By Daire Walsh
AFTER giving more than 20 years of service to the Saffron cause, Antrim stalwart Cathy Carey feels the time is now right to step away from inter-county ladies football.
Since making her senior debut way back in 2002, the St Ergnat’s Moneyglass star has established herself as a key component of the Ulster side. Having appeared off the bench for Antrim’s TG4 All-Ireland junior football championship success over Limerick in 2009, she was listed at right half-forward when Northern Ireland soccer international Kirsty McGuinness inspired the Saffrons to a final victory against Louth in the same competition three years later.
Following showpiece defeats to Longford and Wicklow in 2016 and 2021 respectively, she scored 2-1 in a superb captain’s performance as Antrim defeated provincial rivals Fermanagh to claim their third All-Ireland junior crown in a replayed fixture at the Athletic Grounds, Armagh in August 2022.
Last year saw them narrowly losing out to Clare at the semi-final stage of the TG4 All-Ireland intermediate championship, but even though there is a sense they could push on to even greater heights, Carey will be watching on from the outside in 2024.
“I suppose I’m pushing on a wee bit. It has been 20 odd years of playing senior county, so there’s been a lot in that. I kind of started thinking about it midway through last season. Then getting towards the end of the season, I started to talk about it a wee bit,” Carey explained.
“We’ve good underage coming through the county. It’s other people’s time to play and represent the county, I’ve kind of done my service. In terms of whether I’d be physically ready, I probably would be, but I just felt it was time to do it and finish up there.
“It has been a long stint, but that is probably what made the decision harder. You’re going ‘God, I’ve been there that long, what’s going to happen without it?’ Not to the team obviously, just in terms of me seeing a big massive change to my life. People always tell you that you find plenty to do, so hopefully that’s right.”
Before opting to retire from inter-county duty, Carey (who is set to turn 34 next month) consulted a number of people within her own family and wide circle of friends – including those who had made a similar decision in the past.
“Nobody believed me because there has been plenty of years I’ve been like that. That’s me! I’ve always gone back, I never really thought seriously about it. A couple I’ve spoken to that have retired, [I was] trying to get their viewpoint on it.
“Everybody comes at it with so many different opinions that I made my mind up as much as possible myself. Because it’s only me that’s really going to either go or not go, but talking it over is helpful.”
Although she cherishes the All-Ireland junior titles that she has won with the Saffron County, Carey believes that last April’s Lidl National Football League Division 4 final triumph is up there as one of the biggest achievements in her Antrim career.
Following many years of trying to get out of the fourth-tier of the NFL, Carey and Antrim managed to do so with a 1-19 to 2-6 victory at the expense of Leitrim at Parnell Park. She scored 0-3 from play in a typically assured display from centre-forward and was subsequently selected on the Division 4 team of the Lidl National Football Leagues alongside six of her county colleagues.
“That was probably the biggest thing for me because there had been so many years that we had been so close to getting out of Division 4 and we just never did it. The All-Ireland was really special, the Ulster is really special, but that Division Four title is one of those ones where it was like ‘Thank God’ and you could take a breath after that final.
“Some were just happy to win Division 4 and win the final, but a few of us had been slogging along for a good few years. It was nearly more of a relief than anything to get out of it.”
Having been so competitive in a higher championship grade last year, Antrim will be hoping to make a big splash in Division 3 of the Lidl NFL in 2024 – starting with their opening game against Louth at Davitt Park in Belfast tomorrow week (January 21). While Carey plans to be a spectator for her old team’s games as the year progresses, she acknowledged only time will tell how she adapts to this new role.
“I don’t know if I’m looking forward to being a spectator, but I’ll definitely go to their games and see how everything is going. I’ll be keeping in touch with Emma (Kelly, Antrim manager). There’s still that connection to it, but I’ll see how the first game goes watching it. I’ll know my true feelings then I would imagine!”
Given she also had a spell as an inter-county dual player — she was corner-back on the Antrim team that reached an All-Ireland intermediate camogie championship final in 2011 — Carey is used to having a lot on her plate.
This will remain the case in spite of her stepping away from the Antrim panel as she currently has a busy job as operations manager at CrossFit Anam in Toomebridge and intends to continue lining out at local level for reigning county champions Moneyglass.
She has also been heavily involved from a managerial perspective with a number of underage sides in her club and was named Coach of the Year at the Antrim and Newtownabbey Sports Awards in November 2023.
She hasn’t ruled out the prospect of moving into adult coaching at some point in the future – whether that be at club or inter-county level – but for now she is just embracing her combined responsibilities as a Moneyglass senior footballer and juvenile mentor.
“That’s something I would probably think about moving further afield [adult coaching]. I just want to concentrate on club and enjoy coaching underage girls at the minute. I would imagine maybe at some stage possibly, but at this stage I’m very happy taking underage girls,” Carey added.