by Richard Bullick
ARMAGH camogie captain Ciara Donnelly has achieved a surely unique double by winning her sport’s most prestigious individual award for two different counties on the same night!
St Catherine’s College Maths teacher and coach Ciara was crowned Camogie Player of the Year at the Teamtalkmag Tyrone GAA Awards on the back of her heroics for her club Eglish, who retained their Ulster Intermediate title in October. Unfortunately for the 26-year-old, the Bundoran banquet directly clashed with the Armagh Camogie Awards at the City Hotel where, in her absence, inspirational skipper Donnelly was also honoured with the most prestigious award, County Player of the Year.
There was also a remarkable double for the Donnelly family for Ciara’s younger sibling Leanne was named Armagh Minor Player of the Year, having also been nominated for the underage award for Tyrone camogie at the Teamtalkmag event. The following afternoon, the talented Donnelly siblings were back on the red carpet circuit, attending the Ulster Camogie Awards as shortlisted nominees for the province’s Senior and Minor Player of the Year gongs respectively.
It speaks volumes for the self-effacing Ciara’s trademark modesty that she politely declined the opportunity for the sisters to be specially photographed afterwards with the Armagh awards they hadn’t been able to collect on the evening. Nobody would begrudge the Donnellys any spotlight which came their way for the pair can claim another awards-related distinction in the past couple of weeks when they have been confirmed as the only Orchard county natives to make a 2017 Gaelic Life Ulster Club All Stars line-up in either female code.
Ciara and sibling Leanne both shone brightly for Eglish in their Ulster Intermediate decider victory over Down champions Clonduff and their inclusion in the ceremonial line-up comes as no surprise. The pair played leading roles in the big game against Clonduff, Ciara top-scoring with 0-8 but being pipped to the Player of the Match award by fellow forward Leanne, just as in the corresponding game in 2015.
Armagh regular Leanne, who played for Ulster at adult level in this year’s interpros and recently picked up another Ulster Schools All Star award, scored a magnificent goal early in what proved a thrilling game in Granemore, where the sisters were born. Ciara’s five frees kept the board ticking over for the Tyrone champions but it was 17-year-old Leanne’s superb point from an acute angle on the left 41 seconds into injury-time which nudged Eglish in front for the final time.
“It’s a great feeling for sure but I really don’t think I deserved it!” insisted schoolgirl Leanne with commendable modesty after the game when asked about picking up Player of the Match in another Ulster final. “I think it must just have been that last score I got which maybe swayed the decision, not least as the award was probably being thought about right at that time! I took the ball on and managed to pop it over the bar from a narrow angle so it was a pleasing point never mind its significance.
“That point put us back in the lead with not long left and although Ciara had time to get a great score from the other side of the field which would have meant them needing a goal, it was a real relief to hear the final whistle. “I’m sure it was a very exciting game for any neutrals, as someone said the perfect formula for a final, with two well-matched teams giving everything and the result still too close to call in injury-time.
“On days like this the clock flies when you’re behind but crawls when you’re ahead. We knew having the wind behind us should help in the second half but that we couldn’t rely on it being the difference. The message at half-time was to just keep pushing hard and never let up.
“Even though this was our third final in a row, it was nerve-wrecking to play in, but we’ve a great belief in each other and know we’ve the ability and character to fight hard and get over the line. Everyone raised the bar and we made that valuable big game experience count.
“The final two years ago was the club’s first for 22 years I think, so that was even more nerve-wrecking. But we got the win that day and it was the start of something good for us. Being the defending champions has its own pressures and we’re proud to have backed up that first success.” However being pipped at the post in the All Ireland second tier decider in Croke Park by Carlow’s Myshall back at the start of March means the Eglish hunger hasn’t been satisfied yet in spite of that hat-trick of Ulster titles.
Leanne’s focus since the provincial club showpiece has been on school camogie at St Catherine’s where she’s in her last year – sister Ciara teachers her A level Maths – but the prospect of an All Ireland semi is something to look forward to. “It’s great and it’ll be no hardship training through the winter and even keeping the fitness up over the Christmas period. We were heartbroken losing last year but we’re determined to keep progressing. “After our first Ulster win we were knocked out in the All Ireland semi, last season we went one step further by reaching the final and now we want to take that last step so we’ll work hard to give ourselves the best possible chance of getting back to Croke Park and claiming that trophy,”
she vows. It has been left to the exiled Donnellys to fly the flag for the Orchard county as, embarrassingly, Armagh chose not to even enter a club in this season’s Ulster Intermediate Championship. Last year Granemore’s Rachael Merry and Eimear Hayes, who captained Tullysaran to the Ulster Junior title, won Ulster Club All Stars along with Ciara Donnelly. This time round there are six players from reigning All Ireland champions Slaughtneil of Derry, who retained their provincial crown by again beating Antrim representatives Loughgiel, who have four recipients.
The two Donnellys – the only siblings in the line-up as Aoife is the sole Slaughtneil Cassidy sister to make it this time – represent Ulster Intermediate champions Eglish with runners-up Clonduff supplying Jenna Boden. Ulster Junior champions Crosserlough have two players included unlike their predecessors Tullysaran a year ago when scoring machine Colette McSorley surely deserved to be included along with Hayes.