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Armagh's years of hurt make Croker showpiece so special, says Ciara Donnelly

By Declan Bogue

Occasionally, Ciara Donnelly will find herself walking through the corridors of St Catherine's School in Armagh city and hear a voice cry out: "Well done, Miss Donnelly!"

Her pupils follow her progress as captain of the Armagh camogie team, who she will lead into tomorrow's All-Ireland junior final against Carlow (Croke Park, 12noon). Well, they might too, as she teaches her sister Leanne and Cealla Casey, who are also on the panel.

"The club here in Armagh, St Brigid's, actually put on a bus for the semi-final," she recalls of the last-four mission, which brought a hard-fought win over Roscommon.

"There were grown men and girls from school coming up and congratulating us, which is lovely too.

"I was asking them if they were heading up to Croker. The fact that we are getting a day out in Croke Park to support Armagh, being realistic in any code, it's been a while since any team has played in Croke Park."

Donnelly knows what the tough times feel like, though she never wavered in her commitment. She gets her reward tomorrow when she gets the opportunity to lead her county out in Croke Park.

In the middle of last year, the management combination of Jim McCormack and Paddy McArdle stepped in to steady a ship that was listing on the waves.

Then, the emphasis switched. They sat all the girls down at the start of the year and asked them what they wanted out of their sport. Since then, they are undefeated so far this year, winning promotion from Division Three.

"Obviously when you are winning, you are enjoying it. I love camogie and that's why I stayed through it all," she says.

Naturally, this weekend is the big game to end all big games for them. Croke Park, in front of television cameras, up against a Carlow side operating in a league above them.

As for coping with the nerves of playing in Croker, co-manager McArdle has some previous experience, having played and been defeated in a club final for Middletown there a few years ago.

Donnelly says: "He actually said when he played, he let the occasion get to him and he was almost caught with a ball to his head because he was looking at himself on the big screen at one stage!

"We have learned that we need to avoid that. We are focused on the game at hand first and foremost. To be fair, I think none of us would care where the game is being played, because it is an All-Ireland final and it's where we want to be at this time of the year."

If she could have her way, this weekend might have only featured one important game. However, there is another fixture today.

Donnelly plays football for the Killeeshil ladies, and at 6pm this evening, the ball will be thrown in at Killyclogher for their first-ever Championship final against Tyrone queenpins, St Macartan's. She will be a frustrated spectator, keeping herself right for the next day, though she has come to terms with the clash.

"It is a bit of a torture but I will be there, supporting them. It's bittersweet at the same time," she admits.

"Camogie is my number one and I have been playing it far longer than I have been playing football. These things happen."

Of course, Killeeshil is in Tyrone. Donnelly lives in nearby Eglish, having moved from across the Armagh border in Granemore seven years ago.

It took her father Ciaran, the Tyrone man (her mother is from Darkley near Keady) a while to accept, but now he is a committed Armagh camogie fan.

"If you ask anybody they would say my dad in particular is mad. He will be there, and him a Tyrone man!" says the daughter named after him.

And now, to Carlow. Their graph has been steadily rising after they won an All-Ireland Junior 'B' title in 2012, and the Junior 'A' last year.

Their manager is former dual county star Mark Brennan, who actually played in Shinty internationals alongside Armagh co-manager McArdle in the past.

Brennan has tasted success in Croke Park before, when he captained the county to Christy Ring Cup glory in 2009.

Donnelly points out: "They played in Division Two this year.

"They were a step up but we played them in the round-robin stages of this competition. We beat them by a point away from home. At the same time, that point tells you there is very little in it, you could not call it.

"But we will not be taking anything for granted on Sunday."

That attention to detail flows upwards to the Armagh county camogie board, who she praises for raising their game.

"They have provided anything the girls have needed, whether it be physio, ice baths, food after training which is something new to us," she says.

"It has been in the media before that the girls are not as well supplied as the footballers, but to be honest, anything we have wanted this year we have got it, so we can't complain. They have put in serious work. They knew this was achievable and we have proven them right."

With her commitments in football and camogie, it leaves precious time to pursue other interests, like reading. But as she says herself: "I wouldn't have it any other way."

Weeks like these make the decision to stay loyal and true to the orange of Armagh seem entirely worthwhile.

"There were a few years there when Armagh camogie wasn't going so well and there is no real excuse," she adds. "The talent is there and the fact that the men came in during the middle of last year when things weren't looking so great, it kept us going through last year.

"It makes it special and even there now, there is great support and there are girls who are going to put on an Armagh jersey for the first time. It does make it special."

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