In focus: Armagh ladies star Caoimhe Morgan

By Shaun Casey

IT was July 27, 2019. The stage was set for what turned out to be a massive day in the history of Armagh LGFA. The Orchard County faced Cork in Tullamore and for the first time ever, they got the better of the Rebels.

Not only was it a momentous day for Armagh, but it was also a huge occasion in the Marley household. The four sisters, Caoimhe, Sarah, Niamh and Catherine, were set to start a championship game together for the very first time, following in their father Noel’s footsteps, who played for Armagh in their All-Ireland defeat to Dublin in 1977.

There were nerves and plenty of emotions before the game as the oldest of the four, Caoimhe, recalls, in her words, her greatest sporting memory.

“The best one would be beating Cork in Tullamore in 2019 with the four sisters. To play with my three sisters and beat Cork for the first time, given our team’s history, that Cork had beaten us in 2006, it was a really special moment.

“We knew on the Thursday night (they were all starting), but every one in our house has their own way to prepare. I suppose Catherine was probably the most nervous, she’s the baby of the house and it was her first start, so we were trying to make sure she was okay.

“We knew she was up for the challenge and she would do a great job, so it kind of more centred around her because the three of us were older heads at that stage.

“It was a great experience. We’ve played our whole lives together, we travelled to training together, travelled to matches together, so to actually play on such a big stage together, I never realised the magnitude of it until after probably.

“When you’re playing, you want to play with people you trust and on the other hand, you can always give out to them more than you can give out to others so that helps as well.

“We’re very lucky to have such a supportive family behind us and being able to play our sport together, it’s very special to do that. The Mackins have it now, the McAlindens had that as well, it’s something that you can’t buy and it’s very special.”

It almost didn’t happen. It proved to be a long and winding road to get to that moment with plenty of joy and heartache mixed in together. But the Armagh jersey which Caoimhe, now Morgan, was in a much better place than the one she picked up all those years before.

Things were much different when she first started out. Only a teenager aged 17 in 1999, she made her Armagh debut in peculiar circumstances. The team needed bodies to field in a relegation clash with Sligo and the youngster was fired in at the deep end.

“I only started playing football when I was 14, I was into running and athletics more so, I would never have played football. Dad would have managed a few club teams and you just went in the car wherever he was going.

“I started to play for Ballyhegan, they were the first club team I played for because that’s where Daddy was from. Armagh couldn’t get a county team strung together and they were playing Sligo in a relegation match. Brian Meehan was chairman at the time, and he phoned our house and asked would I come and play for Armagh.

“I was only 17 at this stage and had never played for Armagh before. I had been on underage teams, u-16 and minor. We didn’t have a car, but Brian said not to worry, the bus would come to pick me up at the house.

“I got onto the bus, and I knew nobody. I sat beside Ailish Murphy, and she was lovely to me and talked away to me. We stopped to get something to eat, I had no money with me, and I didn’t realise this was an already paid for gig. When I realised that I thought it was great and that I could get on board with this!

“We went and played Sligo, I got on because Michelle Meehan had broken her finger. I really enjoyed it and coming home on the way back I remember Maura McArdle, one of the older members of the team, talking to me.

“Who are you? What’s your heritage? Who’s your dad? All this kind of stuff. We won the match, and we weren’t relegated so it must have been a championship relegation match I’m presuming.

“Mary Keegan and Brian Meehan were chair and vice-chair and they came to our house, and they asked my Daddy would he take Armagh ladies and said yes so that was me involved with the team from then on.”

With Armagh legend Noel Marley now in charge, things began to change. Father Noel was always a huge influence on Caoimhe’s career, and that continued as she made the breakthrough to county level.

“When I was growing up, I didn’t really understand the magnitude of how good my dad was. People would have said stuff, but I wasn’t interested, I suppose because I was so young. He took us to matches when he was coaching, he coached Clonmore and Ballyhegan and we just went along.

“I didn’t realise the impact he was at that stage until he took Armagh and then I got to grips with who he had been in the past. Playing with the likes of Maebh Moriarty and Mags McAlinden, all our daddy’s had played in that ’77 squad so we had a good bond together.

“He was a massive influence on my career. He coached me from the very start and gave me a real love for football but never pushed me, I never felt like I had to be a great player just because he was a great player. When I look back now, especially when I have my own children, he did it in a really good way.”

It wasn’t always plain sailing of course. Noel the father was much different than Noel the manager. “It was unbelievable. He used to use me as an example of how not to do things! I would have fallen out with him, I’d have cried in the car, but he would say that he wouldn’t have bothered if he thought I wasn’t good enough.

“There were tears but now I understand because you can be harder on your own and it lets you either criticize or my coach other people, so I get it now. But back then there were times I would have said that I wasn’t going back.”

It’s a far cry from what ladies football has become and Armagh’s uptake in fortunes started around that time.

“When I compare it, it’s unbelievable. I’m so glad I got to experience it from what I feel was the very start of the emergence because Daddy brought a professionalism.

“Having been a county player himself, you had to hit the standard of never missing training, there was commitment, you had to hit a certain standard. The girls used to be so afraid to phone our house and tell Daddy they weren’t coming to training, they just didn’t.

“There was a real professionalism that he brought to the set up. I’ll never forget the first time we got a tracksuit; Armagh Windscreen Centre sponsored it; I still have it but it’s awful looking now.

“But he brought that professionalism. There were set nights for training, and it just really flourished from there compared to when I got on that bus and Armagh were trying put a team together. They would have used Clann Éireann jerseys because they didn’t have a set of their own.

“Compared to now, it’s unreal. They have Killean and it’s so professional and it’s what it should be but I’m glad I saw it grow from where it was to where it is now.”

When Marley stepped down from the management position, Hayley Boyle, Jacqui Clarke and Lorraine McCaffrey took over in 2004 and all the hard work transformed to trophies. Armagh won back-to-back Ulster Junior titles and an All-Ireland Junior Championship in 2005.

“It was crazy. To get to play in Croke Park and getting to talk to Daddy about it all. He told us to make sure to cherish the moments of the bus journey up and the Garda escorts and all that fanfare that went with it.

“We really appreciated it all and took it all in, it was great for football in Armagh. The Armagh men’s team were doing well at that time so everybody in the county was happy, and things were going well. The children all wanted to play football and there was a really good vibe in the county at that time.”

They made hard work of it though. Despite being the much better team, Armagh kept Sligo in the game with their poor record in front of the goals, kicking 25 wides, 19 of which came in the second half.

“It was awful. We were so much better on paper because our managers had us playing a lot of senior teams that season. We should have been streets and streets ahead of Sligo.

“Our shooting was shocking, but Mags McAlinden did say something that was really interesting. Shooting into the Hill, that’s why they now put the jerseys and all in there for the final, you couldn’t really see the posts because they blend into the concrete.”

In 2006, the new kids on the block at senior level weren’t long making a name for themselves. Instead of just trying to fit in, Armagh caused some ripples as they made it through to the decider against Cork.

“When you start off, you’re just taking every game as it comes but Jacqui Clarke expected an awful lot of us. She set the bar really high, and we never felt that we couldn’t compete with those teams because we’d been playing them the year previous in challenge matches, so we didn’t feel like it was out of our reach.

“Every match we just seemed to be getting a wee bit better and a wee bit better. But it’s one of the best teams I’ve ever played on in terms of team bonds.

“We really looked out for each other, cared for each other, it’s something you can’t buy, and you can’t manufacture, and I just think that was what got us as far as we got because of the bond and togetherness we had.

“When we got to the All-Ireland semi-final against Galway, I never forget, there was a free kick and Sharon Duncan stepped up to take it. To me it felt like it was about 60 yards from goal, but I think it was at the top of the ‘D’…around the 45 area.

“I turned around because I couldn’t look at it, I just looked at Fionnuala McAtamney in the goals and when she jumped up in the air screaming, I just couldn’t believe it, we were going back to Croke Park again.”

It wasn’t to be however as Cork ran out one-point winners, but it’s a season that will live long in Morgan’s memories. Not only did she once again get to represent her beloved Armagh on the biggest stage of all, but her efforts were rewarded with an All-Star and a call up to the Ireland panel for the one and to date only Ladies International Rules test.

“To be honest I was very naïve back then, so I probably didn’t understand what those things were . Maybe it was a good thing as well because I think sometimes things like that can run away from you a wee bit.

“People maybe play like individuals when they know stuff like that is up for grabs but the reason I got it (the All-Star) was because of the team of people I played with. It was the trust that we had, the bond that we had, you can only be as good as the people around you.

“That was a very, very special year for me because I got the call up to play in the International Rules series and I got the call that I was getting an All-Star, all in the one week. It was a dream sporting year for me.”

The International Rules was a strange experience to say the least. During the second test, Ireland played an ‘illegal’ player, meaning their total of 42 points was wiped from the scoreboard and they had to start again with zero as punishment.

“We played an extra player when we shouldn’t have, and they gave off about it. I think you had to name a squad for each of the days, so we played on the Tuesday in Breffni Park and on the Friday in Parnell Park.

“I think you had to name a panel for both of the days and someone that hadn’t been named came on (in the second test). They whole thing was strange because we didn’t know what to expect when Australia was coming over.

“They were professional athletes, and we were wondering how good where they going to be. We were working on ourselves and then we played them in Breffni Park, and we wanted to change some of the rules after that game.

“We wanted to change to the oval ball, we wanted contact, and they were pretty much annoyed that we were trying to change it because they were professional athletes. The next night it was a bit of craic for us because we had already proven how superior we were, so it didn’t really matter but I think it annoyed them more than anything else.”

The honours kept coming for Morgan. Under the stewardship of Gregory McGonigle, the Lissummon star was handed the captain’s armband.

“I spend a lot of time now reflecting on my Armagh career and I captained Armagh on five occasions and it’s a difficult job. There’s a lot comes with it but it’s a real honour and the first time I was asked to do it, I was shocked, but I really wanted to do it.

“I really did enjoy it and I found that it got me a lot closer to a lot of the players and you hear a lot of things that are going on in their lives that you maybe wouldn’t hear if you were just turning up for training. There’s a lot of responsibility comes with it but it’s a real honour.

“I kind of knew because you can feel yourself moving into that role of responsibility because you’re getting a wee bit older. You’re maybe talking a wee bit more, you’re taking people under your wing, you naturally start to think that this is the role you’re heading into to.

“I know it’s not for everybody, there’s people that go into the role and it maybe affects their own game a lot because there’s lots to do when you’re the captain of a team. It’s not just about turning up and playing the best you can, but you can always see who is growing into those roles when you’ve played a long time.”

Coming into the twilight of her career, Morgan had developed into one of the main leaders in the rising Armagh side. But disaster struck in 2018 when the skipper tore her cruciate and almost decided to walk away.

“Every year after, probably 2016, I was saying to myself, I don’t know how much more I can do here. I don’t want to play and be bad, you want to play at the best you can, and you don’t want to get annoyed with yourself because that affects everything.

“I partially tore my cruciate in 2017 playing for the club and the consultant said I could rehab it and maybe get another year or two out of it and I just thought that was okay, I would do that because I didn’t know how long I had left.

“Then in 2018 I did it completely and I knew I’d done it. I had the operation then in late August and Fionnuala McAtamney and Lorraine McCaffrey spoke to me and wanted me to stay and be captain of the team, they felt I’d a lot more to offer.

“They said for me to do my gym work and my rehab through the winter and then we would do pitch sessions together in January. The main reason I thought I’d go back was that it would keep the structure of me going to training and actually rehabbing back.

“I didn’t want to say that I wasn’t going back and then I mightn’t have rehabbed it properly. I can’t thank the girls enough because they really, really pushed me on.

“When you’re doing a run and they’re shouting over to keep it going, that really did help me through that situation.

“I was really grateful that I did make the decision to stay for that year and it got me back to a functioning life. It wasn’t just about playing football; I’m a PE teacher and I want to be able to do things and run and play a bit of club football. I got back and it’s awful, but it has to be done.”

The fact she did come back to give it one more go made it all the easier to finally step away at the end of the 2019 campaign.

“I knew 2019 was going to be my last year, I just knew my body couldn’t do it anymore. When you get to about 36, that’s the cut off for your intercounty career really if you’re going to perform at your optimum.

“I just knew I was there for different reasons. I felt I was there in a leadership capacity and I just felt my body couldn’t give me what it used to. You were taking longer to recover and then when you have two children at home and you’re working, it’s just not as easy to be able spend the time that I think you need to spend now to get your body right.

“I think what really helped, the fact that Covid hit, I had decided to retire in January of 2020 and then Covid hit so everybody had retired I felt, and it wasn’t as bad. We all had a structure then; the girls would have come over for a run, so it was a wee bit easier than having to watch the girls go out and play.”

Morgan, who once marked Aimee Mackin at club level while 12 weeks pregnant, enjoyed a successful club career with Lissummon, winning championships at both Junior and Intermediate level.

She didn’t commit this year, but that doesn’t mean she’s retired. Her media commitments have helped fill the game of playing while she also found a new role this year as she joined James Daly’s management team in Fermanagh and the pair helped lead the Erne Ladies to the All-Ireland Junior final.

“I didn’t play this year, but I played the year before and we won he Intermediate Championship, so that was a bonus one and it was a nice way to kind of finish off. I haven’t said that I won’t play club again but this year I was just too busy.

“When James Daly gets on the phone, he’s very persuasive. I’m glad I’m doing what I’m doing now and I’m glad I get to experience lots of different things and it’s great to be able to give back and give the girls words of wisdom and I’m enjoying my time with Fermanagh.”

When one door closes, another opens, and Morgan was never going to spend too much time watching on from behind the wire. While her playing days may be over, Morgan still has so much to offer and will go down as one of the Armagh greats.

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