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‘I was nervous coming back in that Kerry game’ – Niamh Henderson making huge strides with Armagh after years away

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A part of the Orchard County side that secured the TG4 All-Ireland Intermediate Football Championship crown with a final victory over Waterford in 2012, Henderson also went on to win NFL Division 3 and 2 titles with Armagh in 2014 and 2015, respectively. However, after needing two operations on her knee, she ended up being out of football for a long time.

In the summer of 2018, Henderson gave birth to her son Noah, and although she returned to club action with Clann Éireann, she remained away from the inter-county scene until she was enticed back this year. The visit of Kerry to the Athletic Grounds in March saw her donning the Orchard jersey for the first time in almost nine years and she registered a point from full-forward in a 3-14 to 1-13 success at the Kingdom’s expense.

“I have to say, I was nervous coming back for that Kerry game. Obviously, it was a big game for us and it was on our home pitch. I just said to myself ‘I need to be brave and just go out and try my best’. Be proud to wear the Armagh jersey,” Henderson explains.

“Obviously, I took that time out when I had hurt my knee and then I had my wee boy. He’s six now, so he’s at a really good age. I’m just delighted that I can wear the Armagh jersey and also be a role model for him.

“That was a big day for me and I think I’ve just continued to build from that. Get a bit more confident within the team and just gelling with the girls a bit more. It’s going well so far and I’m delighted that I made that decision to come back this year.”

After being managed by him at local level with Clann Éireann in 2023, Henderson now finds herself under the guidance of Greg McGonigle within the Armagh set-up.

Having had a successful club journey with the former Monaghan and Dublin boss – she captained Clann to Armagh and Ulster Championship titles last year – the special needs teacher has added further silverware since making her long-awaited return to the inter-county game.

Before producing a player-of-the-match display in Armagh’s TG4 Ulster Senior Football Championship triumph over Donegal in May, Henderson played the full 60 minutes a month earlier when the Orchard women claimed a historic Lidl National Football League Division 1 crown at the expense of Kerry.

This was her first time back playing in Croke Park since that All-Ireland intermediate final victory of 2012, providing Henderson with another reason to be grateful for her second coming as an inter-county star.

“It was such a big win for us. Thankfully, we were able to beat Kerry narrowly and then having that match in Croke Park was just amazing. When we won the All-Ireland intermediate in 2012 with Armagh, I never thought I’d be back on that Croke Park pitch.

“I was just absolutely delighted and overwhelmed. For me and Noah, my wee boy, to be able to lift the cup in Croke Park together is a moment I will treasure forever. I’m so happy I did make that decision to come back.”

Clann Éireann are well represented within the ranks of the Armagh ladies’ squad – there were eight of them alone on the match day panel for their league final win – and the same is true of their male counterparts.

When the Armagh men overcame Roscommon in an All-Ireland Senior Football Championship quarter-final at Croke Park last Saturday, the Clann triumvirate of Barry McCambridge (brother of ladies captain Clodagh McCambridge), Tiernan Kelly and Conor Turbitt were all included in their starting line-up.

Given her team has a quarter-final date with Mayo to look forward to this weekend, Henderson (whose older brother Ryan played with Armagh in the past) is hoping to take plenty of inspiration from the exploits of Kieran McGeeney’s charges.

“I was down watching the match in Croke Park at the weekend. I’m glad I went down because it just gave me that wee bit extra motivation to be like, ‘Right, let’s go this weekend and do the same thing, get to the semi-final’. We have Barry, Tiernan Kelly and Turbo [Conor Turbitt], who are all from Clann Éireann.

“It was great to see them boys really breaking into the team this year and making such an impact. Obviously, Barry got his goal and got player of the match, and then Turbo and TK have been causing havoc as well. It is great to be able to go down and watch them, and that gives us motivation to go and do the same thing.”

Following quarter-final defeats in each of the past three seasons, Armagh will be aiming for a return to the last four of the TG4 All-Ireland Senior Football Championship when they take on the aforementioned Mayo at BOX-IT Athletic Grounds tomorrow evening (throw-in 5.45pm).

As a result of finishing at the summit of Group 1 in the Brendan Martin Cup, the Orchard women have been granted home advantage for their last-eight duel with Liam McHale’s Westerners. Whilst she is hopeful this can work in their favour, Armagh have reason to be wary of a Mayo side seeking a fourth semi-final spot in as many years.

“The home advantage is a really big advantage for us this weekend. Obviously, we travelled to Mayo in the league game and it’s a right wee bit away. We’re really delighted that we don’t have to do that big, long journey,” Henderson adds.

“We know it will be a hard-hitting, physical game because Mayo are that type of team. They’ll not back down easily and they’ll put it up to us. I think if we bring our ‘A’ game and our best performance, and play the way we have been playing at times and reach our potential, then there’s no reason why we can’t get to the semi-final.”

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