Aoife McCoy will appear in her seventh Ulster Senior Championship final for Armagh this Sunday though their third decider in a row against familiar foes Donegal at Owenbeg (3.30pm, BBC Online) will be the Dromintee dynamo’s first as Mrs Hawkins.
It has been a busy few weeks for McCoy, who tasted victory at Croke Park for the first time in an Orchard career now in its 10th season when Armagh beat Laois in last month’s NFL Division Two final to secure an overdue return to the top flight.
She fitted in a brief break of four days in Italy after her dream wedding the following Friday but a fuller honeymoon will have to wait because, as husband Karl knows well enough by now, proud professional Aoife’s football commitments come first.
McCoy is grateful for the fulsome support she receives from family, with a regular entourage at Armagh matches up and down the country, and she was accompanied by both her parents and new spouse at the NFL Awards at Croke Park at the start of this month.
There is no truth in the tongue-in-cheek suggestion that Karl proposed in October 2021 to cheer Aoife up after she somehow missed out on the All Stars shortlist but, some 18 months on, she’s a married woman with a deserved nomination for 2022 on her sporting CV.
Although she has won Armagh Player of the Year twice and picked up two Irish News Ulster All Stars, McCoy is seen as something of an unsung hero in the Orchard ranks but those who watch closely know she’s worth her weight in gold.
That includes the six Armagh management teams who have had McCoy as a first choice attacker right through her county career and the software engineer has started all 10 games so far this season, weighing in with half a dozen goals garnished by five points.
A great stalwart in the orange jersey since coming into the panel early last decade, the well- respected, popular and fiercely committed McCoy joined a distinguished Orchard centurion club by making her 100th Armagh appearance against Monaghan back in February.
Having enjoyed a fairytale first Orchard campaign but then had to wait six years for another Ulster title triumph, McCoy knows how a career can have highs and lows so is hungry to make the most of what has so far proved a productive decade for Armagh.
Last May, the Orchard crew completed an historic hat-trick of Ulster title triumphs and now have their sights set on four in a row followed by a real tilt at being crowned All Ireland champions for the first time ever.
Having begun their latest title defence with a 1-15 to 2-4 away win over Donegal at Lifford, Armagh clinched their place in this weekend’s decider by crushing Cavan 8-14 to 2-7 in their second round robin game in a packed Clones.
That match being played as a curtain-raiser to the men’s Ulster final inevitably brought back special memories for Aoife of her first Clones showpiece nine years ago which was also the opening instalment of a double bill at St Tiernach’s Park.
On that occasion, unfancied Armagh ended a seven-year famine with a convincing victory over a formidable Monaghan team who had been playing two league levels above them that spring and were hotly tipped to make it five Ulster titles in a row.
Back then, newcomer McCoy was a slightly scrawny little wing forward who had only left her teens a few months earlier whereas within the present set-up she’s a very experienced player and valuable leader along with being considerably stronger physically.
Having just turned 29 at the end of last month, and with her hunger undiminished, there’s hopefully plenty more to come from McCoy, but this Orchard hero has already earned the right to be branded an Armagh ladies legend.
In some senses that first Ulster final feels like a long time ago, Armagh have a much-changed playing panel and the then student McCoy, who went on to captain Queen’s University, is now at a very different stage in her sporting, professional and personal life.
The wheel has kept turning and now those teenage breakout stars of 2014, McCoy and Crossmaglen’s Lauren McConville, are the illustrious senior pros providing guidance to emerging players like Emily Druse and Caitriona O’Hagan.
At the other end of the scale, Aoife’s original county captain Caroline O’Hanlon is set to be absent for an Ulster final for the first time in Armagh’s history while the vice-captain then, Caoimhe Morgan, is assistant manager of Fermanagh these days.
“Nine years is a long time in sport so inevitably there has been a big turnover since 2014 but we’ve enjoyed good stability and continuity too so there’s plenty of experienced players still there and some fresh faces coming through which is a healthy mix,” she reflects.
“You want young girls coming in with their enthusiasm to drive on in training and I suppose seeing them brings home how the likes of myself and Lauren are among the senior players now but everybody works well together.
“Someone like Grace Ferguson is still young but has stepped up massively and I think our overall age profile is good if we want to push hard for further success and ultimately win an All Ireland because I absolutely believe the ability is there.
“I was lucky enough to play in an Ulster final my first season, and it was such an occasion, but then had to wait four long years until the next. Then we took two hidings from Donegal in finals so it has been a nice change winning the last three. You’d never get tired of winning!
“After that first season I might have expected Ulster finals in front of big crowds every year but bitter experience teaches you not to take anything for granted. Likewise, I’d never played in Croke Park until last April and the recent league final was my first win there.
“Losing there last year wasn’t nice but maybe that experience stood to us last month. Because it’s such a special place and it was a first for most of us, we’d probably built it up a lot in our heads and it was quite a let-down when we were beaten back then.
“Second time round we knew what to expect and obviously scoring four goals in the first nine minutes against Laois was a dream start. We were clearly the best team in Division Two this season and definitely deserved to have at least eight players in the Team of the League.”
From training multiple times a week to sporting social occasions like the NFL Awards, McCoy spends so much time around her fellow footballers and unsurprisingly there were big contingents both from Armagh and her beloved Dromintee at the wedding last month.
“It was very windy but we were lucky that it stayed dry. I haven’t time for much else outside of football but feel fortunate to have made some wonderful friends and it was nice to share such a special day with quite a number of team-mates and more in the evening.
“We got away to Italy for four nights and can look forward to something more when the season is over. It’s been a busy few weeks but life’s good and now everyone’s really up for this Ulster final.
“You never know how many more of these opportunities you’ll have and every year there’s a different dynamic so it’s exciting. We’ve had a real rivalry with Donegal over recent seasons and I’m sure it will be a very competitive match.
“The painful memories from those two finals where they hammered us are still there so I’d never underestimate Donegal even after those sweet wins against them these last two years and I wouldn’t read too much into beating them earlier this month.
“The past two finals were exceptionally close so we have to be ready for another tight game. Donegal got relegated from Division One but we’re expecting the best version of them at Owenbeg and know we will need to be at our best to hold onto the Ulster title,” she insists.
Donegal will be exceptionally motivated to reclaim the provincial crown after recent Orchard dominance but Armagh have momentum and skipper Kelly Mallon is in line to lift the trophy at a third venue in as many seasons after Omagh’s Healy Park and Clones.
This Sunday’s showpiece was unceremoniously turfed out of Clones, where the orangewomen would have relished lining out again so soon after the thrill of facing Cavan there in front of a crowd which had swelled to some 20,000 by the end.
“It brought back memories of 2014 for we very seldom get to play in front of a crowd like that, the biggest a lot of the current team have ever experienced. We enjoy playing in Clones so it’s disappointing the final has been moved but that’s out of our hands,” says Aoife.
In a strange way being back there so soon for a much more important match in a comparatively empty stadium might have created a slightly flat feeling but hopefully Owenbeg will have its own special chapter in Orchard history after this Sunday.