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'If you could bottle Aimee's talent and sell that stuff, we would be millionaires'

From phenomenal individual exploits to coming back better from a devastating knee injury, we chart Aimee Mackin’s rise to the top.

Mackin Source: Sports DNA - Brendan Monaghan.

IT’S 2011, AND Aimee Mackin wants to play senior football. She’s just 13. 

It’s the first year her Shane O’Neills club are fielding a senior team, and there’s a group of promising players around the same age as Mackin with their noses up to play.

Peter Lynch and his management team’s plan was to leave them off another year or so, happy with the group they had in the opening stages of the season, but the young crew persisted.

Lynch can’t remember the exact details but it was either a Division Three or Four Armagh league campaign, and they reached the semi-final. While no longer allowed, it was back then, and permission was finally granted.

‘Right, sure ye can play…’

It was music to Mackin’s ears. After seeing off the challenge of Forkhill in the last four, attention turned to Whitecross, who they would meet in the final.

“Apparently the craic in Whitecross was, ‘Ah Aimee Mackin’s going to be playing,’” Lynch recalls. “Somebody allegedly says, ‘Who’s Aimee Mackin? I never heard of her before.’

“Aimee went out and scored 3-8 in a final as a 13-year-old.

“We says, ‘You might not have heard of her before, but you’ll hear about her after!’”

********************

10 years on, and she has just won the biggest prize in ladies football: the TG4 Senior Players’ Player of the Year, becoming just the second Armagh woman to do so, following in the footsteps of 2014 winner Caroline O’Hanlon, a role model of hers growing up.

Mackin’s inclusion in the 2020 Team of the Championship makes her a three-time All-Star at 23, while her Goal of the Year award resulted in an individual clean sweep for 2020.

It’s fair to say that she was always destined for the top. That was evident from very early days.

Before Shane O’Neills started ladies football in 2008, Lynch remembers watching her play on U8 and U10 boys teams. “You could see that she was the best player among them as well,” he, who she cites as one of the biggest influences on her career, notes.

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Mackin was 11 when that first U12 side was formed at Shanes, and the group climbed the ranks together, enjoying unprecedented success: countless league and championship titles, an Ulster minor title in 2013, an Ulster junior the same year, an All-Ireland junior final appearance in 2016; the list goes on.

“That core group,” Lynch smiles, with Aimee’s sister Blaithin, who was also named on last weekend’s Team of the Championship, included within, “they’re not just team-mates, they’re really good friends.

“They would be a very close-knit group and Aimee would be in the middle of all of that. She was an outstanding underage player. We could see when she was 10, 11 years of age, how good she was.”

aimee all-star Receiving an Ulster Schools All-Star in 2012. Source: St Paul's High School, Bessbrook.

As her star began to rise, others realised her incredible potential. She certainly caught the eye of their U14 Derry Féile hosts, although their bid fell short in the final to a Tipperary side containing another freakishly-talented forward in Aishling Moloney.

“They were astounded by her. The Magherafelt mentors and players were saying, ‘God, this is some player.’”

Sinéad Reel, Armagh LGFA chairperson — not wearing that hat, but speaking on a personal level as a friend, mentor and “somebody who has been hanging about Armagh quite a while” — remembers thinking something very similar after one of the first times she saw Mackin in action.

“I seen her playing an U14 club championship match way back. You know when you leave a match and you’re going, ‘Oh my God… she is going to be a future star.’ You could see it at 12, 13. You could also see that she wasn’t a me, me, me, player, if you get my drift.” 

That’s something that both Reel and Lynch hammer home time and time again as they map Mackin’s rise: it’s always about the team, never about her. 

“With Aimee, it’s more than just the skill level and the football, she’s an incredibly humble girl for all the accolades she’s got,” Lynch — now the Down ladies manager –adds. 

“The house is full of Player of the Match awards and things like that. Aimee would give all that up for an All-Ireland medal with Armagh tomorrow morning. She’s very much about the team.

“We used to have a wee motto, our team used to wear it on the back of the collar: muideanna chun mise, we before me.

“They adopted that mantra when they were still a very young team and they held that the whole time. Always the team comes first, and Aimee would be first and foremost on that. She knows that it’s all about the team, regardless of how much praise she gets. She’s the first one to say it takes a team to get her there.”

Reel wholeheartedly agrees.

“A lot of responsibility was on her shoulders at club football, without a shadow of a doubt at Shane O’Neill’s, it was all, ‘Get the ball to Aimee, get the ball to Aimee,’ because Aimee was going to do the damage.

“But Aimee was always ready to use the other players around her. If they were in a better position, that ball was passed. It wasn’t always left that she had to try and get the score. I find that that vision was there with her from a young age.” 

******************** 

Growing up in Camlough, the Mackins were a family steeped in Gaelic games.

That’s reflected in four siblings, Aimee, Blaithin, Connaire and Ciaran, now playing senior inter-county football for the Orchard. The two older sisters, Yasmin and Alanah, also would have played through the years and remain heavily involved with the club.

The Mackin children couldn’t not catch the football bug. Their parents, Mickey and Freda, were mad into it. Mickey played, they both coached, and were involved in the administration side of things too. 

Like her siblings, Aimee was always down at the pitch with a ball in her hand. She was brought to every club and county match, and watched as much as she could on the television too. Ronan Clarke, Steven McDonnell; she’d watch what they did during the games like a hawk, absorb it all like a sponge and then at half time, go out to the garden and practice with her siblings. Sidesteps, dummy bounces, shimmies; you name it, the skills she so regularly executes now with that wand of a left boot.

Always learning, always growing, always working.

“The whole family, to be honest with you, the Mackin family in general, no matter what you ask, they do it,” Reel nods.

“No matter what help you need, they do their best to help wherever it can be done. They’re very humble people. It is monkey see, monkey do. The girls themselves, I don’t think they… do they realise how good they are? I don’t think so.

“On a football level, on a professional level, they do everything they’re asked of. They go beyond themselves to do that extra bit themselves to get them where they are. That’s what gets you these awards.

“Yes, it’s a team effort. That’s the way Aimee looks at this too. She’s absolutely right, but there’s always something that has to make you stand out from the crowd, and she has it.”

Reel can’t say enough good things about the entire family. “Very humble, and absolutely no airs or graces as I would say. They’re just good people. I always say good things happen to good people, and they deserve it.” 

Mackin hit some incredible heights in her early teens, not only in Gaelic but in soccer too, signalling what was to come.

She was a sporting all-rounder at St Paul’s High School, Bessbrook; the youngest player on the Ulster Schools All-Star team in 2012 and named Player of the Match in the 2013 Post Primary School Junior A All-Ireland final despite being on the losing side.

That same year, she scored 5-8 as a minor in an Ulster club championship game, while simultaneously, her star began to well and truly rise in the soccer world.

She represented Northern Ireland at the U15 Girls’ Bob Doherty Cup, chipping in with plenty of goals in a campaign which culminated in a 2-1 win over the Republic in the final. Likewise, she donned the international jersey at the U17 Euros.

A striker or left winger, Mackin to this day remains a hugely talented soccer player, having lined out for Newry City and Sion Swifts in the North’s top-tier.

aimee football Mackin represented Northern Ireland at underage level. Source: St Paul's Bessbrook.

Opportunities arose elsewhere, but Mackin is a self-confessed home bird. Injuries, too, hampered her ability to balance both more recently, though she won’t rule out a return.

But Gaelic football was always her number one, and she was destined to play for Armagh at the highest level possible.

********************

It happened aged 17, when Mackin announced her arrival to the senior inter-county scene in 2015.

She did so with a bang, exploding into the Armagh set-up and ultimately finishing the year with an All-Star. To those who knew her best, her remarkable first season came as no surprise.

“Everybody had been aware of her coming through from she was young,” O’Hanlon nods.

“She came into the county set-up and obviously came straight into the starting 15. She’s always had that brilliant flair and piece of skill. She’s just phenomenal. She’s always been a great talent. The thing that isn’t necessarily always highlighted as much for Aimee is the work rate that she has that goes along with that.”

Reel laughs when she thinks back, a photograph from a Division Three league game against Down in Newry piquing her memories.

“When I look at the pictures of her back then, she really was a child. She’s the same age as my own girl now. I’m saying to myself, ‘Jesus.’ And she stood out.” 

She lit up the biggest stages across the country with every chance she got, two simply stunning individual goals scored against Cavan which were recently re-shared by Jerome Quinn encapsulating the youngster’s unrivalled breakthrough campaign.

Source: LadiesFootballTV/YouTube

It ended with her dining at the top table, nestled in the forward line of the 2015 All-Star team alongside greats of the game like Valerie Mulcahy, Cora Staunton and Lyndsey Davey.

Typically, she took it all in her stride on and off the pitch.

The remarkable scoring tallies kept on coming, and Mackin repeated the feat in 2017, named at half forward as opposed to in the corner, reflecting her license to roam, exceptional movement and work-rate off the ball.

That said, her scoring stats from the 2018 league campaign sum up just how dangerous she is before the posts: 11-39 in seven games, 10-30 of that from play.

Week after week, whether it be for club, county or college — she earned a scholarship to study Health, Physical Activity and Sport at Queen’s, and she currently works for O’Neills — it was the same story, and scarily, this was all just the tip of the iceberg.

Her progress came to a sudden halt in July 2019, the day Armagh recorded a landmark win over 11-time All-Ireland champions Cork. Just before half time, Mackin fell to a “a really innocuous type of tumble,” and that was that. 

The dreaded anterior cruciate ligament rupture.

******************** 

15 August 2020. Reel started the evening at Carrickcruppen pitch, watching her sister, Sharon, and her side in championship action. O’Hanlon scored a remarkable six goals. As the game finished up, she decided to head over and catch the last few minutes of another game on the nearby Shane O’Neills pitch.

When Reel arrived, Shanes were trailing to Crossmaglen Rangers. She can’t remember by how much, but one thing was for sure, the hosts were mounting a comeback. One fronted by the returning Aimee Mackin, who had come on at half time for her second game back from injury after getting a few minutes under her belt the previous week.

“At this stage somebody said, ‘Jaysis, I think Aimee has four goals there and she’s only on 10 minutes,’” Reel recalls. “I was like, ‘Oh, there’s gonna be a turnaround here.’

“It ended up she scored 8-1. I seen four; bang, bang, bang, bang in the 15 minutes that I had landed. She was back… you just knew. I said to myself, ‘Holy God, Aimee is back.’ I had to see it with my own eyes.

“Somebody said she went back against Grange, I was going, ‘Jesus I hope she’s okay and she hasn’t gone back too soon.’ I worry about these girls like they’re my children. I was thinking to myself, ‘God, I hope she doesn’t do too much too soon.’ 

“I was so glad I went and watched her. She was so confident on the ball, I was thinking to myself, ‘Is she going to be weary, is she going to pull herself out of tackles, or close contact.’ Personally, watching her in Shanes that night, she was ready both mentally and physically to be honest. You could see it in that game.”

It had been a tough, and winding, road back — as is the return from every long-term injury, but one Mackin pursued diligently.

niamh-mclaughlin-with-aimee-mackin Facing Niamh McLaughlin, her physio, in 2015. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Two days before that scintillating second half on home turf, she tweeted: “Big shout out to Niamh McLaughlin and Ruairi Grimes for helping me along the way and getting me back on the pitch. The best in the business. Feels great to be back doing what I love.”

McLaughlin — a regular opponent on the field from Donegal — was her physio, while Grimes is the county team’s S&C, both working tirelessly to get this phenomenal player back to her best.

Mackin put in the real hard yards, hours upon hours spent in her home gym, with lockdown working in her favour as her rehabilitation period was extended.

“She never mentioned it, you know what I mean,” O’Hanlon, who witnessed it all first-hand, says. “The only way you knew she was injured was she wasn’t playing. She was always in good form.

“We beat Cork, it was a great day and she had a massive injury — she still was really delighted for the team, which is a great reflection on her character as well as everything else. She was really supportive of the team and in the Mayo match, she was on the sideline taking stats, contributing to the group.”

Away from the Armagh set-up, incredibly, she was one of three players in that core Shanes group that tore their cruciate around the same time — Louise Kenny and Moya Feehan the others.

Back to that night Mackin scored 8-1 — that was put on a plate for her, she says — Reel remembers leaving the pitch in a bit of a daze. Her father, Owen, former chairman of Armagh LGFA himself, rang, enquiring if she went to the match at Shane O’Neills.

I said, ‘Jesus Da, I did.’ I just remember saying, ‘Aimee Mackin is back.’

“He says, ‘God, did she play? That’s great news’ — and it was great news around the county, it really was. For the girls, the county team.

“Now, it wasn’t a great lift for the rest of the clubs who were going, ‘Jesus, who’s going to mark her now in the club championship?’”

Their bid fell short in the end, but they did seal their first-ever senior league title under the watchful eye of Seamie McParland — Lynch stepped away two years ago, having been manager from U12s right the way up — with high hopes there for the coming years.

What about who would mark her on the inter-county scene?

********************

Mackin’s first outing back in her beloved Armagh jersey came against Tyrone in the Ulster championship. It was a memorable, and typically high-scoring, return, finding her groove almost immediately in her sixth season, and picking up where she left off.

Her trusty link-up with O’Hanlon was there from the off, her telepathic connection with Blaithin. It may have gone slightly under the radar, but everyone certainly stood and took notice after Armagh’s opening All-Ireland championship encounter against Tyrone.

Friday Night Lights in Kingspan Breffni Park with the TG4 cameras there to capture every move, and Mackin sparkled. She finished with 1-6 — just one point from play — and was influential throughout in a Player of the Match-winning display.

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She earned another individual accolade in their second group game against Mayo, firing 2-7 in a simply scintillating performance to send Armagh into an All-Ireland semi-final for the first time since 2015.

She could well have had a hat-trick only she popped the ball off to another member of the “hot shot forward line” in Aoife McCoy for Armagh’s final goal.

That’s something Reel was more than pleased to see.

“I do believe the cruciate injury actually has matured Aimee a lot faster both on and off the field, both mentally and physically,” she points out.

“Say for example, a couple years ago, Aimee would have taken the rare two, three, four pot shots throughout a match which could have been three or four points in my opinion, if she had to have settled herself down.

“That’s what I think the difference is this year. Is it the cruciate that has brought that maturity on? I think so. That’s my own personal opinion. My God has it worked. I think it’s because you had to work so hard this year to get back to where she has been – and in my opinion, she’s actually back 10 times better than she ever was.

“That’s again in her vision of play, looking out, timing her runs, looking to see the other players around that they can be used in this scenario.”

That win over Mayo was a special one, one which Mackin found hard to sum up to this writer on the field in Parnell Park afterwards. As always, 99% of the interview was about the team, not her, but she did take 10 seconds to appreciate her own comeback.

“Ah there’s no words. You’re doing rehab and you’re thinking of days like this, will you get them. It was unreal. I’m just so glad to be there and so glad that Armagh is in a semi-final again.”

As always, she hit a few breath-taking scores that day; one of them a stunning outside-of-the-left effort, which left Twitter awash with the usual goat and flame emojis, along with “ladies football’s Messi” and “Armagh’s answer to David Clifford” labels.

Mackin shakes all the praise off. She’s said it before, she’ll say it again: she goes with her instinct. See an opportunity, go for it.

She did just that on several occasions against four-in-a-row chasing Dublin in the semi-final, inspiring her side with 2-4, her late goal top of the highlights reel and worthy winner of Goal of the Year, but Armagh’s incredible All-Ireland dream would stop there.

That said, an Ulster title followed after a win over Monaghan in the final, a nice way to round off the season.

“When we look at the start of 2020, oh my God, we were down in Kerry, we got beat there, Meath beat us in the Athletic Grounds. I thought to myself, ‘Things are starting to fall apart here’ and then it was shut down. Lockdown hit,” Reel recalls. 

“Where have we come from lockdown to here? Absolutely Aimee definitely made a massive difference because we didn’t have Aimee at the start. I do believe the lockdown definitely helped Aimee in her rehab, which was a positive for us. It came at the right time.”

Positional changes, camaraderie, and the work done in lockdown were all vital too, but ultimately Aimee Mackin’s return was key to Armagh’s resurgence.

And it was her excellence that saw her bag the top gong in the game, becoming the first player from outside that year’s All-Ireland champions to win since O’Hanlon in 2014.

“She’s been brilliant all year, and obviously was worthy winner a player of the year,” the Carrickcruppen ace nods.

“But one of the best things about Aimee is last year when she had that injury, she was still really heavily involved with the team. She’s a team player as well as being individually brilliant — and keen to to learn.

“She was still at training and keen to learn from Lorraine and Fionnuala, the coaches at the time. She just is very coachable as well as having that natural talent, which is a wee bit scary given she’s so good at the moment, she still does have plenty of potential to improve even beyond this.”

********************

Likewise, Reel and Lynch wax lyrical about Aimee Mackin the player, but also Aimee Mackin the person: how she knows her place in life, how she’s he first to lift the phone and congratulate others who succeed and how she’s always on hand to help where needed.

Lynch recalls a nice story from after the Ulster Schools All-Star awards one year. The Mackin sisters and Kenny were honoured in Ballygawley on a Friday night, the Saturday morning they were back coaching the club’s Gaelic for Girls.

aimee-mackin Mackin lit up the 2020 championship. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“There were no superstar auras about them or nothing like that, it was straight back to the things they do. I couldn’t say enough about them really. They’re a credit, an absolutely great bunch and Aimee just exemplifies all of them. She’s always in the middle of the craic.

“She’s just a very down to earth, very humble player — and without a doubt, the best ladies Gaelic footballer I’ve ever seen. Ever. I mean, I don’t think anything else comes close to her.

“And I think she can only get better, I really do. She’s not 24 yet, give it another two or three years, I think she’ll be hitting incredible stuff altogether.”

One truly special piece of praise, followed up with another.

“If you could bottle Aimee’s talent, we would definitely have the lights on in Killean already – put it that way,” Reel enthuses, with a nod to Armagh’s new home, McKeever Park, where fundraising for floodlights continues.

“If we could sell that stuff, we would be millionaires. She’s just an all-rounder. A lot of the girls are like that, there’s a lot of talent there and they’re just good girls. I personally want them to be successful because they’re a good bunch of girls.

“She deserves every plaudit she gets”

Reel couldn’t be prouder of her, along with her fellow Armagh 2020 All-Stars, Blaithin, who “just has this flair” and Clodagh McCambridge, “the silent assassin”.

“I just think these girls are massive role models for young women around the county that you can study, you can play a sport at the highest level, and you can get on with life as well. They’re just great all-rounders and they’ve topped that off this year with their All-Star. Look, Team of the Year, okay…. they’re All-Stars to me.” 

Aimee 3 (1) Aimee (20) and Blaithin (14). Source: SPORTSFILE.

O’Hanlon — Reel feels Mackin and her are “very much the same type of person, they go that extra mile. They’re team players but they stand out” — thinks the same.

“I’ve always felt that there’s been a lot of talent in Armagh, not just this year, but all down through the years that probably don’t get the recognition they deserve,” she concedes.

“To have those other players recognised on a national level is brilliant. In a similar way to Aimee, they’re young players coming through who just have a really good attitude as well as footballing ability.” 

The recognition for the Shanes Sister Act was such a proud moment for the club. Lynch gives a brilliant example to sum it all up, not long after meeting a girl on the street who would be aware of football, but not overly involved 

“She says to me, ‘You know, Aimee right now is the best female Gaelic player in the world, because the best players are in Ireland. Even if there are good players somewhere else, what level are they playing at? So Aimee’s the best in the world at the minute!’

“I says, ‘Well, you’re probably correct.’

‘She is, she is, yeah, she’s the best in the world.’

“That’s the kind of gravity of it, that people see that it’s such a big thing. Everybody you meet is talking about it. It was certainly one of the greatest moments in the history of our club, to have our player chosen as the national senior Player of the Year.

“I mean, that doesn’t happen too many places.”

This year, it’s Camlough, and it’s Aimee Mackin who’s the best ladies footballer in the world.

  • For more great storytelling and analysis from our award-winning journalists, join the club at The42 Membership today. Click here to find out more >

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