October 27th, 2023


Richard Bullick

Sarah Quigley played a key role in the Athletic Grounds last month as Clonmore exorcised the ghosts of an unwanted hat-trick of decider defeats by securing the first adult ladies championship success in the club’s history.

Opponents Clann Eireann Seconds scored the last four points of the opening period to go in level at the break but Clonmore got a goal just 17 seconds after play resumed and powerfully pulled away to win the Buttercrane Junior Championship final 3-10 to 0-7.

Star forward Quigley, who was in the Armagh ladies senior county panel as a teenager, produced an imperious personal performance when it mattered most, scoring the final 1-4 of the match having earlier got the opening point of the afternoon from a free.

The Queen’s medical student had hit 1-7 in Clonmore’s away win against Pearse Og in the previous Saturday’s semi to set up another tilt at the third tier title after falling at the last hurdle three times in the past five seasons.

Beaten by Mullabrack at Orchard headquarters in 2018, Clonmore lost to Clan na Gael in Portadown the year after and then suffered heartbreak in Lurgan last autumn when eclipsed by Derrynoose after getting off to a dream start with three goals in the first three minutes.

So along with great joy, vice-captain Quigley admits there was a sense of real relief in the Clonmore ranks to finally get their hands on the silverware and the break before their provincial campaign starts meant this success could be celebrated at length.

“After losing three finals, we were desperate to get over the line, but along with the experience of playing big games, the hurt from those defeats drove us on and we had a really strong second half after going in all-square at half-time.

“We took a week off from training and did a fair bit of partying!  Winning this Junior Championship meant a lot, not just to those directly involved and our families but a very supportive club and the wider Clonmore community,” says Quigley.

“Everybody is very close with each other here.  We’re very proud of where we come from and love playing for Clonmore, though as a very rural area it can be a challenge getting the numbers to field an adult ladies side.

With some eight camogs in their ranks, primarily attached to Port Mor, Clonmore have the additional challenge of accommodating dual players but Quigley says that the clubs concerned work well together to avoid direct clashes and manage workloads.

She also acknowledges the good work this season of 25-year-old manager Ryan O’Hagan, “a sharp-shooter for the Clonmore men’s team but just back from AIL surgery – he has been great, with the help of Maggie Conlon (mother of club captain Emma).”

Along with the aforementioned Emma Conlon, Quigley initially lined out for Grange at adult level, an arrangement which provided valuable experience for the then schoolgirls, who are still fondly remembered by their foster club.

There were Grange representatives on the pitch after the final last month enthusiastically congratulating the victorious Clonmore players and Quigley has happy memories of that beneficial chapter of her career.

“I had several seasons at Grange, where we were made very welcome, and getting exposed to Division One football at that stage brought me on so much as a player,” reflects Quigley, who played for Armagh right up through the age groups.

Naturally it was a proud step forward when Clonmore felt able to take the plunge themselves as an adult ladies side in 2018 with a youthful team built around a golden generation of girls who had grown up together.

“We’d started an Under 14 team, which had the likes of Emma, myself and Niamh Forker, and that nucleus is still there now.  We were a very young team in our first (adult) season but got to that year’s Junior final by default really and unsurprisingly lost to Mullabrack.

“Getting to play in the Athletic Grounds was a bonus but the following season’s loss to Clan na Gael was tougher to take as we had a bit more experience under our belt and had earned our place in the final that time.

“The club is great at supporting the men and ladies sides equally and they held a breakfast for us ahead of that final.  But our opponents Clan na Gael, though largely young as well, were a great outfit that year and we lost out again.”

Even though Clonmore didn’t make the final for the next two seasons, they kept progressing slightly under the radar, and that growth has finally led to a trophy triumph this autumn after the anguish of that Derrynoose defeat last October.

“I think with each year we have been getting better, even our training sessions now are at a much higher level.  We had only 12 players lining out for our opening league game against Cullyhanna this season but there are good underage girls pushing through.

“That first final against Mullabrack showed us what was needed, we took useful learning from the Clan na Gael loss and then how we were beaten by Derrynoose spurred us on this time so every final is a valuable experience for a developing team.”

Clonmore are better equipped now to make the step up to Intermediate than would have been the case had they won the third tier title earlier but, before then, Quigley and her colleagues are relishing a crack at the Ulster Junior Club Championship.

History will be made at the end of this month when Clonmore have home advantage against the Derry Intermediate title winners, whose identity had still to be determined at time of writing, in their first ever provincial championship match.

“It will definitely be a great occasion and I’m sure we’ll get good support.  We took that break after the county final, but everybody’s enjoying being back at training now and looking forward to playing against brand new opposition,” enthuses Sarah.

Both Clann Eireann and Armagh Harps have been pitched straight into Ulster quarter-finals the weekend after Orchard county title triumphs in recent seasons whereas five weeks will elapse between Clonmore’s domestic success and provincial opener.

“That’s maybe a longer gap that you’d ideally like without a match, but the schedule did enable us to take that welcome week off to enjoy the celebrations and refresh so we’re happy enough with how it is,” muses Sarah.

The timing means a number of players are back at university at this stage, including Sarah, who is starting her fourth year studying Medicine at Queen’s where her former county captain Caoimhe Morgan has just taken over as ladies football manager.

As teenagers, Quigley and Emma Conlon were brought up into the Armagh senior squad under the then new management team of Lorraine McCaffrey and Fionnuala McAtamney ahead of the 2019 Orchard campaign.

Sarah had been part of an Armagh Under 16 team which made history by being crowned Ulster champions in 2016, was impressing for Grange at club level, and her call-up was a natural progression.

“I played for Armagh right through from Under 14s and, in my last year in Minors, they’d asked who would be suitable to be brought up to the senior squad.  I was also there under Ronan Murphy the following season before starting university.

“Going into that set-up was a complete eye-opener, people taking sport that seriously and all the extra work individuals did, and the detail and so forth.  It was incredible being around players like Caroline O’Hanlon and Kelly Mallon, and I learned so much.

“Realistically, I don’t think I was quite ready at that time, but the experience is still standing to me and has given me a lot to take forward with me now at club level, preparing properly and doing what it takes to optimise performance in big games.”

Whereas the young Quigley was looking up to Armagh’s marquee names in the county set-up, she’s such an influential figure for Clonmore and Sarah admits to carrying a considerable burden of responsibility at club level, albeit it’s something she relishes.

“I definitely do feel pressure going into the big games for Clonmore, in terms of an expectation on me to get scores and I know that I’m generally going to be paid close attention to by the opposition, but I’m 23 now and well used to that.”

Having impressive physical presence to go with being a quality footballer makes Quigley a real handful for defences and she gives this hard-working Clonmore team a real cutting edge as seen in the recent Armagh Junior semi and final.

“Most of our team had watched Pearse Og beat (second division) Tir na nOg in an earlier round so we were quite nervous going into the semi, which was away from home, but it was a convincing victory which gave us momentum for the final the following week.

“I thought we were probably slight favourites for the final, though under no illusions that it would be a handy win because Clann Eireann Seconds had beaten us in the league by a couple of points on a very hot day.

“Clann Eireann has such a strong tradition in ladies football and those girls have grown up with a lot of underage success but we had the experience playing those previous Junior finals and added drive from having lost them!

“Going in at half-time we were worried enough as they’d got the last four scores to draw level.  We realised we needed to take it up a notch.  Thankfully Tara (Conlon) got that very early goal, a good team goal too, and from that moment on we absolutely believed.”

Quigley posted some lovely points as Clonmore marched to an impressive victory, and her scoring capacity allied to an imposing physique will surely have attracted the attention of new Armagh manager Greg McGonigle.

“Being strong is a great bonus but I do put a lot of work in away from the pitch on the physical side of things.  I believe in my ability as a footballer but also take confidence from knowing that I can take on my player and won’t be easily bullied.”

Sarah has seemed strong for her age through the years and she reveals that she has ‘always been looking to put in the extra work’ way back to when encouraging dad Mark was her Armagh manager in Quigley’s first two years of underage county football.

“Those couple of years with the Armagh senior squad were also a real eye-opener, and being given gym programmes was useful,” says Sarah, who is doubtless much more ready for inter-county football now than when she was involved a few years ago.

A powerful forward at club level, Sarah has shown what a threat she is in attack for Clonmore and it would be interesting to see how her attributes would measure up in the orange jersey, though Quigley’s heavy academic commitments must be taken into account.

The first two years of her Medicine degree “were a bit of a struggle as we were purely online and then the third year was out into the hospital placements, so that was a big culture shock, but being a doctor is definitely what I want to do.

“It’s a busy schedule, you really have to prioritise and plan, but I’ve always played football alongside my studies and think I’d be worse off if I hadn’t had that outlet,” says Quigley, who won an All Ireland Under 20 B title with St Pat’s Academy Dungannon.

“Winning that for the school was massive for us, one of my fondest memories, because it was won with my best friends and not long after the Greenvale accident (a tragedy in which three teenagers died), which had affected our school,” reflects Quigley.

There were five Clonmore players involved – Quigley, sisters Emma and Tara Conlon, Riona Cunningham and goalkeeper Rebecca Dobbin Donaghy – in that triumph and now they have a championship success in club colours to savour too.

Emma Conlon and Quigley had the thrill of making their first appearance for the senior county team on home soil – as subs in a victory over Cavan in a 2019 National League game – one of several Armagh matches which Clonmore has hosted.

The Orchard outfit’s first ever victory over Cork had come at Clonmore in 2017, a year they also staged the Armagh Intermediate club championship final replay and Sarah says that “it makes me proud to be part of a club willing to do its bit beyond our own activities.”

However, October 29 will, unashamedly, be all about Clonmore themselves and, while it was a huge honour for Quigley to play for Armagh in her own backyard, this historic Ulster Junior Club Championship match is set to be a very special occasion for Sarah and her team.