Spreading their wings

By Michael McMullan

OVER the last four Monday nights there has been a different size of ball whizzing around the Ballyveely Road, home of St Brigid’s, Cloughmills.

Ladies football has exploded in the Antrim club and it’s only just beginning. With county manager Emma Kelly and captain Cathy Carey due to drop in for a coaching session and their first games on the horizon, it has transformed the club.

Formed in 1992, hurling was the main focus and they’ve punched above their weight, squeezed between ‘small ball’ giants Dunloy and Loughgiel at either side.

They’ve two Antrim Junior Championships to their name and their second intermediate success, in 2016, blossomed into an Ulster title.

“We are a tiny club; we are one of the smallest in Antrim and our senior hurling team would be all that we would have,” said club secretary Timmy McNeill.

A discussion at this season’s AGM centred around sobering thoughts of the climbing age profile of the senior squad.

Without any dedicated underage of their own, the defunct St Brendan’s amalgamation was the St Brigid’s grassroots. Now it’s Naomh Padraig, but they decided to diversify to shake up their club.

“We were looking at the future and one of the ideas batted around at the AGM was looking at something for the ladies of the area,” McNeill said.

“We got speaking to the Antrim LGFA who suggested to start off with a bit of social football this year to see what the interest was.”

An online questionnaire was shot around the social media channels. Was football something of interest? The answer…a resounding yes.

“We could never have believed the response we got,” McNeill said. “There were over 100 responses from Cloughmills, Loughgiel, Dunloy, Ballycastle and all around the area.

The age ranged from the late teens all the way to 53-year-old Roisin O’Boyle. With the largest chunk of interested players falling in the 18-25 range, too young for GAA Mothers and Others, it forced St Brigid’s to dig deeper in their plans.

They registered with the LGFA and decided to train socially until a team can be entered in the league next season.

Of the “104 or 105” players, just 10 weeks after the dice were cast. Almost 90 have registered already and they’ve had training attendances of between 50 and 60 so far.

Cargin man Joe McErlaine, now living in Dunloy, has taken on the coaching and has brought in a few extra helping hands.

Another important cog has been Derry native Orlagh Scullion who has an underage football background.

“She who is engaged to one of our senior hurlers and was a key driver behind setting this up,” McNeill added. “She is always keeping on top of the committee duties without even being from Cloughmills.

“She also attended the county meetings and managed all responses from interest forms and has recently joined the committee making a huge difference.”

There are plans to attend a Mothers and Others blitz on the August Bank Holiday weekend with a challenge game for the rest pencilled in for early next month, a first ever football game for St Brigid’s, Cloughmills.

The camogs in the club currently play with either Loughgiel or Dunloy with any boys wanting to play football having to travel to neighbouring clubs.

“There is a buzz around the club,” McNeill said of the positive vibes emitted in the four weeks since the ladies football began.

“This is entirely new to us and there is chat at hurling training about how the ladies are getting on.

“We’d have between 40 and 50 paying adult members, as a club, at the start of this year. By the start of next year, we’ll be looking at 120 members, so we’ll have nearly tripled the members within a year.

“We are wanting to revolutionise the club to have a long-term future. We are a small club stuck between Dunloy and Loughgiel which isn’t ideal and we’ve been hit with adversity in the past

“It is good to get a head start this as not many clubs in North Antrim have gone forward with anything like this.”

While few of the girls haven’t played much football, they’ve a background in camogie and the general fitness level that comes with that.

“We have three or four who would’ve played football in the past and have moved into the area,” McNeill added.

“It is largely a group that are new to football and some are new to GAA. They are seeing this as a good opportunity for fitness and to socialise. We had our fourth session last night (Monday) and there were 53 at it.

“If we can get ladies into the club and have a connection, then the children are going to be more familiar with us and have an interest in playing with Cloughmills.

“We have done fundamentals this summer with 20 or 25 at it. Some of the mothers brought their children to those sessions who would never have been linked with Cloughmills, so we already had a boost. We hope this can come alongside the hurling and help boost it as well at underage.”

Over the winter, there will be a second level of planning towards checking numbers with the view to getting youth teams up and running for 2024.

“We will be entering our seniors into Antrim Division Three and into the Junior Championship,” McNeill summed up.

“The plan is that with 60 girls wanting to play competitive football, we hope to enter two teams and definitely one.

“We have noticed a lot of progress with the girls in just four weeks. We would like to think we could ruffle a few feathers in Division Three next year and maybe push on as well.

“We celebrated our 30th anniversary last year and are a young enough club.

“We have punched above our weight in hurling. We have high hopes for the ladies to win a few more (titles) for us.”

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