Legend Caroline O'Hanlon back for Armagh in 2024

Caroline O'Hanlon pictured in action for Armagh.Caroline O'Hanlon pictured in action for Armagh.
Caroline O'Hanlon pictured in action for Armagh.
​Armagh ladies Gaelic fans went into the new year with a spring in their step following welcome confirmation that the iconic Caroline O’Hanlon will be back on Orchard duty for an astonishing twenty-third consecutive season in 2024.

The news which everyone wanted to hear came as a belated Christmas gift for Armagh followers who were worried that the former Orchard captain might have unofficially called time on an inter-county career which began more than two decades ago.

O’Hanlon stepped away from the county panel after last April’s NFL Division 2 final victory over Laois and there were fears that late cameo in Croke Park might be the last we would see of Armagh’s greatest ever female footballer in the orange jersey.

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The evergreen veteran was confined to a few minutes of game-time that day having sustained a shoulder injury playing British SuperLeague netball for Leeds Rhinos at Team Bath since scoring 2-1 in Armagh’s last regular league game away to Tipperary.

Given that O’Hanlon was professionally contracted to Rhinos, her Armagh withdrawal was seen as a pragmatic attempt to manage the injury, and she played for the Leeds side with her shoulder heavily strapped for the remainder of the SuperLeague campaign.

However, the 2014 All-Ireland Player-of-the-Year regularly lined out for her beloved Carrickcruppen at club level before the SuperLeague season finished so there was clearly no footballing ban being imposed by her netball employers.

Midfield maestro O’Hanlon made her Orchard debut way back in 2002 and has featured every season since despite playing netball at the highest level also and combining sport with a demanding medical career, initially as a hospital doctor before becoming a GP.

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Last summer was the first time she had chosen to opt out of county football but it was hoped that the appointment of heavyweight Greg McGonigle as the new Armagh manager might help persuade O’Hanlon to return to the fold for another Orchard campaign.

The incomparable Bessbrook sportswoman has also signed up for another SuperLeague season with Rhinos and been reappointed Northern Ireland netball captain so continuing her Armagh Gaelic career too will mean a very busy schedule.

O’Hanlon is set to turn 40 four days after this year’s All-Ireland final and it is testament to the triple All-Star’s incredible drive and wonderful fitness that she can contemplate such a workload at this stage of her exceptional career.

The SuperLeague season starts in the middle of February and evergreen veteran O’Hanlon is set to double up on three weekends, with a Rhinos match on the Saturday followed by an Armagh match on the Sunday, something she has successfully managed in the past.

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Thankfully, unlike in previous seasons, there are no direct clashes between O’Hanlon’s SuperLeague games and Armagh’s NFL fixtures this spring, unless any of the latter are moved to accommodate television, so availability for matches shouldn’t be an issue.

The Orchard taliswoman was much missed in last July’s narrow All-Ireland quarter-final defeat against Cork and her experienced, composed presence should be very valuable as Armagh make their return to NFL Division 1 this month after a six-season absence.

Along with the change of manager, Armagh will have a new captain this season with McGonigle giving that honour to Clann Eireann full back Clodagh McCambridge going into the forthcoming campaign.

A superb player and exemplary professional, the magnificent McCambridge was strongly tipped to inherit the Orchard captaincy in the future, though her elevation to the official leadership role at this time has come as a slight surprise on age grounds.

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Crossmaglen’s Lauren McConville had appeared the obvious successor as and when the time came for Kelly Mallon to relinquish the role that she has held with such distinction for the past four seasons, with the younger McCambridge getting her turn after that.

Mallon has been the Orchard’s official captain since taking over from Caoimhe Morgan going into the 2020 season and became the first woman to lead Armagh to a hat-trick of Ulster Senior Championship successes, followed by an NFL Division 2 title triumph.

The Armagh Harps forward from Madden did a superb job both on and off the field but there was always a possibility that there could be a captaincy change now as part of a new manager wanting to put his stamp on the set-up.

In that eventuality, the dream ticket seemed to be the formidable McConville, who turned 29 over Christmas, as skipper with the 26-year-old McCambridge taking up the deputy position now in preparation for becoming captain next time round.

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The only two women on the field for every minute of Armagh’s 14 matches last season, McConville and McCambridge are both top players and supreme professionals, either of whom would be richly deserving of the honour of officially leading their county.

McGonigle must have been greatly impressed while working with McCambridge at club level and will know that he can still count on vice-captain McConville providing valuable leadership regardless of whether she’s wearing the metaphorical armband or not.

A great team woman, McConville has played 94 Armagh matches over the past decade without ever being injured or dropped and there is no doubt McCambridge will have her fiercely committed colleague’s unwavering support.

A former NI Under 21 international netballer, McCambridge was brought into the county panel by James Daly in the summer of 2015 and first deployed at full back the following spring, which was the last time Armagh returned to the National League’s top flight.

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