Year of Profit for Watters
Who scored Armagh’s winning goal against Cork this summer in what was the Orchard outfit’s first ever victory over the Rebelettes in a Championship match might make a good quiz question in the future, for it wasn’t one of the usual suspects.
Indeed the woman who raised the fourth green flag that August afternoon in Tullamore admits the answer wouldn’t have been on the tip of her tongue either initially due to how the victory came about.
When Crossmaglen forward Mairead Watters bundled the ball into the net after robbing a dithering defender it was Armagh’s fourth goal in an astonishing 10-minute purple patch which put the orangewomen a barely believable 10 points up against the sport’s most successful county.
Thereafter it was all hands on deck as Cork threw everything at overturning the deficit and Armagh heroically held on to win by a point, with a late goal-saving intervention by Sarah Marley particularly crucial.
“I didn’t think of it as a winning goal until I read that line in the paper a few days later,” admits modest Mairead, a half-time sub for double All-Star Aimee Mackin, who had torn her cruciate just before the break.
Although the penny didn’t drop with her until later, 24-year-old Watters, a Dundalk-based trainee accountant by profession, could certainly do the sums in working out that her major accounted for more than the difference between the teams at the end.
She also knows that her sporting balance sheet for 2019 looks pretty healthy, what with finally making her Orchard debut during the season, contributing to that historic victory, and winning the Armagh Junior Championship in camogie with her home club Culloville alongside twin sister Sinead.
The Blues beat Killeavy convincingly in the decider, hosted by Mullaghbawn, and won their opening game in the provincial championship before bowing out at home to a formidable Lavey Seconds side last month.
“Lavey were very good, strong all over the field. Camogie is very strong up in Derry and no doubt they benefit from playing with their first team in training. I thought we could’ve played a bit better but it wasn’t to be,” reflects Mairead.
“With only ourselves and Killeavy in the Armagh Junior Championship, we knew all year we’d be in that final and were confident enough of our chances.
“Killeavy beat us in the league last year but, like ourselves, they do quite well just to sustain a team in the club because, unlike ladies football, south Armagh wouldn’t really be camogie country. Winning some silverware was a boost.”
Culloville last won the Armagh Junior Championship five years ago, beating Port Mor in the decider, and this season’s was the third medal Mairead has collected for a decade of service so far.
“I’ve been playing adult club camogie since 2009 when I was just 14, though the minimum age you can play at has gone up to 15 since then. We’re a small club but try to keep things going.
“Numbers can be tight enough for there will always be some girls leaving for one reason or another, or maybe out of the picture temporarily, so you need new ones coming through.”
Culloville used to have ladies football too but, for the past six seasons, the Watters twins have been playing the big ball code for neighbouring Crossmaglen, and their Intermediate title triumph in 2017 has a special place in Mairead’s career to date.
“That was my first club medal for football and another thing that made it special was the fact we weren’t expected to reach the final, never mind win it, after a replay against Sarsfields.
“At the start of the year there was even some doubt about the club being able to field an adult ladies side but Peter (McMahon) and Maria (O’Donnell) came in and did a great job.
“The team began winning games and belief built with results so by the time championship came around there was significant confidence in the group,” says Watters, who had been in America for the summer but was back before the final.
That was the first of two summers she and Sinead spent in Chicago, where gaelic football formed an important part of an enjoyable life experience and their club St Brigid’s won the Senior Championship both years.
Mairead had been brought into the Armagh county panel by Ronan Clarke midway through the 2016 campaign and was also around at the start of the following season but didn’t set foot on the field.
Her first run in the orange jersey finally came at the end of February’s opening National League game against Laois in Emo and, although just a few minutes, taking the field for Armagh was a proud moment.
“Anytime you get to wear that orange jersey is a good day and naturally the first time is special. Like other girls on the panel, you want to work hard to earn any game-time you can and try to make the most of it.
“As a team it was frustrating to top the table but miss out on promotion through losing the semi-final against Kerry when we were without a few key players but I think we did develop during the league.”
She had got her first start against Wexford in Silverbridge but places for forwards were at a premium, especially with the Armagh management tending to just field four specialists and there being a quartet of big-hitters in the panel.
Acting captain Kelly Mallon, Dromintee dynamo Aoife McCoy and the Mackin sisters, Aimee and Blaithin, were automatic choices up front leaving the likes of Niamh Reel, Catherine Marley, Niamh Murphy, Eve Lavery and Watters fighting for relative scraps.
Young Reel established herself as next in line to the big four, Murphy’s height meant she offered something different and both Marley and Lavery first featured in the set-up as far back as 2014.
“My championship experience prior to Tullamore was just the last seven or eight minutes of the Ulster semi against Monaghan when the game was well won so coming on at half-time in a huge game against Cork which we had to win was very different.”
With Marley starting, Lavery injured and Murphy absent for personal reasons, Armagh had fewer forward options on the bench than usual but it raised some eyebrows when Watters got the nod ahead of Reel as Mackin’s replacement.
Unlike other newcomers who have hoped to become regulars up front for Armagh in recent years, such as Forkhill’s captain Amy Mulholland, Watters isn’t a particularly prolific forward for her club.
A quite quiet, understated individual she plays more of a support role even with Crossmaglen where the likes of Intermediate title-winning skipper Lauren McConville, the mercurial Megan O’Callaghan and even schoolgirl Alex Clarke attract attention.
The charismatic McConville, currently living in Sydney, is a larger than life figure in spite of her diminutive stature and mid-noughties star Sharon Duncan will continue to be the Cross forward whose name is associated with a famous winner for Armagh.
Duncan’s last-kick free against Galway which sent Armagh into their only All-Ireland final to date 13 years ago was more dramatic and of greater consequence, but this Watters goal should have its special place in Orchard folklore too.
“I’ve honestly only watched it once, on TG4 that night,” insists Mairead, who may have got some flak for not laying the ball off to Mallon inside her had the goalkeeper prevented it crossing the line.
However all was well which ended well and Watters deserves credit for the conviction with which she pushed up on the defender for the turnover in spite of being a rookie playing in the biggest game of her life.
“We were pressing hard and it was a loopy pass so I saw my chance but the interception came partly as a result too of Kelly pressing on her player and cutting down options for Cork’s kickout.
“It isn’t often you find yourself one on one with the goalkeeper but thankfully the ball ended up in the net,” recalls Watters, who in an instant more than doubled her Orchard career tally which up until then had stood at two points.
“As you say, that was our fourth goal in 10 minutes but rather than sit back on our lead, we had consciously kept pressing and trying to take advantage of our good spell because we knew Cork could hurt us later if they got back on top.
“In the end, we needed that (cushion) all to do but it was great to get over the line and seeing what it meant to the longer serving players especially brought home to me what a big deal the win was.”
Two weeks later, Watters was an unused sub as Armagh’s All Ireland dream died within touching distance of a Croke Park semi-final courtesy of a three-point defeat against Mayo in a close last eight tie at Longford’s Pearse Park.
The emotions were very different to Tullamore and the Armagh management stood down after the game but Watters will be back continuing her quest for further progress in the season ahead.
“It’s been a positive year for me, getting game-time for Armagh and even a few scores, considering I’d never set foot on the field before and you’re always learning from the experienced players.
“They might say something and you don’t fully realise until afterwards what valuable advice it is. Having someone like (captain) Caoimhe (Morgan) there is brilliant because she’s always telling you wee things and sharing her great experience of the game.
“Maybe we didn’t hit some of our team targets in 2019 but I think Armagh have the players to do well and the squad is a good mix of experience and youth which blends well together so I’d be hopeful for next season,” she says.
Her natural reserve and status up until then as a fairly peripheral figure in playing terms made Mairead a little self-conscious about being one of four squad members used for a promotional photoshoot ahead of Armagh’s championship campaign.
She isn’t the sort to get carried away with even a winning goal against Cork but having something significant chalked up against her name now should help Watters feels she belongs in the environment and whet her appetite to earn more opportunities.
More than a decade after their Armagh retirement, the O’Donnells will continue to be the most famous female footballing twins associated with the Orchard county never mind Crossmaglen, but Mairead enjoys playing alongside Sinead at club level.
“We’re both with Cross for ladies football but it’s been particularly special this season to win a championship playing together in midfield for Culloville camogs. I suppose we’ve always had each other around but it’s definitely nice,” smiles Mairead..