By Daragh Ó Conchúir
WHEN Tyrone won the GAA All-Ireland Football Final in 2003, there was an understandable focus on the fact that the legendary Peter Canavan had once taught teammate Owen Mulligan.
The Armagh Camogie team competing in the Liberty Insurance All-Ireland Premier Junior Final against Carlow go even further though, with that teacher-pupil relationship very much in the present.
Team captain and leading scorer, Ciara Donnelly teaches her sister Leanne and Cealla Casey at St Catherine’s College in Armagh town.
In Keady, Casey’s St Patrick’s clubmate Bernie Murray has just begun teaching PE at (the unrelated) St Patrick’s High School, where county colleagues Ciara Hill, Catherine Beagan, Ella Mone, Eimear Smyth and Leah McGoldrick are students.
Indeed McGoldrick has benefited from Murray’s on-field mentoring to emerge as her midfield partner in the past month.
“It’s unbelievable” agrees Murray. “The craic on the bus is great. I told them during the summer that I would be teaching them and they were laughing. I saw them the other day in school and they were calling me Bernie and I had to tell them not to call me that in front of students or staff!
“At the end of the day, when I’m out on the pitch with them, we’re all playing for Armagh. We all get on well. It doesn’t matter if she’s a 17-year-old, she’s your partner. We have the craic, and good fun on a night out or anything like that.
“But school is obviously a wee bit different!”
The younger septet are part of a strong representation from the Minor outfit that won All-Ireland C honours last April, just the week before the Seniors annexed the Division 3 National League title.
Armagh Camogie has been riding the crest of a wave but it was a much gloomier outlook 12 months ago, as the failure to build on the All-Ireland Junior A success of 2011, when Murray was captain, led to a general ennui that became too much to take.
Murray had been involved non-stop for 13 years but could stand the aimless drifting no more and with a heavy heart, she walked away last March, along with other experienced and equally-disillusioned operators such as Bronagh Mone and the recently-married Niamh Markey (née McGeown).
It wasn’t planned but events could not have worked out any better. For the first time Murray travelled and she spent two months playing Football in Boston, returning refreshed and re-energised.
Meanwhile, the county board recognised that something needed to be done, appointing Jim McCormack and Paddy McArdle as joint managers. The duo quickly rallied the troops and with county board support, created a professional environment.
Murray, Mone and Mackey returned to the fold, the youngsters were fast-tracked and a whirlwind season has ensued. Throw in the new job and it has been a memorable period.
“Last year things weren’t going well and they probably hadn’t been this past couple of years. A number of girls quit. But the management team got to us early on in the year, met with a few girls. Then we had a meeting and we said where we wanted to go and what we wanted to do.
“The county board were very supportive as well. It was ‘What do you need?’ They were willing to give us what we needed to achieve our goal and we’ve been treated really well this year. As a result, the all-round morale in the group is much better than it has been. It’s fun again going to training, which it hadn’t been.”
The spirit was evident as they turned around a five-point deficit to defeat old rivals Roscommon in the Semi-Final. It was further confirmation too that they had progressed; a fourth victory over the Connacht girls this season, including the National League decider, having come off second best against them on numerous occasions over the years.
The confidence generated this term was obvious at half-time.
“No-one went mad. Our management were very calm and I think most of the girls were as well. We have a bit of belief in ourselves now, things have been going well and we’ve been in that position before during the year and turned it around.
“There’s a few of us who have been there a long time, getting beaten in All-Ireland Semi-Finals before. I think maybe it was the hunger we had that helped us over the line as well.”
Now 31, Murray is relishing the prospect of finally getting to perform at Croke Park.
“It’s mad. I can’t believe it. We always thought we were well set to win a Junior All-Ireland. We saw the likes of Kildare progressing, Meath and Laois and thought we were fit to compete with them. It took us a long time to win the Nancy Murray and then we didn’t build on that. But thank God it’s finally happening.
“We know what to expect from Carlow. Things have been going well for them. Probably where we went wrong for a year or two, they have built on winning the Nancy Murray Cup (last year). It’s a great achievement for them, as it is for ourselves, to be walking out onto Croke Park.
“We met them in Carlow, it was a physical game, tight, only a point in it and it could have went either way but we’re confident, we believe that we can do it.”