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'Football is for everyone': How Armagh ladies' new facilities will blaze a trail for future generations

 

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Driving force: Sinead Reel at McKeever Park, Killean

Driving force: Sinead Reel at McKeever Park, Killean

Team effort (from left) Anna Carr, Moya Feehan, Aveen Bellew, Sarah Marley, Mairead Tennyson, Kelly Mallon, Nicole McKenna and Aimee Mackin

Team effort (from left) Anna Carr, Moya Feehan, Aveen Bellew, Sarah Marley, Mairead Tennyson, Kelly Mallon, Nicole McKenna and Aimee Mackin

An artist’s impression of new facility

An artist’s impression of new facility

Driving force: Sinead Reel at McKeever Park, Killean

Just off the A1, close to the Carrickdale Hotel in the area of Killean in south Armagh, a little bit of sporting history will soon be made.

 

The Armagh ladies' Gaelic football squad has always had huge ambitions and are well served by exceptionally capable characters, but whenever the coronavirus pandemic lifts and they finally get to sink their studs into a magnificent new pitch, they will become the very first ladies' organisation in Gaelic games to play on their own facilities.

Getting there has taken a long time and no end of pushing from people such as Sinead Reel, the chairperson of Armagh ladies' Gaelic football. It can be said that she was born into the role, her father Ollie having served as chair for years on the same organisation and she's known as someone who can sell a vision.

The 'why' of this project is fairly simple. GAA grounds are vested in the Gaelic Athletic Association. It may come as a surprise to many, especially the casual follower, but it bears repeating that Ladies' Gaelic football and Camogie are governed by different bodies to mens' football and hurling.

If they were fully integrated then things could be different, but that's another day's work.

"We would always have found it hard to get pitches, so that's really what led us to deciding we really had to go for this and build our own," explains Reel.

"We were paying money out for pitch hire, didn't have anything for ourselves and a club could turn around and push you off a pitch you had booked that night, at lunchtime.

"And that's only one example of what could happen at clubs. They could always say at the last minute that they couldn't accommodate us.

"These are senior intercounty players leaving work in Cavan and not knowing where training was going to be at 6pm."

That's the lot of ladies' intercounty teams for the most part. Others are treated well, but in some cases there is an overall sense that they will not be handed anything.

Last September, the Armagh county board passed plans to redevelop the grounds of St Malachy's, Portadown into a training facility for the county teams. With four full-size floodlit pitches, a strength and conditioning suite and other jazzy items such as cryotherapy suites, it reflects the ambition in the county for sure.

Still, though.

"What the men's board are doing is brilliant. I don't know if we are even part of that plan. We haven't been contacted, we haven't been asked anything about it," says Reel.

"My only fear is that it's only for the male population of the county which sort of disappoints me, but I don't know that and I don't want to say that's what it is.

"If it is a facility for us to use as well, then that's great. That's our Plan B if we ever need it.

"At the end of the day, we still needed a home base and a lot of counties have been contacting me and asking how we went about things. Other counties are beginning to follow suit because they are all in the same predicament as we are. There are times when you do not know where you are sending your senior intercounty team to train."

So Armagh ladies got their house in order. They formed a fundraising wing, 'Friends of Armagh Ladies', and identified their needs.

There had been the St Michael's club operating in Killean in recent times, but the existing pitch had lain dormant for a while. The ground was not vested in the GAA and so Armagh ladies were not at the mercy of miles of paperwork and weeks of bureaucracy.

They have a lease now for 35 years, with the option to buy what is called McKeever Park afterwards.

To start with, they lifted the old pitch 10 months ago. They lengthened and widened it and built a new surface with the latest technology of a stone mattress. It's estimated that around £120,000 has gone into getting the surface right.

They might have wanted to get their squads out on the pitch this summer, but it does no harm to wait a little while longer. In time, there are plans for changing rooms and a gym complex at the site.

"It's a long road. There are goalposts and fencing and all that to go up," adds Reel. "We are relying on the goodwill of our sponsors and local people and businesses all about Armagh.

"All of that adds up. My biggest annoyance about the whole thing is how people sometimes don't row in and support ladies' football financially to the same extent as men's football.

"I am not playing the female card here. But people really need to realise that football is here for everyone.

"When you pay your membership of a club, whether it is for your son or daughter, they are all entitled to the same facilities and lights and support, and that support financially is just not there. It's the same in every county, not just in Armagh.

"When a ticket comes out for £100 they will buy it, no bother, when it says GAA on it. But it is very hard to sell a £5 ticket for LGFA. People need to change the mindset and support it more fully."

The next stage for them after this is the installation of floodlighting.

A local contractor has been doing the work so far and no-one knows when work such as that might be permitted to be carried out. But they press ahead as best they can.

"Obviously with the pandemic we are not sure, but we want the girls to be out on the pitch this winter. This would be their first winter under the lights," says Reel.

Already, other ladies' county teams have been onto them, looking advice to see how they could manage something like this themselves.

Armagh could be the trailblazers. What a legacy to hand down.

Belfast Telegraph