagh, I knew how good Lauren was and what she would give you. She always went and did what was asked, and is a real team player and very respectful but always great craic too around the environment and lifted everybody.
“She was a forward originally and has more recently changed to the backs but you could play Lauren anywhere and she’d make sure she did a good job for the team. It’s been rewarding watching her go from strength to strength and she deserves every accolade.”
In her debut season under Daly, Armagh won the first 13 matches McConville played in the orange jersey, winning the NFL Division Three title and the Ulster Senior Championship before finally losing to holders Cork in the All Ireland semi in September 2014.
The following May, Armagh defeated Donegal in the NFL Division Two final – leading to two seasons in the top flight which brought first ever victories over Dublin and Cork – and reached the All Ireland last four for a second year running.
They didn’t get back to another Ulster showpiece until 2018, suffering a chastening hammering at the hands of Donegal, and McConville has seen enough good days and bad to appreciate the Orchard blossoming afresh in the early part of this decade.
“I knew at the time how special it was to win that Ulster Senior Championship medal in my first season, as Armagh had been waiting seven years, but as time goes by, you really realise that those days don’t come around too often so it’s important to cherish them.”
She hadn’t returned from Australia in time to be part of Armagh’s next Ulster title win in 2020 but has tasted success in the provincial championship both seasons since and believes that her adventure Down Under can actually help prolong her Orchard career.
“I did miss quite a big chunk of county football, but I do think that the time in Australia refreshed me. It has always meant a lot but since coming back I’ve felt more motivated now playing for Armagh than ever before and I’m convinced that break away helped in that aspect,” muses McConville.
“Looking back on my time in Australia, I am so happy that I went there and experienced the country and the culture. It was a different lifestyle over there, very easy-going and of course the weather was a huge bonus.
“The best way I could describe it would be like being back at university but without having to live like a student! We went on plenty of holidays and trips. The GAA was a massive part of my experience over there and being part of that family that helped curb any homesickness.
“I consider myself fortunate to have joined, and enjoy so much success with, the Michael Cusacks club in Sydney and also get the opportunity to represent New South Wales in the inter-state championship, which we won.
“I played camogie for the club too and the standard in both codes was very high with so many Irish ex-pats present,” explains Lauren, who was lining out with the likes of former Mayo skipper Sarah Tierney, and won an Aussie All Star on the back of her NSW displays.
“Cusacks won the New South Wales Championship that season after a dramatic final when we had needed a last-gasp goal from (former Armagh forward) Caoimhe Murray to take the game to extra-time.
“I was in Sydney for most of the time but, when I was working on a farm in Victoria, I played Aussie Rules for the local South Warrnambool Roosters team. We won our league that season and I was awarded ‘Best and Fairest’ in the competition, which was nice.
“I really enjoyed it and it gave me a good opportunity to mix with the locals, but I think that’s as far as my Aussie Rules career will go!” chuckles Lauren at a time when an increasing number of leading ladies gaelic footballers are heading to play in the AFLW.