Tuesday, 19 December 2017

EASTERN PROMISE FOR SHANE OíNEILLíS LADIES. thumbnailSHANE O'Neill's senior ladies players Louise Kenny and Aimee Mackin pictured at the launch of the Camlough based club's trip to China.

THE trail-blazing female footballers of Shane O'Neill's have had an amazing journey over the past decade but club captain Louise Kenny admits that travelling to China next week will be a surreal experience for the Camlough girls.

Thanks to the Confucius Institute, a branch of the Chinese Ministry of Education which operates out of Ulster University's Jordanstown campus, 26 players and a management group of four will be spending a fortnight in the Far East from December 29 on an academic and cultural exchange under the Study in China programme.

"The initial contact with the Confucius Institute came through Conor Murphy MLA, who is a club member here at Shanes, and that led to a jersey sponsorship, but when there was talk of an actual trip to China I don't think we could quite believe it at first," explains Kenny.

"But here we are, we're really heading off just after Christmas, and it's wonderful for us to have the opportunity to travel to China and not only experience their culture but showcase our own sport of gaelic football.

We've had a great journey over recent years in terms of winning Ulster titles and reaching an All Ireland final but this is something totally different for us and indeed I understand it's the first time any GAA club team, male or female, from anywhere has been invited to visit China."

A golden generation of young Shanes stars headed by skipper Kenny and double All Star Aimee Mackin have enjoyed sustained success since Peter Lynch established ladies football in the club a decade ago.

In that time, Shanes have accumulated more than two dozen trophies, including Ulster title triumphs at Minor, Junior and Intermediate level and reaching last December's second tier All Ireland decider.

This year has been about Shanes finding their feet as the highest level but Lynch, co-manager Caoibhe Sloan and their still relatively young playing group have once again had much to plan and look forward to through the autumn towards winter.

The travelling party will be hosted by the Irish Embassy after arriving in Beijing - where they will also visit the city's GAA club - on Saturday week and four days of guided sightseeing will include visits to the Great Wall, Forbidden City, Bird's Nest Olympic Stadium, Summer Palace and Tiananmen Square.

The next stage of the trip will involve taking the bullet train to the city of Wuhan, where the group will be based in the Lambhorgini Hotel, and each morning take part in workshops at the local university, learning about Chinese language, culture, history and contemporary society including educational and business structures.

Kenny reveals that Shanes have been undertaking a cultural induction programme to ensure they will be good visitors to China and understand how to fit in well with their hosts.

"I suppose most of us wouldn't have know much about China before but we've had good guidance from (Confucius Institute Director) Yan Liu in terms of an introduction to Chinese culture and for the past few weeks we've been taking Mandarin language lessons.

"The girls are really embracing all that for we want to get the most out of our trip and be good ambassadors not only for our club and local area but the sport and the country too.

This invitation is an honour and a privilege and we want to put our best foot forward," says Louise.

While in Wuhan the tourists will gain an introduction to martial arts and other popular Chinese sports and customs, and in turn spend the afternoons demonstrating and coaching ladies gaelic football to the Chinese students.

The Chinese are sure to be eager students and, along with being introduced to the basic concepts of gaelic football, will doubtless be fascinated by the chance to observe up close the first-class skill and technique of top players like Mackin, one of the most famed forwards in Ireland.

Aimee and her younger sibling Blaithin started every Armagh match this year while Kenny has revealed the welcome news that she is back training with the county panel for the first time since rupturing her cruciate in May 2015.

The accomplished Moya Feehan has also pulled on the orange jersey at adult level.

China's severe winter may make a full-scale exhibition match impossible but Kenny notes that "apparently there's a girl's soccer team we might get a wee match against," in which case Shanes should be well served considering the Mackins and Feehan have played that form of football at international level!

Although there's no conventional international dimension to gaelic games, going abroad for sport as part of a team is nothing new for Aimee Mackin considering she played her first World Cup qualifier for Northern Ireland in soccer aged just 16 and was on the All Stars trip to San Diego in March last year.

She will be off to the Far East again as soon as March when the All Stars travel to Thailand, but the prospect of a post-Christmas trip to China with her club is still something special for Aimee even though she is now a household name nationwide with two All-Stars under her belt and a reputation for scoring great goals and rattling up astonishing tallies.

"It's so special to have this chance with the club because I've grown up with everyone here and will be sharing this incredible experience with what is my football family and lifelong friends," enthuses Mackin.

"This is just unique and we're so fortunate, especially as a ladies club team, to have this opportunity of an all-expenses-paid trip of a life-time to a place like China. It's such a significant country but one most people probably don't know an awful lot about.

"So to be invited to go over there to showcase our sport as well as learning what their culture is like will be an exceptional experience for everyone involved and I'm really looking forward to it.

"I'm not sure how well we'll do at the language but we've been taking classes and will certainly try to use some over there out of respect. We want to embrace their culture and also showcase our own indigenous game to the Chinese.

"This visit should be great for raising awareness of ladies gaelic football too and we're proud to be flying the flag for our sport overseas. I must thank Yan and the Confucius Institute for their commitment in opting to take this initiative forward with a ladies club team.

"That's a massive vote of confidence in our code and hopefully we can go over there and do it good justice, not just for our club and our area but ladies football as a whole.

With a crowd of more than 46,000 people attending this year's All Ireland final we can proudly testify that women's sport matters in our country and that's a very positive message."

Armagh ace Aimee's individual achievements and the impressive success Shanes have had at provincial level means the club's name is now well established on the ladies football map in Ireland and this trip will further enhance their profile.

The club has hailed their players as 'an outstanding group of young ladies who, while enjoying considerable success on the field in recent years, have always been excellent ambassadors for our club, county, province and now country'.

Although characteristically humble, Mackin is rightly proud of how her cherished club will be the ones breaking new ground over the next few weeks, just as they have with their on-field exploits in past seasons.

With their father figure Lynch set to take a well-earned break from managing Shanes after a decade's dedicated service, the forthcoming trip to China is a natural time to take stock and reflect on a glorious journey which would be the envy of most clubs.

They've been on our radar for so long now that it's hard to credit that the two leading ladies at Shanes, Kenny and Mackin, are still just 20 years old and Aimee admits that sometimes the significance of what's happening can be lost on the young.

"We're really honoured and grateful for this wonderful opportunity to go to China and we've enjoyed winning trophies as a team but I suppose at our age now we probably don't appreciate enough how special a time this has been," she reflects.

"What has happened over the last number of years has been unbelievable and a lot of us have been together as a playing group since U12. We've worked hard alright but because we've won things it would be easy to take our good fortune for granted, including getting to China.

"Looking back to when we won the Ulster Junior Championship in 2013, I know we didn't appreciate properly at the time what an achievement it was to do that when we were nearly all just 16 or under, and then to win the Intermediate title three years later as teenagers was special too.

"Obviously we want to push on and challenge at senior level in the years ahead but I think we'll look back in 10 years' time with a more rounded understanding of how absolutely blessed we've been in our early years and what an exciting journey we've had."

As well as being a nice post-season holiday for the squad and fitting farewell for Lynch and sidekick Sloan, Kenny sees this trip as a superb bonding exercise ahead of the 2018 club campaign.

"It's a great send-off for Peter, who has been at the helm here for 10 years. He's a great man and we really appreciate all that he has done for us. Nobody deserves to be part of this more than him.

"I also think this trip will stand us in good stead going forward, for there should be a big buzz coming back from China and starting pre-season, plus a tour like this should bring us even closer as a group of girls.

"Most of us have been together for a long time already and had some very special victories together but the memories made on this trip are something more which we'll always share."

An inspirational leader who has captained the club's adult team for five years from her mid-teens, Kenny knows how the amazing journey with Shanes has helped develop people as well as improving players.

"It has been a complete privilege to lead the girls right through, but it's been easy for we've all worked together and grown with each challenge. We've come up together and everyone knows their strengths and weaknesses so we just keep pushing each other forward.

"We 've had a great journey though I doubt anyone ever thought it could take us to China, so this is surreal alright but what a way to bring in New Year!" reflects Louise.

Shanes will visit the Three Gorge Dam at Yitchang before commencing their long journey home from Wuhan on January 11.


Subscribe to read full newspaper »

Send to a friend

Please complete the following form to inform a friend about this page.

In order to process your information we must ask you to enter the letters in the image into the box:

CAPTCHA Image play audio version Reload Image

* Mandatory field - please complete