Still fighting to Reel in the Holy Grail

August 3, 2015

Richard Bullick

When Armagh met Westmeath in their opening game of the National League campaign, Sharon Reel was there togged out but took no part in what was an impressive victory by the Orchard crew.

The Killeavy veteran had only just returned to the county panel after a winter spent agonising over whether she could commit to another Orchard campaign given the demands associated with establishing her own business, SR Fitness.

As Armagh prepare to face Westmeath again in this Saturday’s All-Ireland qualifier at Breffni Park with Reel in her familiar No 5 jersey, the 31-year-old’s return still looks like a good decision based on her personal performances this season and genuine Orchard hopes of a prolonged run in the TG4 Championship.

“Thankfully things are busy with the gym and I’ve had to sacrifice classes but I get someone in on a Thursday evening to take yoga, only miss the warm-up really on Tuesdays, and Sunday mornings are free so I’m more or less there all the time and that’s how it has to be,” she reflects.

“If you do it, you have to do it properly out of fairness to yourself and everybody else.  You’d have more regrets messing at it and falling between stools than not being there at all.  But you’re a long time retired and I never wanted to look back at this season wondering ‘what if’.

“It would have been hard to step away when there’s such a positive vibe around Armagh ladies football but you’re under no illusions – sentiment can’t come into it either from management or yourself, at the highest level there’s no room for part-timers or passengers.”

In spite of her love for the orange jersey, or maybe because of it, Reel was adamant she wouldn’t simply play on out of fear of letting go – if Sharon returned she wanted to be sure she could contribute in a worthwhile way to a side pursuing realistic aspirations to compete for the sport’s top prize.

A good team woman, she weighed everything up pragmatically before finally answering manager James Daly’s call to return.  She knew that choice would require some sacrifices yet could command no guarantees, either in terms of her personal role or success for the side.

“The other girls had been working together since November and I’d never have expected to walk back into a team of this calibre, in a set-up with high professional standards.  I’d handed over my No 5 jersey and couldn’t demand it back until and unless I’d earned it.

“You have to keep your head down, train hard and take every opportunity you can to give the management something to think about, to give them the belief that you’ll do a good job for them.”

Reel regained her starting spot towards the end of the regular phase of the National League and although still wearing a higher number for technical reasons linked to performance analysis, she was very much back at the coalface for Armagh by the knockout stages.

Armagh avenged narrow defeats in the regular league games against Ulster rivals Cavan and Donegal by beating the Breffni brigade in the semi before a 12-point triumph over the North West women in the Division Two decider at Parnell Park.

A very impressive personal performance in the second half should have finally removed any doubts Reel may have had about her continuing value and she had the professional satisfaction from that to go with the Orchard celebrations of a second successive promotion.

At that stage her decision to play on must have felt very rewarding and not even a subsequent broken nose or the metaphorical hurt of Armagh relinquishing their prized provincial crown to Monaghan have lessened Reel’s conviction.

She wryly recalls how the injury wasn’t sustained in some noble battle in the Armagh jersey but in club training on a Friday night after a scheduled Division Two game against Granemore had been called off.

“The girl who did it is so docile, she wouldn’t hurt a fly, but we went up for a ball and whatever way her elbow came down did the damage.  There was a lot of blood but thankfully the hospital got it put back in that night.

“I went out and trained Sunday morning when the only thing I didn’t do was contact.  That evening I ordered a face mask but it was no good to me, with my lenses, so I just worked with plasters and padding.

“It was sore and I’d found it hard enough to breath when we did tough drills but it didn’t hamper me much in the Monaghan match and can’t be blamed for our disappointing performance and a defeat which probably hurt much more than the nose to be honest!”

Champions Armagh lost by 12 points to their predecessors Monaghan in a strange game which was actually close enough up until two late goals, though Reel – whose hard work on the day couldn’t be faulted – reveals it had felt like a bigger gap given the Orchard failure to fire.

“They really were wounded animals and we were probably naive to think we could play it like last year.  When it went wrong we were shell-shocked and didn’t respond particularly well either technically or in terms of fight.

“For the next few days, I was sick to the gut.  We watched the game back on the Thursday and it was frustrating to see our own poor performance but I think that helped ensure we won’t fear Monaghan next time we meet them.”

That could be in next month’s All-Ireland semi-final if Armagh follow up their opening qualifier victory over Laois by beating Leinster runners-up Westmeath and then new Ulster champions Donegal, who shocked Monaghan in the Clones showpiece, in the last eight.

Reel isn’t looking that far ahead but was pleased that the All Ireland draw was taking place the day after the Monaghan match to provide an immediate forward focus – and fate would appear to have dealt Armagh a fairly favourable hand.

“We weren’t intending to be going the back door route but the draw was decent enough for us and the qualifiers provide the opportunity to build up momentum.  It was good getting over the first hurdle against Laois and now Westmeath will be a raising of the bar.”

Possessing emotional intelligence laced with a facility for plain-speaking when it is needed, she’s someone who will reach out to the younger girls while letting them know what is expected of an Armagh footballer and leading by example.

“It’s heartening to see the fresh faces coming through and know the longer term future of Armagh is in good hands even when my generation’s time is up,” reflects Reel, who is an influential figure in the present set-up off the field as well as on it and a valuable voice within the group.

Daly regards her highly and it is hard to imagine this Armagh set-up without the stalwart wing back whose family make such a significant contribution to ladies gaelic in the Orchard county with sister Sinead part of the management team and dad Owen in his second stint as Ladies Board Chairman.