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Newspaper for Crossmaglen, South Armagh, Newry and Down.

Cross Captain Lauren ready for final step

Richard Bullick

Last time Crossmaglen ladies played in a Championship final in 2013, a team captained by former Armagh forward Maria O’Donnell featured a rising star just out of school called Lauren McConville.

Both players netted in injury-time of a pulsating game in the Athletic Grounds to snatch Cross a replay against Grange but, with the holidaying McConville missing, Crossmaglen lost the replay by 14 points in Silverbridge.

That was a second successive Intermediate decider defeat for Crossmaglen, beaten by a great Killeavy comeback the year before, and they have had to wait until now for another chance to lift the trophy.

Crossmaglen go into Sunday’s final against Sarsfields at Mullabrack (5pm) as underdogs but they weren’t favourites either for last month’s semi when they recorded a deserved victory over Dromintee on a 3-8 to 2-8 scoreline.

Four years on from that last final, the retired O’Donnell is now managing the team with Peader McMahon, while the impressively matured McConville is club captain and a proven performer with plenty of big game experience under her belt at the highest level.

Either side of a stint in America last summer, she has started all 44 Armagh matches since being brought into the county panel at the start of 2014, and helped the Orchard county to the Ulster title, two All-Ireland semi-finals and back to back promotions in the National League.

Last season she scored the goal which sealed victory for Ulster in the interpro final, subsequently spent the winter as Queen’s University captain and has since led Cross into this weekend’s decider.

At the time of those Grange games, McConville was just getting ready to head off to university and now she is a working woman – in quality control for a Castleblayney meat plant – having graduated with a good 2:1 degree in Food Safety this summer.

It has been a highly successful few years on and off the field for the likeable Lauren, though the roll of achievement hasn’t included silverware with her club, something McConville would dearly love to change this weekend.

In a wide-ranging interview back in February before leading QUB into their O’Connor Cup campaign, McConville had spoken passionately about her desire for Crossmaglen success as well as Armagh glory.  Now they are only an hour of football away from a trophy triumph.

“At a personal level I’ve been fortunate enough to have had so many good days with Armagh in my first few seasons but there’s no denying that Cross have had a rocky couple of years since those back-to-back finals.

Crossmaglens Lauren McConville

“We’ve shown glimpses of what we could do, like against Lissummon in the 2015 Championship, but as a team we probably didn’t believe enough,” reflects Lauren, who was cautiously optimistic coming into the current campaign but also accepts Cross have perhaps pleasantly surprised themselves too.

“We were very nervous ahead of our opening Championship match against our neighbours Lower Creggan (an amalgamated team from the Dorsey and Cullyhanna clubs) as they had given us what was probably our toughest game in the league.

“Thankfully we performed, for they did put it up to us and were well set up to counter what we were trying to do.  In ways it was a frustrating game but the tough test did stand to us for facing Dromintee when few would have expected us to win.

“But we fought hard and showed fantastic character in increasingly tricky conditions – the match finished in torrential rain – to get over the line against a team from a higher league section with some quality players and we can take confidence from that going into the final.

“There’s no doubt we’ll have to find another level again against Sarsfields for they’re a very solid Division One team but we’re really looking forward to the challenge and being back in a Championship final.  

“There’s a big buzz about the club and we’re delighted to be preparing for a final at this time of the season.  Speaking personally I was gutted after Armagh’s All-Ireland quarter-final defeat to Kerry and it’s been brilliant having something still to aim for with Cross unlike in recent years.

“This final will be a first for a fair few of the girls so everyone’s excited.  Whether you’ve played county football or not, a Championship final for your club, lining out with girls you’ve grown up with, is special and obviously being captain is a huge honour for me.”

Crossmaglen’s men have of course enjoyed sustained sucess over the past two decades and manager O’Donnell is a high-profile link to the club’s glory years on the female front when their star-studded side ruled the Orchard roost during the noughties.

Maria was a leading light in that team along with her revered cousins Bronagh and Alma O’Donnell, Lauren’s predecessor as poster girl blonde forward Sharon Duncan and formidable bulwarks in Patricia McAvoy and Fiona Quinn.

Fast forward to the current era and the diminutive McConville carries great expectation on her 22-year-old shoulders as skipper and stand-out player but she doesn’t seem burdened either by history or personal pressure to carry Cross hopes.

“I know what you’re saying and people expect county players to really perform for their clubs when it matters, so yes I suppose there’s some pressure, but as always I’ll just go out and give it my all,” vows Lauren, a fiercely competitive player who has the heart to match her talent.

“Obviously football matters massively to me and I really care about my club but I’m quite easy-going by nature and it’s important to treat this, as much as possible, like any other game.  I’ve every confidence in the girls around me and we work well as a team.

“I’m aware what Crossmaglen ladies achieved a decade and more ago but I don’t think that weighs on the present side, which is largely a new generation of players, though it’s great still having Maria around and the benefit of her great experience.

“I don’t think we’d be in this final without the influence of our current management.  You never know what to expect coming into a new season but we really got going in the league and there has been a positive vibe all year.”

Another very influential figure for Cross is Armagh midfielder Aveen Donaldson, whose two starts for Armagh in the past two seasons have been in those famous first ever victories over Dublin and Cork respectively.

“I wouldn’t be alone in regarding Aveen as having been our Player of the Match against Dromintee, when she rounded off by kicking a security point towards the end, but it’s pleasing how our younger girls have really stepped up too and backed themselves,” enthuses McConville, like the senior pro she now is.

“As she has shown with Armagh Minors, Megan O’Callaghan is an exceptional player and an absolute workhorse who I’m very glad to have on my team and others such as Aislinn McMahon, Faye Fitzpatrick, Alex Clarke and Caoimhin O’Neill have played their part too.”

Mairead Watters and seasoned campaigner Marie Luckie have been in and out of the Armagh senior squad over the past couple of years so, although lacking recent championship final experience, Cross have the elements of a useful side.

Sarsfields, who have no current county players, may benefit from the big game experience gained in last season’s Intermediate decider even though they were well beaten by a star-studded Shane O’Neills side on the day.

Their runners-up predecessors Lissummon and Shanes returned to go one better the following season so favourites Sarsfields will hope history repeats itself here, though this time round the teams won’t have the chance to play in the Athletic Grounds.

Instead of featuring as part of a double bill with the county final between Armagh’s established big two, Clann Eireann and Carrickcruppen, this Saturday evening, the Intermediate teams are being banished to the more modest surroundings of Mullabrack the following day.

That is to facilitate the Armagh Junior final between the county chairman’s club Ballyhegan and Mullabrack being played at the Athletic Grounds as the curtain-raiser to the Senior showpiece, a move which has raised eyebrows and left Crossmaglen justifiably frustrated.

“It was fantastic for me as an 18-year-old to play that 2013 final in the Athletic Grounds and, with no disrespect to the Junior game, our younger girls should really have that opportunity now when we’ve reached the Intermediate final again,” says McConville.

“As a county player I’ve had the privilege of playing in the Athletic Grounds on a number of occasions but getting there with your club is special, part of the thrill of reaching a final and maybe the only chance some girls get to set foot on the top pitch in Armagh.

“When we won our semi-final, one of our younger girls asked me ‘do I get to play in the Athletic Grounds’ now and obviously back then we thought that would be the case.  I won’t forget the day at training when it was announced (that we wouldn’t) and it just killed me seeing the faces drop.

“It’s deeply disappointing and an unsatisfactory situation which feels fishy to be honest, but it’s out of our hands now so our full focus is on the match itself because by winning we can still make it a wonderful day we will never forget.

“If we’re out on that field celebrating with the trophy at the end of the game with family and friends in a sea of yellow and black I’m sure at that moment it won’t matter much where we are,” insists Lauren who has so often filled the role of Cross supporter herself through the years.

Having grown up on a diet of watching the Crossmaglen men playing Armagh, Ulster and All Ireland finals throughout an astonishing golden era which began with her dad Jim as captain and had uncle Oisin as star forward for many years, ladies skipper and top player Lauren can now headline her own special chapter in this iconic club’s success story.

It will take a top performance from McConville and her team to overcome a Sarsfields side used to winning league games in Division One and desperate to exorcise the memories of being beaten in last season’s showpiece.

“We’ve been in a different division to Sarsfields for the past few years so haven’t seen them up close except at our sevens tournament but they get consistently strong results through the season and not having current county players means they can train together all the time with no disruption.

“They’re justifiably favourites but we weren’t bothered by Dromintee’s reputation last day and are in this final on merit so we’ll respect Sarsfields rather than fearing them.

“I think there’s still more in us as a team so if we can combine the level performance we’re capable of with the sort of fight we showed in the semi-final it should be a great game,” vows the impressive McConville, with her trademark determination and typical positivity.