August 22nd, 2023


Richard Bullick

Receiving her A-level results this Thursday will mark the end of Maeve Lennon’s seven-year association with St Patrick’s HS Keady, for whom she made history last winter by becoming their first ever Ulster Schools All Star in ladies football.

St Pat’s Keady is better known as a camogie stronghold and it’s hardly surprising that, as the niece of high-profile manager Mattie Lennon, Maeve is pretty handy with a hurl herself and plays at club level, but the big ball code is the teenager’s top priority.

The only schoolgirl in this season’s Orchard county panel, Lennon featured in all seven of Armagh’s regular league games in NFL Division Two and also got a taste of Ulster Championship action in the opening round robin match away to Donegal.

Her typically composed point in the Athletic Grounds on a February afternoon when famed markswoman Aimee Mackin and Kelly Mallon had left their shooting boots at home helped Armagh to a narrow win over Laois.

Lennon’s only start came against Tyrone at Healy Park but those seven cameos off the bench also represented important minutes for a young player just starting her Orchard career, and she raised three white flags in total.

This hot prospect’s call-up last winter by Armagh manager Shane McCormack was no surprise given Maeve’s exceptionally prolific feats for her club Derrynoose allied to a sense that she has the talent and temperament to play at the highest level.

Her huge hauls in blue last season almost beggar belief, for Maeve racked up an incredible 12-31 in the four rounds of the Armagh Junior Championship, picking up Player of the Match on the back of her 3-6 in the final as Derrynoose defeated Clonmore.

The lethal full forward weighed in with a magnificent 4-7 as Derrynoose started their provincial campaign with an away win against Ballerin and then 1-5 as Barry McGurgan and Anthony Farrell’s side ran Tyrone’s Clonoe close on their own pitch in the Ulster Junior semi.

Most of the same players from that largely young team were straight back at it for the club’s Under 18s as they reached the main Armagh Minor Championship showpiece and put up a good fight against Lurgan giants Clann Eireann.

“There were exciting games, we were part of the first floodlit match at McKeever Park and beat Clan na Gael after extra-time, but it was disappointing for us older ones that we couldn’t finish our underage careers with a win in the final albeit against a great team,” says Lennon.

She’s unquestionably her club’s brightest star and only county player, but the commendably modest Maeve doesn’t get carried away with her fantastic tallies and is very insistent that Derrynoose ladies football is about much more than one high-scoring individual.

For such a young player, Lennon displays a calm maturity on the field and she seems level-headed off it too, discussing her successful career to date in a rounded and reflective way and conveying respect for fellow players and others.

Although just turned 16 that summer, Maeve was an influential figure in the 2020 Armagh Junior Championship win by Craobh Ciaran, an amalgamated team combining players from Derrynoose and Middletown when neither club could field on their own at adult level.

However, even then there was a real sense of excitement about the talent coming through in Derrynoose at age group level and that emerging generation not only enabled the club to compete again under their own name last season but actually claim silverware.

“I have nice memories from my first season of adult football, winning that Junior Championship with Craobh Ciaran.  It was a great group of girls and we got on very well.  It was a very tight final and we were delighted to win something together,” recalls Maeve.

“We enjoyed that Craobh Ciaran chapter but it was massive for us to get back out in our own name because that’s what you want as a club and knowing we had so many younger girls coming through was really exciting.”

McGurgan takes great pride in the ratio of girls around Derrynoose who play ladies football and it says a lot about the local fervour for gaelic games that this rural club, at the heart of its community, can sustain teams in all four codes.

“When you come from a place like Derrynoose, you get roped into everything so it’s mostly the same group of people involved and everyone wants to see each team do well.  There’s a real sense of identity and togetherness.

“I’m maybe better known for football but I play camogie too for my club and absolutely love it,” reflects Maeve, whereas her outstanding contemporary Sinead Quinn has gone the other way, playing county camogie and picking up an Ulster Schools All Star for that code.

In contrast to Quinn following in a long line of St Pat’s Keady camogs thus honoured, Lennon became a footballing trailblazer, though as with other things she steers away from any selfish focus.

“You don’t really focus on individual awards in a team sport but it was obviously a nice honour at a personal level and great for the school as it hadn’t happened before, though I’m sure plenty of girls in the past would have been worthy contenders,” she reflects.

“The school has such a strong reputation for camogie but football has its place too and hopefully my award will encourage girls coming up afterwards that they can go forward for trials and compete against girls from more established football schools.

“Even aside from the recognition, I found it a great experience coming up against girls from all over Ulster at the trials.  You realise how high the standard is, and what good players are out there, but that just whets your appetite to compete, push hard and improve.”

Likewise, when the senior county call-up came, the competitive and quietly ambitious Maeve jumped at the chance, even on the back of a very busy autumn juggling club commitments in two codes and those Ulster Schools trials.

Unlike young players from the likes of Clann Eireann, Carrickcruppen or Harps, Lennon was going into a county set-up which had nobody from her club, though she had played with Caitriona O’Hagan when Armagh Minors won last year’s subsidiary Ulster Championship.

“I was grateful to be asked by Shane and obviously said yes straightaway without hesitation.  I didn’t really know anybody except Caitriona and I suppose it’s surreal initially going from watching these girls on TV to training with them!

“But the girls were really welcoming and, once you’re in and get going, it was grand.  Obviously the standard is very high, the quality of player and intensity was something I hadn’t come across before but it’s where you want to be.

“I was so glad to get those opportunities during the National League.  You try to fit in and do your best when called upon and learn from each experience,” says Lennon, who is sensibly philosophical about not featuring in the later stages of the season.

An unused sub for the league final in Croke Park, Lennon’s A-levels coincided with the championship period and she didn’t take the field for Armagh since the first Sunday in May but acknowledges there has been plenty to bank from her first season on the panel.

“When it comes to championship, naturally a manager will play the best team who he believes will get the job done.  As a player, it’s about working hard and doing your best to earn involvement but then supporting whoever is selected come matchday.”

Some players can’t cope with the big step-up to adult level, or struggle with the reality of going from being a big fish in a small pond at their club to fighting for scraps of game-time for county but thankfully Lennon isn’t burdened by big-headed hubris.

There’s no denying what a standout she is for her club but this solid young citizen didn’t get carried away with her starring role in Derrynoose’s success last season and indeed it’s quite difficult getting her to talk about the individual rather than the collective.

“It was a real team effort for Derrynoose and I’d like to praise our younger girls, most of whom were playing two sports across a couple of age groups, and also acknowledge the club’s brilliant underage set-up which we’ve all come up through.

“We conceded three goals in the first three minutes of the final, which wasn’t ideal, but it was important not to panic and we kept chipping away at the deficit, helped by the defence keeping Clonmore from getting any more scores for ages after their dream start.

“To just be back fielding at adult level as Derrynoose felt like an achievement in itself, but to get to the final in our first season and then win was nice for our management and everyone in the club who puts in so much work, especially those who help train the young ones.”

Pressed on her own fantastic contribution, Lennon claims luck was on her side – “whereas some days it doesn’t go for you” – and is at pains to paise colleagues “who kicked great ball in and worked very hard doing their jobs just like I was trying to do mine.

“Maybe my tallies got talked about but other girls were chipping over important points too, even the younger ones, and credit too to our backs who didn’t let their heads drop after Clonmore’s early goals but got stuck in and kept things really tight.

“We really loved the provincial campaign.  It was a nice novelty because we’d never really played any teams from outside Armagh and felt like an exciting adventure after winning in our own county.

“There was a great buzz around the club because our men had won their Armagh Junior Championship too and we got to our camogie final, though unfortunately lost.  We were delighted to play well in our opening game in Ulster and get past Ballerin.

“It was quite a wet and windy day that we went to Clonoe for the semi.  We got close enough near the end and probably could have won, but they were certainly a strong team and the boys were happy that we’d given a good account of ourselves.”

‘The boys’ she speaks off are long-serving managerial double act, Barry McGurgan and Anthony Farrell, both of whom have not only given great service in the club but also taken county underage teams.

McGurgan was County Board development officer for a period and, through his Bureau de Change business, Farrell has been a generous sponsor of Armagh ladies football over the years, but like Lennon they bleed Derrynoose blue first and foremost.

“They’ve been with us as long as I can remember, fair play to them.  They’ve stuck with us from the get-go, and help out with other teams in the club too.  They’re interested in developing players, they want the best for us and I’m very appreciative.

“We’re fortunate to have so many volunteers around our club who put in so much time.  It’s a close-knit club, with all teams supported and there are strong family bonds between teams.  I’ve two brothers who play, though one is away to Australia at present,” she explains.

In keeping with her emphasis on the collective rather than the personal, Lennon’s response to a question about winning a Buttercrane Club Championships All Star along with team-mates Quinn and Caoimhe Hourican is to talk about the wider picture.

“It was nice recognition for the club and we were proud to be representing the team because all the girls put in so much.  We’re a true team in the sense that we all want to see each other doing well and are mostly in a similar age group.”

In the photos from that Carrickdale event, Lennon exudes an air of understated elegance and natural attractiveness in her black dress, just like she looks so comfortable and assured on the football field, never mind being great off both feet and physically capable for her age.

“Ah I wouldn’t say I’m overly calm, and I wouldn’t say I’m two-footed yet either – am a bit hit-and-miss on the left!” protests Lennon, adding: “I don’t feel out of my depth physically but, at adult level coming up against older girls, I could probably do with being stronger.

“I’d be more inclined to head to the pitch than the gym, but the physical side is something I do need to work on.  I’ve great role models in the Armagh squad, experienced players who I can learn so much from in terms of their regime, professional preparation and so forth.”

With her steadiness, evident talent and desire to keep progressing, this young woman, who just turned 19 the day after Armagh’s All Ireland exit last month, should shine in the orange jersey for many years to come along with spearheading Derrynoose’s ongoing rise.

They face a mouth-watering Intermediate quarter-final against another largely young team in blue, Clan na Gael, later this month and Lennon insists: “Everyone’s excited for the challenge and we’ll give our best.

“We haven’t played Clan na Gael at adult level with Derrynoose but plenty of players in both teams have faced each other in underage football, including Minors last season when we came out on top, but they’re a great team so we’re expecting a tough game,” she concludes.

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