July 5th, 2024

Richard Bullick

You can’t buy readymade stars in a transfer market in inter-county gaelic football, but classy Clann Eireann captain Niamh Henderson has felt like the ultimate new signing for Armagh in recent months.

The 29-year-old won Player of the Match in May’s Ulster final victory over Donegal, was centrally involved in Aoife McCoy’s two goals in the opening All Ireland group game against Meath and her late equalising score away to Tipperary earned Armagh a home quarter-final.

Henderson goes into this Sunday’s showdown with Mayo in the Athletic Grounds (5.45pm, TG4) not having played an All Ireland Senior Championship knockout tie since the 2014 semi-final loss to Cork and she is relishing every minute of this second Orchard career.

The National League game against Kerry at the beginning of March was schoolteacher Henderson’s first Armagh match for nine years and the fact she was pitched straight in to start was a real vote of confidence from manager Greg McGonigle.

Considering it was a battle between the only remaining unbeaten teams in Division One, the league leaders against the title holders, Henderson didn’t have the luxury of easing herself back into county football after such a long absence and she admits to feeling nervous.

But she impressed sufficiently in the Orchard victory to retain her place for the away win over Mayo on St Patrick’s Day that clinched Armagh’s ticket to their first ever National League final, in which they came from behind to dethrone Kerry.

That was Henderson’s first outing at Croke Park since she scored a point as a 17-year-old wing back in Armagh’s 2012 All Ireland Intermediate final victory over Waterford and the nostalgic connections continued with this spring’s provincial championship.

May’s Clones showpiece against Donegal was Armagh’s seventh consecutive Ulster final but Henderson’s first for a decade since the then Orchard outsiders shocked a Monaghan team who were hot favourites for a fifth title triumph on the trot.

Winning her first Ulster Senior Championship medal was a big deal for teenager Henderson, who played midfield that day alongside iconic captain Caroline O’Hanlon, though she couldn’t have imagined at the time that it would be so long until her next triumph.

But Henderson sustained a serious knee injury the following spring, that long lay-off was followed by pregnancy and Niamh’s full focus thereafter has been on being a great mum to her young son Noah.

However, she had continued to excel at club level, culminating in captaining Clann Eireann to Ulster Senior Championship success last autumn, something that no female team from the Orchard county had managed before.

Henderson reveals that her club boss McGonigle becoming Armagh manager was the big game-changer in terms of convincing her to pursue the Orchard comeback which she had contemplated previously but not acted upon.

“I’d thought more about (potentially playing for Armagh again) over the past 2-3 years and maybe came close enough in my mind but, with Noah still so young, I’ve other responsibilities and wasn’t sure I’d have the time to commit,” she explains.

Noah will always come first for committed mum Niamh but conversations with McGonigle over the winter persuaded her that an Armagh return was feasible and she joined the panel in February, just before the National League game against Meath in Ashbourne.

“I was feeling good and confident after Clann Eireann’s run to Ulster success and, after the year of coaching I’d had with Greg at club level, I knew what sort of set-up I’d be going into with Armagh and that the commitment would be worthwhile.

“It wasn’t quite a case of ‘now or ever’, but I knew in my heart there wouldn’t be a better time, with Greg as manager, (clubmate) Mags (McAlinden) part of the backroom team and so many Clann Eireann girls on the panel.

“It was still a big decision after so long out of it, and I took a bit of time after the club campaign finished in early December, but Greg kept the door open and, when I came in, everyone was so welcoming.

“A reservation in my head was that I’d have less time with Noah but it’s been brilliant, he’s at an age now where I can bring him to training and all the girls are so lovely with him.  He even gets Aimee Mackin coaching him now that she’s out injured unfortunately!

“Noah is six now and he’s really enjoying everything.  When we won the National League final in Croke Park, lifting the trophy with him in my arms is something special that I’ll treasure for the rest of my life.”

Like Ashleigh Baxter in the Irish rugby sevens squad, Henderson’s story should inspire other women with children who aspire to keep playing sport at the top level and Armagh have accommodated Noah being brought when the team has had overnight stays.

Meanwhile, the football itself couldn’t have gone any better with Henderson establishing herself as a first-choice starter since getting the nod against Kerry and helping the team to that historic NFL title triumph followed by Ulster Senior Championship success!

Although an experienced player, who had proven her pedigree at the highest level at an early age, Henderson had been away from county football for nine years – a very lengthy gap in sporting terms – so a few worries would have been understandable.

Despite missing pre-season and the first few National League games, Henderson is in fantastic shape so the physical side wasn’t likely to be a problem but she admits there was some apprehension initially.

“Greg had us flying fit with Clann Eireann so I was confident enough physically but I was really nervous when I first came back in because the standards at Armagh are so high and I felt that I did have to prove myself.”

Despite Armagh having a panel of 38 players, Henderson was named in the matchday squad against Meath and, with Louise Kenny sidelined by the nasty facial injury sustained in Ashbourne, McGonigle handed her the No 14 jersey next time out against Kerry.

“That’s probably the most nervous I’ve been in a long time and I definitely felt pressure.  It’s nice knowing the manager has faith in you but it was a big game against a top team, in the Athletic Grounds, and you don’t want to let anyone down.

“There’s such competition for places and we all keep pushing each other on but I’ve become more confident with each match in terms of familiarity with the team and how we’re trying to play,” says Henderson, who really stepped up in the Ulster final after Mackin’s injury.

Originally a wing back and then midfielder for Armagh in her early years, she has pulled the strings for Clann Eireann from centre half forward in recent years and, despite wearing the No 14 jersey, isn’t the proverbial fox-in-the-box for the current county team.

Henderson’s three points from play in the Ulster final were crucial on the day but modern gaelic football isn’t as much about the number on your back as managers devising gameplans in which individuals are given particular roles that play to their strengths.

Like other top players, the accomplished Henderson seems to have more time than most and she possesses a good footballing brain and calm manner along with impressive physical strength, and is a good facilitator who can also chip in with useful scores.

“I think you have to be versatile nowadays and I’ve played various roles through my career.  I gained experience playing county football as an early age but have been fortunate at club level to play alongside some real legends and also under good managers.

“It’s all about tactics and doing what the team needs but being in the best possible physical condition helps.  I do a lot of gym work and the mental side is important too.  I’m fairly calm by nature and we’ve also done good work with top-class sports psychologists.”

It was a good decision to give county football another go as Henderson is proving a very valuable addition to the Orchard ranks and, with such success so far, the hard work is paying off and all the effort feels well worthwhile.

“I honestly can’t put into words how fortunate I feel to have had these opportunities, playing in Croke Park with Armagh again and winning our first ever National League title and then picking up another Ulster Senior Championship medal.

“Getting Player of the Match in the Ulster final was a surprise, because that accolade could have gone to anyone, but it was a lovely wee piece of icing on the cake,” she admits, in response to my gentle ‘who-writes-your-scripts?!’ ribbing.

She also came up with that invaluable equalising score late on against Tipperary in Thurles which not only secured qualification for the knockout stages but home advantage in this weekend’s quarter-finals, and Henderson is proud of the resilience shown by Armagh.

“We’ve really had to dig deep in those two crucial league games against Kerry and Mayo, both finals and our two All Ireland group matches.  They were all tight games we could easily have lost but didn’t and hopefully those experiences stand to us going forward.

“Against Tipperary, we were favourites and didn’t play badly but didn’t score enough so when they got the two quick goals, we were really up against it.  But our response showed the character and determination in the team and now we need to keep pushing on,” she insists.


She enjoyed huge highs as a talented teenage gaelic footballer back in the first half of last decade but now Niamh Henderson is having to pinch herself all over again on the back of a wonderful Ulster Senior Championship double in the space of six months.

Henderson had the honour of lifting the trophy as captain when Clann Eireann became the first female team from county Armagh to be crowned provincial club champions by beating Bredagh in Omagh’s Healy Park last November.

Having subsequently returned to inter-county football after a nine-year absence, Niamh picked up Player of the Match as Armagh defeated Donegal in the Clones showpiece on a gloriously sunny afternoon in May to reclaim the Ulster title.

Those successes sandwiched Armagh’s first ever National League title triumph, achieved by beating Kerry in Croke Park in April, when Henderson graced Croke Park for the first time since the 2012 All Ireland Intermediate decider against Waterford.

“I can’t believe it’s nearly 12 years now since that Intermediate final.  Getting to play in Croke Park aged just 17 was amazing, getting a wee point to my name and then watching one of my heroes Mags McAlinden lifting the trophy as captain,” reflects Niamh.

“Though that was probably topped by our 2014 Ulster final win in a packed Clones.  We’d just got promoted from Division Three that season but beat three Division One sides in the provincial championship.

“Monaghan were huge favourites for the final.  They were really dominating Ulster ladies football back then and were expected to win their fifth title in a row but we beat them well in what was a curtain-raiser before a men’s match.

“There was a huge crowd in by the end of the game, and I also remember walking along the main street in Clones afterwards with my clubmate Sinead McCleary.  Those were incredible experiences, particularly for such a young player.

“I also won back-to-back Division Three and Division Two titles with Armagh and maybe being blessed to taste such success in those teenage years helped me make peace with the thought that my county career had ended very early.”

As documented on the facing page, a serious knee injury followed by embracing motherhood meant Henderson didn’t play county football for nearly nine years, though she helped Clann Eireann maintain their domestic dominance during that period.

Henderson won Player of the Match captaining Clann Eireann to victory over traditional rivals Carrickcruppen in the 2022 county final replay and lifted the cherished Marie Hoye Cup again as skipper last autumn.

That made it a dozen county titles in 18 seasons for Clann Eireann, yet they had underachieved at provincial level, not even reaching a single Ulster final as sides from other counties took turns at challenging Monaghan’s mighty Donaghmoyne.

It was frustrating, for the talent was there, but it took the arrival of Greg McGonigle as manager last season to bring about the mindset shift which would enable Clann Eireann to finally break through that glass ceiling.

“Probably the biggest factor was the belief he instilled in us.  An Ulster title felt so far away for us after falling short so often before but he set that target and eventually everybody bought into it.  It was a magical journey and meant so much to everyone involved.”

After a comprehensive victory over Carrickcruppen in the domestic showpiece, Clann Eireann won well away to Cavan’s Drumlane in their opening provincial game before facing Moneyglass – who had just dethroned Donaghmoyne – in the Ulster semi in Lurgan.

“That Moneyglass game was such a great win for us and probably the point where I really began believing.  After each win we’d got more confidence and no stone was left unturned ahead of the final against Bredagh in Omagh.

“We were trailing in the second half but fought through to win.  We just wanted it so much and every player gave everything.  Watching it back is still so special.  It was such a proud day and an achievement no Armagh club had managed before.”

With her young son Noah gazing up adoringly, Niamh gave a beautiful unscripted captain’s speech before lifting the trophy, which captured the enormity of what her team had done but was delivered in that dignified, gracious way which is her hallmark.

Gently-spoken and with a lovely serene countenance, Niamh admits she isn’t one of life’s tub-thumping ‘natural leaders’ but progressively grew into the club captaincy, culminating in how she even rose to the occasion so well with microphone in hand in Healy Park.

“I’m maybe more of an introvert by nature but have probably evolved into that leadership role a bit more as I’ve got older.  I’d always look to lead by example, in terms of setting standards and also encouraging girls rather than by big team-talks.

“I wouldn’t be great at speeches, but what I said that day in Omagh just came directly from the heart.  Clann Eireann is my family and I’m so passionate about the club.  I felt sort of overwhelmed but just so deeply proud of what we had done.”

Clann Eireann were well beaten by Ballymacarbry of Waterford in their All Ireland semi-final at the start of December but hosting such a big game on their home pitch in Lurgan with a bumper crowd watching in the winter sun was still special.

“So much had gone into winning Ulster for the first time that, maybe even subconsciously, it was tough getting up again so quickly for another big game and we were maybe a bit nervous and overwhelmed by the occasion.

“We were up against opponents with plenty of All Ireland semi-finals under their belts and they made that experience count but (Clann Eireann stalwart) Maebh Mo (Moriarty) spoke well afterwards about how much we had to be grateful for.”

The Ulster champions had to face Ballymacarbry without midfielder Aoibhinn Henderson, who had already left these shores, but sharing that historic success with her younger sister a couple of weeks earlier was something Niamh will always savour.

“It was absolutely amazing to play those big games alongside my sister and she was such an influential figure in the team.  We knew she was moving to Australia afterwards for an unspecified period so it was fantastic for her to head off on that high.

Their big brother Ryan Henderson, a former county footballer and ex-Irish League soccer star, managed Clann Eireann ladies to their 2019 county title triumph and remains a constant source of encouragement.

“Ryan has been absolutely brilliant.  He has such a passion for ladies football and is a diehard Clann Eireann man who took our team for two years.  Although he’s always been busy with his own sport, he goes to nearly every match that I play and is so supportive.”

Niamh has now been joined in the Clann Eireann senior side by Ryan’s exceptionally talented daughter Cassie, who just turned 15 in May, but has already won a European age group boxing title as well as showing huge potential in both forms of football.

“Cassie is actually a role model for me.  The maturity of her is incredible.  I’ve never seen a player with her mindset, attitude and commitment.  I’m just so proud of her,” enthuses Niamh, whose club have a very impressive production line of talent coming through.

Niamh Henderson received a standing ovation as she led her victorious team into Clann Eireann’s dinner dance at the Seagoe Hotel at the start of March with that Ulster Club Championship trophy in hand but they don’t intend that to have been a one-off success.

Despite taking the Armagh helm last autumn, McGonigle has continued as manager of Clann Eireann and there have been no objections to that because the club’s success last season has undoubtedly been beneficial for the Orchard cause.

They may have been with separate teams and achieved in different weather conditions, but those two Ulster final wins by sides in orange jerseys in Omagh last November and Clones in May were achieved under the same manager with a good few players doubling up too.

Among the many positive things McGonigle has done since taking the Armagh manager’s job, getting Niamh Henderson back into the Orchard fold must be high up the list and both boss and player are already reaping the rewards of her decision to return.

Assembling all of the county’s best talent is an important part of any manager’s job and McGonigle has recognised that the classy Henderson can combine being a devoted mum and an effective footballer for Armagh as the Orchard crew chase All Ireland glory.

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