June 6th, 2024


Richard Bullick

There were prestigious gongs for manager Gregory McGonigle and Orchard captain Clodagh McCambridge on a memorable evening for Clann Eireann at the Gaelic Life Ulster Club All Star Awards.

Last autumn, the Lurgan team made history by becoming the first Orchard outfit to be crowned Ulster club champions in ladies gaelic football, beating Bredagh in the provincial showpiece having already dethroned holders Moneyglass.

Victorious club captain Niamh Henderson was one of five Ulster Club All Stars honoured at this month’s banquet in Monaghan’s Hillgrove Hotel along with McCambridge, Cait Towe, Niamh Coleman and Roisin Mulligan.

It was no surprise when Dungiven native McGonigle was named Ladies Football Manager of the Year and the evening ended with the 26-year-old McCambridge being enthroned as Ladies Footballer of the Year.

McGonigle had already been appointed Armagh manager ahead of Clann Eireann’s historic triumph and he installed formidable full back McCambridge as the new county captain ahead of the Orchard’s return to NFL Division One.

Armagh have got off to a great start and are currently leading the National League table by five points after five consecutive victories, most recently inflicting a first defeat of the season on current title holders Kerry.

That victory came on the back of beating recent All Ireland champions Meath by 10 points in their own backyard having already sandwiched a first-ever away win against Cork with victories over Waterford and Galway.

All five of Clann Eireann’s newly-conferred Ulster Club All Stars started against Kerry, including Henderson in what was her first Armagh match for nine years, along with Dearbhla Coleman, while Megan McCann came off the bench.

Clann Eireann’s most prolific forward Niamh Murray made her Orchard debut earlier this season while Clodagh’s younger sister Meabh McCambridge has recently joined the county panel for the first time although Tiarna Grimes has stepped away from county football.

It is no surprise that pragmatic club boss McGonigle has backed so many of his Clann Eireann winners to shine in the other orange jersey of Armagh and they are repaying the manager’s faith, including McCambridge taking the captaincy in her stride.

Young newcomer Mulligan is shaping up as Armagh’s find of the season, previous enigma Dearbhla Coleman is starting to thrive, Henderson has made a very encouraging return while Niamh Coleman and Towe were already regulars.

Combining a strong nucleus from the provincial champions with top talent from across the county is unsurprisingly proving a successful formula for experienced campaigner McGonigle, who has previously steered other teams to five All Ireland finals.

The incomparable Caroline O’Hanlon, who had stepped away from Orchard duty last summer, is absolutely revelling after effectively being put back into the conductor’s role by McGonigle going into her 23rd inter-county season.

Previous skipper Kelly Mallon, who led Armagh to an unprecedented three consecutive Ulster title triumphs followed by promotion back to the top flight has returned to the ranks now but remains fully committed to the Orchard cause.

Her younger sibling Blaithin Mackin is a notable absentee due to injury at present but star forward Aimee Mackin continues to provide exceptional cutting edge and she has already accumulated 5-16 for Armagh this season.

Stalwarts Aoife McCoy and Lauren McConville, who have both recently completed a decade of service, continue to be absolutely outstanding for Armagh and are at the heart of Orchard hopes of finally claiming the sport’s top prize.

The other diminutive duo, of last season’s breakout star Emily Druse and her predecessor as Queen’s University captain, Grace Ferguson, bring great energy while the country’s leading goalkeeper Anna Carr is an imposing presence at the back.

Perhaps fittingly, the last starter against Kerry was Granemore’s rising star Corinna Doyle, who had been crowned Dual Player of the Year at the Gaelic Life Ulster Club Awards two nights before and has returned to the fold following a stint playing county camogie.

Doyle had got the nod over the very established Eve Lavery and early season starter Sarah Quigley, who returned from injury off the bench in the Kingdom game after winning her club Clonmore’s Player of the Season award the night before.

Quigley spearheaded the attack as Clonmore won their first ever Armagh Junior Championship last autumn while Doyle was an influential figure in Granemore’s Intermediate title triumph so it isn’t just Clann Eireann’s Senior success that McGonigle is leveraging.

Louise Kenny, who has captained the Mackin sisters at club level for more than a decade, missed the Kerry match after receiving 16 stitches in a head wound sustained against Meath but has had a new role up front for Armagh this season.

Previous regular Lavery has had just one start in the current campaign but scored a lovely late point against Kerry while Caitriona O’Hagan came on for her first appearance of the season and effectively fulfilled the role the manager had identified for her.

Experienced campaigners Shauna Grey and Niamh Reel will be back in due course, Crossmaglen’s Megan O’Callaghan has shown promise in her first outings at this level and just getting game-time is an indication that a player has been excelling in training.

McGonigle is grateful to the County Board for permitting him to carry a bumper panel of close to 40 players, which has facilitated the holding of fiercely competitive in-house matches at training.

With actual Armagh game-time at a premium, the manager has talked about the benefits for his significant contingent of young players of working with, and learning from, O’Hanlon and his other big guns.

The advantages of a big panel include having more options, scope for horses-for-courses selections, squad depth in the event of injuries striking and enhanced competition for places, though keeping everyone happy in those circumstances could be a challenge.

However, winning generates a feel-good factor and McGonigle’s innate understanding of how to get the best out of people may help him keep positive vibes among fringe players like Ireland rugby gaffer Andy Farrell or England cricket boss Brendan McCullum manage.

Armagh’s next test is away to Mayo this Sunday when avoiding defeat in Ballina would guarantee the Orchard outfit a place in the NFL Division One final for the first time in their history or a loss would do if Kerry or Dublin don’t win their matches this weekend.

McGonigle seems to have the knack of lifting the horizons of players and, having convinced previously underachieving Clann Eireann that they could cut it at provincial level, he will be setting Armagh’s sights high while keeping feet firmly on the ground.

In addition to the hefty Clann Eireann contingent in his panel, McGonigle has brought in club legend Mags McAlinden, a former county captain, as part of a formidable management team which also features the highly-regarded Joe Feeney as head coach.