Orchard Delight

'It was't acceptable' - Making history with a ladies football only centre of excellence

Armagh LGFA are building their field of dreams.

“IT SEEMS CRAZY. It’s 2018 and we’re the only ladies county team in Ireland to have that.”

Armagh LGFA are making history with a new designated ladies football training facility, a centre of excellence for all inter-county teams from underage right through to senior.

The Armagh panel The Armagh team in April. Oisin Keniry / INPHO Oisin Keniry / INPHO / INPHO

McKeever Park in Killean will be their new home as Armagh become the first inter-county side in Ireland to have a base dedicated solely to ladies football. Many have a base alright, but it’s shared and huge fees are required for its use.

Having somewhere to call their own, of course, will be absolutely invaluable to the growth and progression of all teams, from U13 right up to senior as they look to bring Armagh ladies football to the next level.

Caoimhe Morgan, the team’s current captain, has seen it all. She’s been there through the ups and downs, the good and bad, through thick and thin across the 19 years she’s played senior inter-county football. 

“I’ve been around awful times when we didn’t know where we were training,” she tells The42, explaining that you could get a call at five o’clock to be at training the other side of the county at 7pm.

“You get no expenses, but our girls have gone all over the county to train, in places with no toilets and stuff like that. Even for the basics: all being all together, having our own spot, the consistency of where we’re going to be, it’s great.

“The fact that all of our teams will be there, that younger girls can see the seniors training together and there’s that sense of family, it’s just going to be amazing.”

Armagh LGFA chairperson — and the main driving force behind the project — Sinead Reel, echoes those sentiments. Likewise, she’s been there as a player and understands the importance of having a place to train and somewhere to call home, effectively.

“Back then facilities were nowhere near what they are now, but they’re still poor in ladies football in general,” she says.

“There’s sessions there that some of the girls don’t even have a toilet. It’s not acceptable. At the minute, some Tuesday night our girls don’t even know where they’re training.

“Armagh men would not be training the way the Armagh women are. This is a fight for all.”

Caoimhe Morgan dejected Morgan dejected after the 2014 All-Ireland senior semi-final. Tommy Grealy / INPHO Tommy Grealy / INPHO / INPHO

Having taken over from her father, Owen, as chairperson 12 month ago, one of the first things on Reel’s list was this. They came up with the idea five years ago, approaching another club, but that fell through.

They continued, like many other counties across the country, getting onto clubs for the lend of pitches and facilities. “Literally begging,” adds Morgan, especially this year with the adverse weather conditions. “We couldn’t get anywhere.”

With financial struggles under control, sponsors on board, and back on track in that regard, Reel’s focus turned to the defunct St Michael’s club of Killean. It was time they had to do it, and she approached those in charge of the facility with her, this time improved, idea.

Once the lease was secured, early stage work got underway and the pitch itself has since been used for underage trials and training. That said though, they’re replacing it and improving the base as much as possible with huge changes in store.

“We’re going to spend about £140,000 roughly on the pitch itself; ripping it up, re-draining, sand slitting, the whole lot,” she continues.

“For the pitch to be able to be used at the busiest time which is your wettest time, your coldest time, we have to spend this money to make this pitch up to scratch with everything we need. And so that we’re not fixing it every year.

“We’re going to do the right job on it which means ripping the whole thing up and getting a new pitch really and truly. There’s a good base there, it’s just a case of refreshing it and re-doing it all.

That’s the first phase, and will happen in March. From there then, it’s on to building a state of the art facility: a full-scale building, a club room of sorts, with dressing rooms, a top-class gym, meeting rooms and what not else within.

“The only thing that they won’t have is a swimming pool or something like that!” she grins, adding that players would have full access to this 24-7 and it will act as not only a training venue, but a home ground for matches of all sorts — from National League fixtures, both Armagh ones and neutral, to club championship and Féile.

The plan is to have the venue ready to go for full use in 2020, staying in line with the 20×20 campaign, with the second phase costing up on £500,000. Hopefully the pitch itself will be in use at the end of 2019. 

They’re open to welcoming other nearby counties and teams to use the facility when they’re not — but ladies only. 

With a GoFund Me page up and running for anyone who wants to get involved with small donations, there’s obviously a lot more to the fundraising than that. Reel, who’s involved in a successful family business, insists that she’s building a base slowly of potential major supporters and sponsors, while looking into available grants and other forms of funding. 

There are difficulties — for example, Sport NI don’t recognise LGFA — but they’ll get there eventually, and local interest is through the roof. The team always comes first though, and whatever comes after is pumped into the facility fund.

The players are the main thing, and their needs. 

“It’s trying to get everybody on board and all driving together for the same cause,” Morgan smiles. “It’s so exciting, it’s going to be really good like.

“It’s amazing, but everybody should have it. It seems crazy. It’s 2018 and we’re the only ladies team in Ireland to have that.

“But I think that a lot of other people will be thinking this is the way it should go now, and this is accepted and it should be. A lot more will come off the back of this for other counties. If you think of the money they’re spending to hire pitches… you need someone with a bit of vision to invest in it. You’ll pay it back.”

Not only that, but younger players will be able to see first-hand what they’re striving for. It’ll be a boost for them to be able to say things like, ‘I saw Caoimhe Morgan or Caroline O’Hanlon or Aimee Mackin training today.’

A PE teacher in St Catherine’s in Armagh, Morgan has had the advantage of seeing rising talent come through from an early age. ‘Jesus Christ, she’s unbelievable,’ she recalls thinking after seeing Mackin point a free from the sideline in a schools’ match. 

Aimee Mackin and Maria Curley Mackin is now a key player for Armagh. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

“This new pitch and Centre of Excellence will mean that we will be able to see a lot more of them,” she adds. “You’ll be able to coach them along in a sense.

“Minors often don’t make the breakthrough to senior because they don’t know anybody and they might think it’s clicky and that. Well if you can put an arm around them at training or whatever, they’re coming off the pitch and you’re saying, ‘You did really well there,’ then they might think, ‘God I want to go into the senior team.’”

Looking back through the years, that was no real option for Morgan. When you were playing U16, you were playing senior basically, she grins.

“Ach, it’s a way of life for me and I love it,” the Lissummon defender responds when complimented on her incredible service to the Orchard county, her enthusiasm to wear the orange jersey shining through.

“It’s just something I do like, it’s like having a shower. It’s the same as other people going to the gym or whatever. People say to me, ‘Oh, how do you do it?’ Well, everyone does it, Caroline O’Hanlon does it too, how do you do it?’

“It’s something that you want to do. It’s my exercise regime like. My sisters, there’s three of us on the panel so it’s nice because you have that family time too.”

The 34-year-old mother of two kids, Kayla (6) and Darragh (2), the ‘epitome of ladies football and a massive role model,’ as Reel labels her, adds: “When they see me in my football gear they’re like, ‘Mammy you’re not going to football again?’ They know rightly!

“They look at me and they’re like, ‘Gym, football, gym, football.’ That’s my mental health, if I didn’t play the football I’d kill my husband or my children so I’ll just keep playing!”

Caoimhe Marley and Cleona O'Keeffe Facing Waterford in 2006. Andrew Paton / INPHO Andrew Paton / INPHO / INPHO

This Armagh team have been there or thereabouts, knocking on the door for the past few years since winning the intermediate championship in 2012. One thing that’s probably held them back is change after change in management, but with continuity this year and this new centre of excellence in the works, they’ll be driven on more and more.

“It’s like, ‘What more do you have to do to get over the line?’” Morgan adds.

“It’s trying to fill all those gaps and thinking what can we add, what will make us better? I think this will help, well, I know it will. 

“I would say a lot of the young ones don’t really know the magnitude of this. They’re thinking, ‘Well, Armagh men have this’ and they don’t really see the difference, in a good way. We’ll be getting what the men have.

“It’s more the older ones, like me, that are like, ‘Oh my God, this is unreal.’”

And Reel echoes her words: “Girls within the county, they’re 13 and 14 now but in two years they’re 16 and 17, that’s your basis then for your seniors.

“It’s really training them in the brain to be like, ‘This is unbelievable, this wasn’t here five years ago, 10 years ago, 20 years ago. It’s trying to get girls into the frame of mind, to think this is something spectacular.”

And that, it most definitely is.

Spectacular is what McKeever Park will be.

You can donate to the cause here.

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