TWO IMPORTANT OPENERS either side of the Irish sea in two days. 

Armagh’s Aimee Mackin.

Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Armagh open their All-Ireland championship campaign against Cavan tomorrow, but they’ll be without the services of one of their leading stars. Caroline O’Hanlon is tied up, captaining Northern Ireland at the Netball World Cup in Liverpool with their opening clash against Australia underway [live on Sky Sports Arena and their Youtube channel].

Well into her 18th season of inter-county football, the 34-year-old doctor is well used to balancing commitments between the Orchard county set-up and her Super League club, Manchester Thunder, flying between both. But this is on another level.

She’s leading her side on the world’s biggest stage, but will undoubtedly be following her team-mates back home. Likewise, they’ll be keeping an eye on their World Cup star across the water over the next few days.

“Caroline’s away with the netball now at the minute,” Armagh’s leading forward Aimee Mackin tells The42. “She’s flying it.

“Recently, we were looking at an advertisement and next thing Caroline pops up on Sky Sports. It’s sort of like the ladies football, it’s progressing. It’s very big in England as well.”

The 2014 LGFA Player of the Year is definitely to the fore of that progression, helping Thunder to the Super League title in May, while she’s also been a huge part of the constant positive developments in ladies football on these shores over the past few years.

O’Hanlon is one many across the length and breadth of the country admire, not just for her footballing skills and devastating performances in the Armagh midfield, but for her laudable ability to juggle the two sports and life as a doctor.

O’Hanlon ahead of Northern Ireland’s tournament opener this morning.

Source: Sky Sports Youtube.

22-year-old Mackin has always looked up to her, and now one of the finest forwards in the country, would credit O’Hanlon’s influence not only on her own game, but on the entire sport of ladies football on and off the pitch.

“It’s massive,” Mackin, who’s in her fifth year on the Armagh panel, nods when she’s asked about the shift in the game, and how much ladies football has come on through the years.

She mentions the county’s McKeever Park project which will see them make history with a centre of excellence before talking about the sport in general: “It’s a big step for our county and hopefully it improves the development of ladies football

“Even when I started, there were a lot of leaps and bounds from talking to the girls that played years back. From starting out, the past four or five years we’ve taken massive steps. It’s only good for the game and good for the upcoming future players.

“It’s exciting for new players breaking in, we have a few on the panel. It’s probably the best time to be coming in.”

It’s hard to believe that in her early twenties, Mackin is one of the most experienced players on her county side and most definitely one of the leaders at this stage.

“I don’t really think too much into it,” she smiles. “I sort of forget that I’m one of the experienced ones because I’m one of the young ones too.

“I just enjoy it. If anyone needs help on the panel, I’ll try help them out. I’m the same, I still look to the older ones with more experience and that.”

Blaithin Mackin.

Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

The Shane O’Neill’s star and University of Jordanstown student has someone very close to her on the team; her 20-year-old sister Blaithin.

The younger of the two has also made waves since coming onto the inter-county scene, the sister act combining to wreak havoc up front. Evidently, it’s enjoyable.

“It’s good, it’s really good. We enjoy playing together. It’s like a telepathic thing. We don’t dwell on each other too much but, it’s more about everyone else. It is nice playing with your sister.

“We try not to fight on the pitch,” she laughs, reassuring that even if there are words exchanged in the heat of battle, they’re back to normal fairly quickly afterwards.

“I think that’s the most important thing, we’re probably both thick skinned. It’s the same with everyone on the team: what’s said on the pitch stays on the pitch. Emotions can take over sometimes.”

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With their brother, Connaire, on the Orchard men’s panel and four girls and two boys in the Mackin household in total, it’s most definitely a busy one.

“There’s a lot of football going on,” she beams. “Plenty of matches to go to all over the place.”

Never a truer word spoken. Even just for Aimee alone, who’s also a talented soccer player with Sion Swifts in the Women’s Premiership, the top level women’s football league in the North.

Mackin and O’Hanlon in 2017.

Source: Tom Beary/INPHO

“I love it, I really enjoy playing it,” she enthuses, explaining how there’s a few girls with county Gaelic football experience involved with the Strabane outfit, Donegal’s Ciara Grant being one. Mackin has had to cut back however after a recent injury.

“I had a problem with my knee there with tendinitis. I missed the [Ulster] semi-final against Monaghan. It’s managed now and it’s grand. I just had to cut down on the load outside of county and that. It’s going well now, no bother.

“I was two or three weeks doing my own programme. The week of the semi-final, I was in match training but I wasn’t fit enough to get on the pitch.

“I’ve been fortunate enough. Even this injury, it’s not the worst you could have. It’s frustrating being on the sidelines but I feel every other player can go out and do a job. Against Monaghan, every other player showed that.”

After beating the Farney, Armagh had a disappointing Ulster final against Donegal, with Maxi Curran collecting their third provincial crown on the bounce after a 15-point win. 

While it wasn’t the result they were looking for, it was an enjoyable and competitive  championship and one Armagh take a lot from going forward.

“It’s exciting,” Mackin says of the fierce Ulster competition. “It’s stuff you look forward to.

“You don’t really dwell on how close it’s going to be because you just know it’s going to be a great game. It’s probably one of the tightest championships of all of them. It’s exciting for the neutral to watch and see the results.

Mackin and Cavan captain Sinead Greene.

“We’re lucky enough that we can have a preliminary round, a semi-final and then the final obviously. Unfortunately, for other counties they might just have a straight final. You like to build up the amount of games, you prefer it just to build up momentum.”

She’ll be hoping they have some of that when they face the Breffni tomorrow at St Aidan’s, Bawnboy [throw-in 2pm] in their Group 1 opener. 

With Munster champions, Division 1 league holders and 2018 All-Ireland finalists Cork also upcoming opposition, they’re ready for what will be an exciting three-way battle.

“Cavan up first. They’ll be tough, they’re very physical. We played them on this pitch before in the league last year and it was a draw. I think that says it all.

“There’s always that rivalry, it’s definitely an Ulster thing. You can’t go by results, it’s whatever happens on the day.”

“Obviously Cork are probably sitting there favourites to top the group,” she concludes. “But we’re just excited to get back on the pitch after provincial finals, and looking forward to it.”

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