Finnegan ready to take Orchard chance

January 11, 2016

Richard Bullick

As Armagh gear up for for their first taste of NFL Division One football for seven seasons, Sinead Finnegan is one of the select few who know what it is like to win big games in the top flight.

The experienced Carrickcruppen player, back on board under new Armagh manager Ronan Clarke, having left the panel last summer, is among a handful of Orchard squad survivors from the team that reached the 2008 Division One semi-finals thanks to a valiant victory over fierce rivals Tyrone in their Beragh backyard.

A youthful Finnegan started that Easter Saturday as her clubmate Caroline O’Hanlon and inspirational skipper Bronagh O’Donnell led the way with superb personal performances in the play-off against a team who had drawn with them in Crossmaglen six days earlier.

Alma O’Donnell had discolated her shoulder in the first encounter and twin Bronagh had to fly back overnight from a work trip to the United States to face All-Ireland champions Cork in the subsequent semi, which predictably proved a bridge too far for an Armagh team managed by Finnegan’s father, Jim.

A prominent member of the famous Armagh side which reached the 1977 All-Ireland final, gentleman Jim stood down at the end of what was his sole season in charge and, with the O’Donnells – now based in Dublin – no longer available, the Orchard oufit were relegated the following year.

It has taken until now for Armagh to return to the top tier of league football having slid down into Division Three for three seasons before back to back promotions, and Finnegan has had more than her share of footballing frustrations at a personal level, largely due to a cruel run of injuries with goalkeeping sibling Niamh similarly afflicted.

Even in 2008, a back problem blighted Sinead’s promising season and there was worse to come with a cruciate rupture the most serious of a catalogue of fitness issues.

“I’d actually a serious back problem way back when I was in Under 16s – they were even looking at replacing a disc at the time.  To be honest the back is still a factor for me in terms of niggling injuries,” says Finnegan.

She did her cruciate in the club championship semi in 2011, missing the Athletic Grounds showpiece, and only returned for the following season’s semi-final loss to Clann Eireann.  It was soul-destroying at the time.

However she made a significant contribution to Carrickcruppen’s Armagh Senior Championship triumphs in 2010 and 2013 and won her club’s Player of the Year award the season before last, when Finnegan filled in as captain for an absent O’Hanlon – “it’s a privilege playing with her” – on a regular basis and clearly relished the official leadership role.

For a while the St Colman’s Annaclone P1 teacher appeared prepared to content herself with being an important player in an increasingly successful Carrickcruppen side rather than risk subjecting her all too breakable body to the harsh rigours of county training.

But back last winter Finnegan felt physically confident enough to return to the Orchard ranks and that decision was rewarded with a couple of starts and regular game-time during the NFL campaign.

However the fact the versatile Sinead didn’t feature in either the Division Two semi-final or final meant she was something of a surprise pick in the starting team as Armagh got their Ulster title defence underway against predecessors Monaghan in early July.

It seems her selection came on the back of having done well in challenge games in that two month period between League and Championship, but sadly she and Armagh were to endure a nightmare afternoon in Breffni Park.

In contrast to the previous summer’s Ulster final when they had caused a huge upset against champions Monaghan thanks to a perfectly figured gameplan impressively implemented, uncertain Armagh produced a comparatively poor performance in the rematch.

Unable to get into the game, an anonymous Finnegan found herself hauled ashore midway through the first half and although she was given a few minutes at the end of the first All Ireland qualifier, the writing was on the wall for her hopes of meaningful gametime going forward.

A peripheral figure following her ill-fated outing against Monaghan, she subsequently left the Armagh set-up to concentrate on ’Cruppen’s push to reclaim the county title.

Walking away after 10 months of hard work at a time when the county team was still harbouring hopes of reaching Croke Park a mere few weeks later appeared a big gamble for Finnegan and club colleague Caoimhe Murray.

But the talented duo were richly rewarded with winners medals in both the Armagh Senior Championship and Division One league as the Lowe’s Lane ladies secured an historic first domestic double.

No world beater but a very experienced, confident enough footballer who O’Hanlon has hailed as a highly intelligent link player, Finnegan is a deceptively physical campaginer always willing to put her perceived vulnerable body on the line for the ’Cruppen cause.

She admits to playing most of last September’s county final in a semi-concussed state after taking a bad bang early on which had the crowd wincing, and her emotional interview an hour after the final whistle still lingers in the memory.

“Carrickcruppen means everything to me – I’d give my life and my soul for this club,” declared Finnegan at the time and she has consistently shown the stomach to back up words with actions.

Four days after the crushing humiliation of the Monaghan match, Finnegan bounced back by playing like a woman possessed as ’Cruppen saw off fierce rivals Clann Eireann in the Armagh Championship semi-final in spite of vice-captain Marian McGuinness getting red-carded in the first half.

“What happened in the Monaghan match was tough for me so it was great having the club semi-final to focus on and it proved the perfect tonic.  We’d worked so hard from February that we couldn’t let the sending off cost us everything and seeing Marian distraught really drove me on.”

Sinead had done well in the earlier League game when ’Cruppen crushed Clann Eireann in Camlough, was superb in the Championship clash and battled bravely through the final to help her team over the line against Armagh Harps.

“Regaining the county title was very satisfying and then the League win was the icing on the cake.  I’m delighted for our mangement team of Barry and Gerry Flynn, who have put unbelievable effort into what was their first season at the helm.”

A useful half forward who can do a job as sweeper, Finnegan clearly relished wearing the No 14 jersey for ’Cruppen this past season when she made a significant scoreboard contribution while willingly working back too.

The unfortunate Finnegan was carried off after twisting her ankle in the League decider at Clann Eireann on a Monday night but took the field from the start in the following Sunday’s Ulster Championship quarter-final away to Donaghmoyne.

That ended in a bad beating against the team which went on to be crowned All-Ireland champions but it couldn’t take the gloss off ’Cruppen’s season and thankfully Finnegan hasn’t given up on her Orchard career either.

“I hadn’t thought too much about it but a preliminary meeting with Ronan Clarke convinced me to give it another go.  I was very impressed with him, I can take confidence from the past season at club level, you always want to challenge yourself at the highest level and playing for Armagh is a huge honour.”

It’s hardly surprising that the Orchard dream remains meaningful for Finnegan, considering who her father is and also that her first taste of involvement with the county came in 2006, that special season which saw Armagh win their first Ulster title and reach their only All-Ireland final to date.

“I was only 18 and it was unbelievable being in that environment.  We had some superb players and there was a completely professional approach which everybody bought into.  That era really transformed Armagh’s mentality and results reflected that.”

She subsequently became part of an essentially lost generation as Armagh’s golden era gave way to a few lean years before fortunes were revived under James Daly who brought through a significant influx from his All-Ireland Minor B winning team of 2011.

You might wonder whether it seemed slightly strange for Finnegan a year ago, an experienced player at club level who had rubbed shoulders with the current team’s elder stateswomen back in the day but at the same time effectively a newcomer with plenty to prove.

“It was fine – there were plenty of familiar faces and as it happened I often travelled to training with some of the younger girls which helped get to know them.  I found no issues with hierarchies or any generation gap,” she reflects.

Her recognisable surname hasn’t brought any perceptible burden during her career either and Sinead says dad Jim, like mum Mary, has just been fantastically supportive rather than a pushy parent trading on his own distinguished footballing background and piling pressure on his offspring.

Ironically considering her Monaghan misery last summer, the Farney women are Armagh’s first opponents in the forthcoming campaign on January 31, but the following week’s trip to Tyrone should bring back better memories from the old days for Finnegan.  An away win like in 2008 would be very valuable for the orangewomen.

The intervening years may have delivered less for Finnegan than she would have hoped in the Armagh jersey and the injury jinx means that, like her boss Clarke, she knows all too well the futility of looking too far ahead.

So, unsurprisingly, Sinead’s full focus is on making the most of the here and now which means even enjoying the hard slog on winter nights that will help prepare the Armagh girls for the tough but exciting challenges of top flight football.  This is where they always want to be.