McCoy central to Armagh revolution

December 7, 2015

Richard Bullick

It may not have been accompanied by much fuss or fanfare but Aoife McCoy’s deceptively central contribution to the Armagh revolution has been both admirable and invaluable.

Ever since coming into the county’s senior set-up two winters ago, the industrious Dromintee wing woman has held down a starting spot within an increasingly competitive panel and Armagh have reached consecutive All-Ireland semi-finals for the first time ever.

While she’d hardly claim exclusive credit for that team achievement it’s far from a complete coincidence either, for the Orchard’s recent rise owes much to the emergence of fearless fresh talent with the work ethic and determination to go with considerable ability.

Other young guns such as scoring machine Aimee Mackin may have hogged the headlines and the regrettable absence of McCoy’s name from the 2015 All-Stars shortlist is costly testament to how she often falls under the radar.

But the fact she has been a first pick player from the outset for former manager James Daly is one endorsement of the Queen’s computing student’s standing and her recent Armagh Player of the Year award win was emphatic evidence of just how highly this 21-year-old is valued within the set-up.

Peer recognition in any sport is prized above all other accolades and what made this honour so special for Aoife is the fact it was based upon the votes of her county colleagues.

“That was absolutely massive for me,” admits McCoy, “considering I’m only in my second county season and all the fantastic footballers we have.  The fact it was the girls who chose it means an awful lot.”

The term unsung hero could have been coined for her but the modest McCoy insists she hadn’t built her hopes up regarding a possible All Star nomination and, as for getting relatively little media exposure, would “rather be out of the limelight and let the focus fall on others.

“But in the wider sense it’s pleasing the team’s success has attracted considerable coverage and it’s good to see the profile of ladies football is increasing,” she reflects.

In the Orchard’s case, playing big games as curtain-raisers ahead of men’s matches has helped bring the ladies team to a wider audience as does the fact five Armagh fixtures this year were televised live.

Armagh have had some wonderful days these past two campaigns and the fact this season seemed almost an anti-climax after that amazing journey in Aoife’s first year shouldn’t obscure concrete achievements.

Losing their Ulster title was a big blow but either side of that the Orchard crew completed a second consecutive promotion in the National League and reached the All-Ireland semi-finals for a second year running.

“The Monaghan match wasn’t a good day for us but we bounced back well in coming through the qualifiers.  We were well beaten in the semi-final again but there’s plenty there to build upon and a strong desire to keep progressing under new manager Ronan Clarke.

“We were quite badly hit by injuries this season and the fact we lost a couple of regular League games compared to a 100 percent record the year before can be attributed to facing better opponents but come the knockout stages we showed we were the best team.

“Obviously the year before was always going to be hard to top – it was my first season so that was exciting enough but it was fantastic for the entire team because we were complete outsiders who got on a great run.”

Armagh romped through Division Three unbeaten, emphatically eclipsed a trio of first division sides to win their first Ulster title for seven seasons in a packed Clones and obliterated Laois in the All-Ireland quarter-final before bowing out against virtually invincible champions Cork.

There were over 20,000 spectators present when the Armagh girls did their spine-tingling lap of honour in Clones after overcoming Monaghan, holders and hot favourites, in that Ulster showpiece which has obviously been the highlight of McCoy’s career so far.

“It was daunting enough coming into the senior set-up, not so much playing in Division Three, but just how tough the training was, how committed you had to be and being in the enviroment with absolute legends like Caroline O’Hanlon and Caoimhe Morgan.

“But the girls were really welcoming and I enjoyed getting stuck in.  I found everyone very dedicated and we got great training and gameplans from James and Aileen (Matthews) which ensured we went on the field confident.

“With every game and every session I got good feedback for helping me develop.  There’s always something to work upon and you’re always looking to improve more but I felt I grew into it last season and played my part in the Ulster final for example.”

Her consistent contribution certainly delighted Daly, like herself from Dromintee and a huge influence on McCoy’s career to date.  She’s still working with him now he’s been back as Queen’s manager this autumn.

“James first took me at club level, then Armagh Minors and now the full county team so he has been there throughout.  He’s been so supportive and I’ve great respect for him.  I don’t think Armagh would be where we are without him.”

McCoy was a signficant figure in Armagh’s All-Ireland Minor B title triumph under Daly in 2011 and although a bad ankle problem prevented her following some of her peers with him into the senior ranks right away she has emphatically made up for lost time.

Ironically it was another ankle injury which meant McCoy couldn’t start September’s All Ireland semi-final against Dublin and the extent to which Armagh missed her again underscored what an important player she has become in this side.

Although the timing was frustrating, Aoife feels fortunate enough considering older sister Sinead’s nightmare run with three torn cruciates ruining and prematurely ending her career.

Aoife did the damage in the final few minutes of a pulsating All-Ireland quarter-final against Ulster champions Donegal in Clones where her superb second half display was a big factor in Armagh’s narrow win coming from behind.

“We knew we hadn’t performed in that first half but the team played brilliantly in the second.  I was pretty happy with how I went in that half after real reinforcement from Sinead at half-time encouraging me to take on my defender.

“The injury at the end was a big blow but I thought I’d get back for the semi and then as the two weeks went by the realisation grew that I wouldn’t make it for the biggest game of the year.  That was gutting.”

Clearly half fit she was thrown on as a desparate gamble after time in Parnell Park and although hobbling badly showed glimpses of what Armagh had been missing but by then the game was effectively up.

Daly has since stepped down after four seasons in charge but Armagh are already looking forward to what will be a demanding Division One campaign, a baptism of fire for Clarke but also an exciting challenge for all involved.

Although McCoy has established herself in the side, like everyone else she will have to prove herself afresh following the change of manager and is enthusiastically embracing the new era.

“Ronan Clarke coming in will wipe the slate clean for everyone and previous reputations rightly won’t count for anything.  That’s healthy and it’s exciting to have Division One football to look forward to.

“Playing all the top teams in the country this spring will help prepare us for our Championship campaign and obviously Ronan is a guy who has won the All-Ireland himself so knows what is needed.

“We’ve already had a meeting with him, he has a good football head on him and will bring something new which is why James stepped aside in spite of his great record – he felt we could benefit from that freshening up.”

In spite of that significant change at the helm and fierce competition for places when everyone’s fit it’s hard to imagine McCoy’s influence lessening in the time ahead given her hunger, ever-improving physique and ability to contribute effectively in attack and defence.

Although a selflessly willing worker who happily takes on the less glamorous jobs she also has a happy knack of raising green flags – her eight goal haul for Armagh this year was bettered only by the remarkable Mackin and included a hat-trick against Meath.

“Yeah that was an enjoyable day, it’s rare enough for a half forward to be in that position, but Aileen has always said if you’re in for an opportunity you try to make it count.  Goals win matches, though I wasn’t aware I’d eight this season,” says this true team player.