O’Hanlon crowned Ulster’s leading lady

October 27, 2014

Richard Bullick

Orchard captain Caroline O’Hanlon has been named Ulster Ladies Footballer of the Year after leading Armagh to Ulster Championship glory as the highlight of a stellar season.

The majestic midfielder, who turned 30 in August, was a worthy winner when honoured at the recent Irish News Ulster All Stars awards dinner in Armagh City Hotel.

This is the second season running that an Armagh player has scooped the top prize in Ulster ladies football as last year’s winner was young gun Fionnuala McKenna.

It wouldn’t have taken the adjudication committee long to decide on O’Hanlon as Ulster Ladies Footballer of 2014 considering her exploits for province, county and other teams.

In her first season as Armagh’s official captain, O’Hanlon led the county team to 13 wins from 13 matches before defeat in this month’s All-Ireland semi-final to magnificent champions Cork.

Armagh finally secured promotion from NFL Division Three at the third time of asking, with seven wins from seven in the regular league games before thrashing Tipperary in the semi-final and seeing off Waterford in the decider at Parnell Park.

Clinching that title, trophy and all-important promotion place really took the heat off for James Daly’s ladies who then embarked upon a glorious run to Ulster Championship success with a hat-trick of impressive victories over teams who had spent the spring playing two league levels above them.

They thrashed old enemies Tyrone by 15 points in front of a five-figure curtain-raiser crowd in the Athletic Grounds with a superb performance before coming from behind to defeat Donegal by six points in the semi in Lisnaskea.

They went into the final as unfancied underdogs against a mighty Monaghan team going for a fifth Ulster title on the trot but a superlative performance from Player of the Match O’Hanlon led Armagh to a thoroughly deserved and convincing victory by nine points in a packed Clones.

In one of the proudest moments of her incredible career, double All Star O’Hanlon lifted the trophy before the Armagh players did a spine-tingling lap of honour with over 20,000 people in the ground.  She was later named All-Ireland Player of the Month for July.

The superstar skipper returned from her heroics with the Northern Ireland netball team at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow to produce another commanding display which earned another Player of the Match Award as Armagh humiliated outclassed Laois in the All-Ireland quarter-final, winning by the remarkable margin of 23 points in Tullamore.

Unfortunately Cork proved a bridge too far in the subsequent semi though another good display from O’Hanlon earned her yet another appearance in the Gaelic Life Team of the Week, a notional line-up selected from players across all codes.

O’Hanlon’s last point against Cork put the midfielder clear at the top of the Armagh scoring charts for 2014 with 15-38 in spite of playing two matches less than centre half forward Fionnuala McKenna (4-70), who kicked the lion’s share of the team’s frees.

She top-scored in eight of her 12 Armagh matches this season, netting twice in five of them and at least once in all but two.  The NFL final was the only match in which she failed to register any sort of score while her highest tally was 2-6 in the All-Ireland semi against Laois.  An impressive 12-29 came from play plus three penalties from three attempts and nine frees.

In addition to her Armagh exploits, O’Hanlon played a key role in Ulster retaining their interpro title in May and in helping Queen’s to only their second ever O’Connor Cup final, picking up a Varsities All Star, after claiming their first Higher Education All-Ireland League title.

She scored the opening goal of the match as her class of 2012 beat their 2013 counterparts in the TG4 Challenge on February’s All Stars tour to Hong Kong.

Captaining Carrickcruppen for a 10th successive season, O’Hanlon led her club to the Armagh Senior Championship final where they were beaten by bitter rivals Clann Eireann in spite of the skipper top-scoring with 1-4.

As well as starring for five gaelic teams in 2014, O’Hanlon has had outstanding success in netball with the highlight being Northern Ireland’s fantastic achievement in finishing seventh, having been seeded 11th, at their first Commonwealth Games.

During the spring, the remarkable Bessbrook woman juggled captaining Armagh in ladies gaelic’s National League with her first campaign in the Sky-televised British SuperLeague for Tyneside franchise Team Northumbria.

She started every game for which she was available in the pivotal position of centre either side of helping Northern Ireland beat Barbados, ranked eighth in the world, in her Caribbean backyard and later played in the European Championships.

Caroline captained her Lisburn-based club Larkfield to the NI Premier League and Senior Cup double, one of four trophies lifted in the past six months as a skipper of teams in two sports.

Described during the season by Armagh manager James Daly as the best ladies gaelic footballer in Ireland, O’Hanlon’s award win has been proudly hailed by her club Carrickcruppen and Armagh Ladies County Board.

Among those to pay tribute is Ulster Ladies PRO Paul Swift, who says: “Having both refereed and watched Caroline O’Hanlon a number of times this year, it was no surprise she won this award.

“O’Hanlon is without doubt any manager’s dream, a leader with a great engine who can be found defending inside her own small square and seconds later could be kicking over a sweet point – she has it all.  Her skill level is fantastic and she is one of the best fielders of a ball in Ireland.

“There’s no doubt Caroline is highly respected amongst her peers and she has turned in consistently strong performances all season for Carrickcruppen, Armagh and Ulster.”