Aimee Mackin making waves in the world of ladies' football

Aimee Mackin celebrates with Tanya McCoy following the TG4 All-Ireland Senior Championship Qualifier victory over Westmeath at Lannleire GFC, Dunleer in Louth last July Picture by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

AIMEE Mackin popped in for a coffee between finishing work at the O’Neills store in Newry and hitting the road for Dublin.

She’s busy, she’s always busy, and was off to Croke Park to cheer on her brother Conor who was playing for Armagh in the National League final against Fermanagh that evening.

“Have you played at Croke Park?” I asked her.

“No,” she replied, with a rueful smile.

“What! Conor has only started and he’s beaten you to it? The skitter!”

“Haha. I know!” says Aimee: “Och, but I’m delighted for him.”

She may not have played at Headquarters yet, but Aimee Mackin’s time will come.

Quick, skilful, smart and blessed with a superb left foot, the hard-working inside forward is one of the brightest stars of ladies’ football and it’s easy to forget that she’s still only 20.

An All-Ireland winner with Ulster University in February, the Shane O’Neill’s scoring machine is just back from her second Allstar trip and has posted a whopping 11-39 (10-30 from play) in the Orchard County ladies’ seven league games this season.

Alongside that she is a full Northern Ireland international and could well have made a career in soccer if she hadn’t been so devoted to Gaelic Games.

Like many others, it all began for her in her Camlough home where, against the backdrop of Armagh’s success throughout the noughties, the Mackin backgarden was the scene for countless re-enactments of Ulster and All-Ireland finals between Aimee and her five brothers and sisters.

“I loved football from the start,” she says.

“My dad would say that the first thing I would go for every Christmas was a football. I was always outside playing, even with the boys at school I was always out playing football.

“It grew on me and then I grew on it.”

Football – club and county – was a constant focus in the Mackin household.

“My dad is a big GAA man,” Aimee explains.

“I don’t know if he was much good on the pitch, but he has a good brain for football and he’d follow any match.

“He was the first one to get us going. My mum was sporty but never into Gaelic although she is now – she had to get into it! She always comes to support us. She’s a Louth woman, but she’s turned to Armagh now.

“When she was young she would have played sport but I suppose in those days there probably wasn’t many opportunities for women. She would always have pushed us into sport – soccer and Gaelic – and we would have been at it from a young age.”

At school she was drawn to the football like a moth to a flame. When the bell rang for break or dinner she was straight out in the playground, throwing herself into the fray and her emergence coincided with several other talented girls. Pulling each other along, they soon began to show the boys how it was done.

“A few of the girls stood out,” Mackin recalls.

“We were probably pulling the boys along and they would probably say we were better than them.

“I always think it was the best thing for us to play boys’ football, you can always see a bit of difference in girls who have played with boys in terms of breaking through a tackle and coping with the rough side of the game, not that ladies’ football is rough, but it is physical.

“At our club we played with the boys until the U12s.

“There were a few of us – Moya Feehan, myself, Blaithin (her younger sister), Louise Kenny - and Peter Lynch realized the potential. We needed a girls’ club.

“We didn’t want to go to any other club, we wanted to stay with our own and Peter took the initiative, got a few people around him and got it started.”

Lynch’s vision paid off as Shane O’Neill’s swept to success at underage level in Armagh. He brought the youngsters through to senior level and was part of the management team when the south Armagh club reached the All-Ireland Intermediate final two years ago against Annaghdown.

Despite 2-4 from Mackin, the Galway ladies won on the day, but the disappointment of the defeat didn’t detract from Aimee’s determination. Take a drive past the Shane O’Neill’s grounds some evening and you might well spot her out on the pitch working on her shooting.

“When I’m off I’d go down to the club and get a bag of footballs,” she explains.

“I’m trying to work on my right foot now, I just keep practicing.”

Her success at club level was noted by the Armagh ladies’ management and she was called up to take her place alongside trail-blazing Orchard county stars like Caroline O’Hanlon and Aileen Matthews. They were her role models, now she is one herself.

“I don’t know if I am (a role model) really,” she says, modestly.

“But I like it if young players want to come and ask me advice because I loved doing that when I was that age. When I was starting I would have looked up to the likes of Caroline and Aileen who got to the All-Ireland final in 2006.

“I suppose it’s that circle of life, I looked up to them and they were very helpful to me – Aileen coached at my primary school and brought me on a lot in my first year with Armagh.

“She would have taken me to the side and gave me good advice, she has a lot of experience and I liked to listen to her.”

Mackin’s achievements with the Armagh ladies are all the more remarkable given that at one stage she was also making waves playing soccer. Her career has included spells with Bessbrook, Camlough Rovers, the now sadly defunct Newry City Ladies and soon Sion Swifts.

Again her club form didn’t go unnoticed and she won her first full cap for Northern Ireland as a 17-year-old after scoring a hat-trick against Estonia for the U19s. She turned down the offer of a soccer scholarship from Tennessee University in 2015 to concentrate on GAA but hopes to return to the Northern Ireland fold at some stage this year. The team – which has lost their last four games, conceding 15 goals and scoring one – could certainly do with her.

Her involvement could depend on how far Armagh progress this year of course, but Mackin has a have-boots-will-travel attitude.

“People always ask me: ‘Does it ever get tiring playing so many matches?” she explains.

“It doesn’t. There’s always a new challenge, it’s always different and that’s what motivates me.

“I don’t have much time to myself, but I can’t fault it, I wouldn’t change it.

“People slag me about the price I pay for my boots but I always say: ‘Sure I wear them every day, I might as well have good ones’.”

The boots she’s wearing this season are worth every penny she forked out for them. In Armagh’s Division Two campaign Mackin has bagged 1-5, 0-8, 2-5, 2-4, 3-7, 1-4 and 2-6.

“I don’t really keep track of what I score,” she says (modesty again).

“The final score is the most important score.

“We’ve been doing rightly. We started slowly against Tipp, that was our first game and we weren’t really happy with our performance. Ever since it we have been building slowly and knuckling down.”

Next up is a Division Two semi-final against pacesetters Tipperary on Saturday.

“Playing for Armagh is massive, it’s always been massive,” says Mackin.

“I was looking back at one of my primary school books and there was a question ‘what’s your ambition when you grow up?’ Mine was to play for Armagh ladies.”

She made her dreams come through in style, announcing her arrival on the inter-county scene with a Player of the Match award in the 2015 Division Two final against Donegal and going on to win an Allstar in her first senior season.

There were three other Armagh players on that trip to San Diego - Caroline O’Hanlon, Sinead McCleary and Mairead Tennyson – but Mackin was the only representative from north of the border named in last year’s Allstar select.

Despite that, she is confident that Ladies’ football in Armagh and throughout the north is “in a healthy state”.

“We’ll keep our feet on the ground and give the Ulster Championship a good go this year,” she said.

“Donegal would be the favourites.

“They won it last year and they’re going well in Division One. We have Cavan in the first round and in Ladies’ football it’s very hard to judge because on any given day anyone can beat anyone else. There’s no real stand-out team that definitely going to win it.

“Cavan will be tough – James Daly (former Armagh manager) is coaching them now and he’ll want to get one over on us.

“There are a lot more counties that can contend for the All-Ireland and each province; it's a lot more open than the men’s game.”

She doubts she would be “physical enough” for the men’s game, but technically she could hold her own. The skills on show in ladies’ football have improved massively over the past decade and increased media attention has transformed the game’s profile.

“The coverage has improved a lot since I started,” said Mackin.

“TG4 are very good putting on live games, the game is getting a lot more coverage – the men get a lot more obviously – but ladies’ football is moving in the right direction and hopefully it can go further.”

She has achieved so much already, but there are plenty of boxes still to tick – an Ulster title, an All-Ireland, Croke Park…

“I’d like to win an Ulster Championship,” she says.

“You set your sights on playing at Croke Park at the end of the season and winning an All-Ireland is the big aim.

“We’re not too far away and I don’t think we realize that ourselves sometimes. We have some good young players coming through – the minors got to Ulster final last year.

“Getting the younger players through and ready for senior football is crucial. In the next few years, with the youth that we have, I’d be hopeful that we’ll win something.”

Croke Park? One day she’ll get there and they’ll be lucky to have her.

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