Matthews shaping up for new challenge

January 27, 2014

Richard Bullick

Aileen Matthews looks like she could still do a job on the field for Armagh but these days the prolific forward’s full focus is on what she can contribute to the Orchard cause in her new role as assistant manager of the senior county team.

The Killeavy legend hung up her boots after scoring 2-8 to help her club lift the Armagh Intermediate title in 2012 courtesy of a dramatic comeback against Crossmaglen.

Like her counterpart Stevie McDonnell, Matthews may have stopped playing prematurely but both have quickly moved on to managerial roles with county teams, in Aileen’s case as a key member of James Daly’s support staff.

“I got married last summer and have fully finished playing at all levels.  Everyone misses playing but it was time to move on and I’m enjoying the new challenge of working with the county team in a coaching capacity under James who has been doing a great job the past two years,” she reflects.

“It’s very different from being there as a player, watching rather than training, but I can still play an important part and hopefully contribute to fresh success stories for Armagh ladies football.  The passion to help Armagh gain success is still the same.

“It has been a reasonably brief break between playing and coaching but I feel fresh enough to take this step now when the chance came and I don’t think the fact I’m only recently retired has caused difficulty for myself or the players.”

Aileen and a number of the present panel are effectively contemporaries who go back a long way but she insists it hasn’t been strange working with their old team-mates and their response has been positive.

“Those experienced players have been there for a long time and are professional enough to judge me or anyone else on what we can contribute.  I think they respect the fact I’m a professional coach who has the knowledge, training skills and so forth to bring the team on.”

Matthews may have lacked pure pace or particularly fancy footwork but she had the physical presence, confidence, footballing brain and technical ability to make her an effective force and leading light in Armagh’s most successful side ever.

As a player, Matthews would have been a huge hero to some of the younger girls in the present panel but they’re less likely to be overawed thanks to encountering Aileen in her day-job as a schools coach with Armagh GAA.

“I’d have coached quite a few of them in primary school so there would be a basic familiarity factor there already and of course some of the top players from my era are still there in the squad so hopefully the young girls will benefit from our collective experience.”

Much has been made of the famed Armagh mentality back in the day – the intensity, single-minded determination, exceptional commitment and ruthless streak which were hallmarks of the team that won the All Ireland Junior final in 2005 and only lost the following year’s senior showpiece by a single point.

In some senses, like past triumphs for other teams, constantly looking back could be counter-productive so it’s about striking the balance between facing forward while holding onto and handing down that distinctive culture.

What gives Matthews high hopes that the future can indeed be orange is seeing younger girls who not only have the ability but mentality needed to make fresh history.

“Absolutely, there are young players coming up as good if not better than those in our team then and if they train and commit themselves the way we did I’ve no doubt they will reach the glory level of the old days.

“There’s a nice blend between older ones who were there back in the 2005-07 period and newer players who would love to taste that level of success and more for themselves so it’s an ideal dynamic.

“We’re very excited about the youthful faces coming in, forwards and defenders, who have definite potential.  They’ll hopefully add something new to the mix and it freshens things up,” says Aileen, coincidentally echoing Daly’s rationale for getting her on board.

In adding Matthews to his backroom team, Armagh manager Daly felt she would bring a different dimension to the set-up, not just as a professional coach but because of her recent experience as a high-profile player at inter-county level in ladies football.  Unsurprisingly, she shares his view that this is an important piece of the managerial jigsaw.

“I feel that having been there gives me an invaluable insight into the commitment needed as a player and an understanding of the training level you need to be at to compete with the top teams.

“From experience you’ve also a strong sense of how players feel about things and what they want from management.  That’s helpful for us as a management team and probably provides reassurance for the players though James has clearly earned their respect previously.”

Approachable but tough, Matthews can combine empathy with hard-nosed distance when needed so old comrades can’t expect favours or youngsters special protection.  Everyone will be expected to commit totally and do what it takes to be successful.

Asked whether the players find her scary, a smiling Matthews muses: “You’d need to ask them that but I’d like to think not.  Managers might need to put the thumb down at some stage but hopefully they’ll listen and take heed to what we’re trying to get across.”

She will have a particularly important role to play in working with talented young forwards like Aimee Mackin and Lauren McConville and developing the technique, confidence and killer instinct which were hallmarks of her own game.

“Confidence comes once you’re fit and sharp and get match practice.  I want to get them fit and into matches and then hopefully they’ll build their own confidence through finding they can contribute and that hard work will be rewarded.  It’s all about putting in the effort first and then the positives flow from that,” she explains.