February 15th, 2024


This time eight years ago, Armagh were about to make their long-awaited return to NFL Division One under a new manager and captain, with Orchard hero Ronan Clarke having taken the helm and handed the official on-field leadership role to Mairead Tennyson.

Another decision Armagh gaffer Clarke made back then was to have even greater long-term significance – opting for rookie Clodagh McCambridge to fill the void left at full back by the legendary Caoimhe Morgan’s second maternity break.

Just 18 at the time, McCambridge had been brought into the set-up the previous summer by Clarke’s predecessor James Daly, but her first National League campaign was a baptism of fire, facing all of the country’s top teams and in an unfamiliar role.

“At that time, I’d never played a National League game, or at full back, but I was hungry for any opportunity and I took confidence from Ronan giving me his backing.  I didn’t fully understand the responsibility but when you’re young you just get on with it” reflects Clodagh.

“Playing against those top teams was a steep learning curve but we won our first three matches and were top of the table briefly.  Looking back, I was very raw, but you just try to keep developing and learning from every experience and those around you.”

Fast forward eight years and Armagh are again returning to the NFL’s top flight – they host Waterford in Crossmaglen this Sunday (1pm) – after a lengthy absence with a new manager and captain, McCambridge having been made skipper by her club boss Greg McGonigle.

In the intervening period, the formidable McCambridge has established herself as one of the best defenders in the country, making the Team of the All Ireland Senior Championship in 2020 and picking up an All Star nomination for last season.

The 26-year-old is relatively young by Orchard captaincy standards compared to the last four incumbents – Caroline O’Hanlon, Tennyson, Morgan and Kelly Mallon – but an experienced player at this stage who has clearly impressed McGonigle in the club environment.

“Greg asked me a few weeks before the group got together for the first time.  Captaining your county is a huge honour, and an opportunity that I wasn’t going to turn down, but probably a wee bit daunting too because of the great responsibility involved.

“I’ve had the privilege of playing under some big characters as Armagh captains throughout my career and Kelly has been brilliant the past few years, not just setting a great example in how to do the job but in developing leaders around her and bringing those skills out in us.

“Over the past couple of seasons, I’d have felt empowered to say my piece if I felt it appropriate, and likewise I’ll want others to contribute now when I’m captain.  We’ve got plenty of leaders in the group and it’s important to harness that.”

“Everyone has their own captaincy style, and I think it’s about being yourself, but definitely you learn from those you’ve played under.  I’ve been around the Armagh set-up for the best part of a decade now and am aware what it takes to be an effective county player.

“You never feel like the finished article so becoming captain doesn’t change anything in terms of that striving to be better, but there’s a core group of us who have been together for a good while now and know what we should be doing.

“The high standards in Armagh have been handed down from that great team from the mid-noughties which has left such a legacy to this day.  I was at a surprise 40th birthday for Mags McAlinden last night and it’s always good to hear the inspiring stories of that era.”

McCambridge began playing with her heroes at club level and now the former Assumption GS Ballynahinch Head Girl is following in the footsteps of Maebh Moriarty and McAlinden more than a decade ago by becoming the Orchard county’s leading lady.

Unlike Mallon, who had never skippered a gaelic football team until filling in for the injured Morgan in a 2018 All Ireland group game against Cork in Ballinasloe, McCambridge captained age group teams at her club Clann Eireann.

She had no official leadership role when their senior side became the first female club team from the Orchard county to be crowned Ulster champions last November but was a key figure for McGonigle’s team and is delighted to have him in charge of Armagh.

“We had such a good season with Clann Eireann and so much of that was down to Greg, so there was real excitement when he was appointed Armagh manager as I knew what he could bring to the job,” reflects Clodagh.

“He came into Clann Eireann and set the stall out that the aim was to become Ulster champions, even though no Armagh club had ever done it before.  He has a great track record which commands respect, and he brings belief to his players.

“Armagh have won three Ulster Senior Championships in the past four seasons and reached an All Ireland semi but getting back to Division One of the National League has been an important priority for us so it was a real relief when we finally achieved that last April.

“There will be some tough games ahead over the next couple of months but that can only be beneficial for us as a team.  This is where we want to be playing and I think it’s what we need at this stage to push us on.”

From having eight starters of 32 or over for the 2018 All Ireland quarter-final had Morgan not got injured ahead of that game, and almost everyone else under 25, Armagh have a better age profile on paper now with a strong nucleus of the panel in their upper 20s.

Stalwarts Aoife McCoy and Lauren McConville are now 29, McCambridge and star forward Aimee Mackin were both born in April 1997 while Blaithin Mackin, who made her debut in the Division One opener last time Armagh got promoted, turns 25 this Saturday.

Along with the likes of goalkeeper Anna Carr, those are very experienced players still at the peak of their powers, but that core contingent is supplemented by valuable colleagues of all ages who have the hunger to push Armagh to fresh heights.

The iconic O’Hanlon has returned for her 23rd consecutive season in the orange jersey, this will be Mallon’s 16th and, at the other end of the age scale, young guns like last season’s big breakout stars Emily Druse and Caitriona O’Hagan are pushing through with purpose.

“It’s important to have these fresh faces coming in so nobody feels comfortable in their jersey and likewise it’s great to have experienced players like Caroline and Kelly keen to commit for another year because they believe in the group’s potential,” says McCambridge.

A former NI Under 21 international netballer, McCambridge could undoubtedly follow Vikki Wall or Niamh Marley into elite level rugby or sign up for the AFLW, but she has placed all her sporting eggs in the Armagh gaelic football basket and is focused on Orchard success.

The best scenario for this first phase of the season would see Armagh gracing Croke Park for the National League final on county chairperson Sinead Reel’s 45th birthday in early April but retaining their top flight status will be the first priority.

Although Armagh have reached at least the All Ireland Senior quarter-finals in each of the past seven seasons, being back in Division One after so long will bring a different form of pressure and this Sunday’s opening game already looks like a significant fixture.

Waterford are arguably the weakest of the other seven teams in the first division, and Armagh have home advantage in Crossmaglen so this looks like an opportunity to get important points on the board but that also brings its own pressure.

With Armagh just up from Division Two, this is likely to be a big target game for Waterford too and they may draw inspiration from their county champions Ballymacarbry beating McCambridge’s Clann Eireann on Orchard soil in last month’s All Ireland Club semi-final.

“It’s an important fixture for both teams, but the first game of the league always is and there’s plenty riding on every match at this level.  It’s nice to start at home, hopefully with a crowd behind us, and it’s good that only three of our seven league games are away,” she says.

The orangewomen were in Division One for McGoingle’s previous season at the Orchard helm back in 2009, when Mallon made her debut, and the man who steered Monaghan and Dublin to five All Ireland finals between them has plenty of top tier managerial experience.


Image preview