Armagh’s Dromintee date delights McCoy

March 11, 2019

Richard Bullick

Aoife McCoy can be forgiven for not being too disappointed that Armagh ladies won’t be playing in the Athletic Grounds this Saturday as originally intended.

The Orchard outfit’s NFL fixture against Clare was supposed to be the curtain-raiser of a double bill also featuring the Armagh men’s match against Fermanagh.

However the programme has fallen foul of the official celebrations to mark St Patrick’s Day, with the Orangemen re-routed to Crossmaglen and the ladies lining out at McCoy’s club, Dromintee (4pm).

“I’m thrilled to be honest.  To run out onto my home pitch at Dromintee in an orange jersey will be really special for me and a proud day for my family,” enthuses Aoife.

“My mum and dad travel long distances all over the country to watch me play for Armagh so it’s nice that this one is on their doorstep and it can only help encourage ladies football in Dromintee.

“Winning the Armagh Intermediate title last September brought a big buzz and now the younger girls will get to see the county team up close and hopefully that will inspire some to reach that level in the future.”

McCoy’s own footballing journey began in these picturesque surroundings when she started playing for the club’s Under 8s and now the dynamic forward is one of the Orchard county’s leading lights.

Since coming into the panel at the start of the 2014 season, the diminutive McCoy has started 57 out of 65 Armagh matches with half of the other eight being accounted for by her decision to spend the summer of 2016 in America.

Rotated for one facile National League game, she wasn’t fit to start the 2015 All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin due to a knee problem and injury intervened again at the end of the 2017 National League campaign.

A knee injury sustained against Kerry meant missing the last regular League game in Clones where Armagh’s loss to Monaghan condemned them to a relegation play-off against the same opponents at the Athletic Grounds the following weekend.

A half-fit McCoy was thrown on as a gamble with the Orchard outfit’s top flight status slipping away, just as she had come on in that All-Ireland semi-final in spite of being injured.

It just underlines the perceived value of a woman who won Armagh Player of the Year twice in her first four seasons, made last season’s NFL Division Two Team of the League and has played for Ulster.

With several experienced campaigners having stepped away from Orchard duty over the winter, it means McCoy, now in her sixth season as an Armagh regular, must now be regarded as an increasingly senior player in this set-up.

She’s very established at this stage and, during her county career, has progressed from teenage student via the Queen’s captaincy to a self-aware working woman who turns 25 next month.

“I’ve evolved during my time with Armagh, both as a player and a person, and the physical change has been significant too,” reflects McCoy.

“Football has always been a massive focus for me, with a real love of the game being instilled in me by my family from a young age, but as you get older you become more aware of the small things that can make the difference, like gym sessions, eating better, getting more sleep.

“When I first started with Armagh I was a well, small, thin, weak thing who hadn’t done much conditioning but being in the Queen’s GAA Academy and working with the world-renowned Mike McGurn was a transformative experience.

“The hard work and benefits from that have helped make me more physically confident.  I’m quite experienced now too and understand what it takes to be an effective county player.

“And now I’m based in Belfast with work, playing county football becomes a conscious choice.  If you’re going to be rushing up the road a couple of evenings a week to train you will do what it takes to make the commitment worthwhile.”

Compared to Armagh having eight starters aged 32 and over against Monaghan in Clones last summer, McCoy was one of nine players under 25 in the initial line-up against Tyrone earlier this month.

That significant change in age profile points to a team in transition but Armagh have hit the ground running in 2019 rather than taking time to adjust or seeking excuses.

Veterans Mairead Tennyson, Sharon Reel and Marian McGuinness are among the Orchard departures but McCoy is more conscious of the absence of fellow forwards and contemporaries Fionnuala McKenna and especially her accomplice Lauren McConville.

Even more than her, McKenna and McConville have been virtual ever-presents over the past five seasons, but the former is taking a season out of inter-county football while the latter is in Australia for a year having previously visited the USA with McCoy.

“I’m sure those two will be back but it has been a bit different as I’m so used to having them there.  But their absence facilitates fresh faces coming through and that will add depth going forward.

“To be honest in spite of losing so many recognised core players since last season, there’s actually fantastic competition for starting spots at present and management must have headaches of a good kind picking the team.

“You say that I must feel fairly established at this stage and that’s true to an extent.  I’m happy to shoulder responsibility for my personal performances and back myself to make an effective contribution for the team, but I don’t take my place for granted.

“There’s a very positive vibe around Armagh at present and I don’t think our start to the season could have been any better.

“We’ve had tough games but came away with good wins.  The continuity of management has helped undoubtedly and it’s great to have Lorraine (McCaffrey) and Fionnuala (McAtamney) back for a second season with so much good groundwork done.

“There’s still a lot of work to do and things we can improve upon but it’s looking good.  We’ve sent out a clear statement of intent early in the season and now we want to maintain momentum in our promotion push.

“We felt we were good enough to go up last season but just weren’t winning the tight games.  Our recent match against Tyrone is one we could easily have lost this time last year.

“It’s not that the hunger has got greater because we’ve always wanted to win but I think we’ve become more effective in what we’re doing and game management.

“It’s indicative of our ambition that we weren’t satisfied with aspects of our performance in a good away win over Waterford who we lost to at home last season.

“Likewise we won’t take Clare lightly.  There’s no point in making the journey to win in Waterford or fighting past Tyrone at Garvaghey to then just turn up next Saturday with a casual attitude.

“Clare drew with Kerry in their opening game and pushed Cavan all the way on their last trip north so we’ll be giving them every respect.  We also want to put our best foot forward in front of what will hopefully be a good crowd.

“I’ve never played in an Armagh match at Dromintee at age group level and never expected to do so with the senior side so this is a pleasant surprise but it will only be a good day to remember if we win.”

Software engineer Aoife has come a long way since starting out at Dromintee nearly two decades ago but had she a clear childhood dream of playing for Armagh or did it kind of just unfold that way?

“I suppose I was one of the better players in school and I remember a teacher telling me I’d play for Armagh.  I went to the county Under 14s but didn’t get much of a look-in so didn’t try it at Under 16 level.

“However (club colleague) James Daly got me on board with Armagh Minors and he managed us to the All Ireland B title in 2011 which provided a platform for players to progress to the senior squad, which had been struggling.”

A broken ankle kept Minors star Aoife from graduating to the senior squad until 2014, two seasons after the likes of McKenna had helped Armagh claim the All-Ireland Intermediate title.

However considering her older sister Sinead had to retire from playing at the age Aoife is now following a third cruciate rupture, she can’t complain about a career relatively unblighted by injury in recent years.

Part of the Armagh squad for that famous Ulster title triumph of 2014, McCoy played an integral role in successive NFL promotions and the Orchard reaching back to back All-Ireland semi-finals.

She has graced high-profile pitches at the Athletic Grounds, St Tiernach’s Park in Clones, Breffni Park, Brewster Park and Healy Park, and reaching Croke Park remains the holy grail but this will be a special Saturday for proud Dromintee woman McCoy and her club colleague Shauna Grey.