Tyrone gem Begley born to sparkle on big stage
SHE has been the Johnny Doyle of the ladies game this summer, topping the 'Golden Boot' rankings ahead of Sunday's TG4 All-Ireland senior ladies football final with a whopping 4-27 to date.
Yet Tyrone's Gemma Begley is not just a sharp-shooter these days.
She famously scored 3-6 in an All-Ireland quarter-final three years ago.
That was the sort of scoring feat that had made Mayo's Cora Staunton and Cork's Valerie Mulcahy women's football superstars, and Begley (25) has regularly been third behind them in the annual scoring charts, despite never previously reaching the All-Ireland final.
Yet it is fair to say she has taken on a new role this year, as Tyrone's female equivalent of Brian Dooher.
It was no surprise to see the red-headed tearaway slamming home a goal just 65 seconds into Tyrone's hard-fought All-Ireland semi-final replay victory against Kerry.
But in the dying minutes of that game it was the Carrickmore centre-forward who popped up in corner-back territory to clear the ball to safety.
Begley is now also a fetcher and carrier, and her brilliant vision and pin-point passing is a key weapon in Tyrone's inexhaustible half-forward line that also features Cathy Donnelly and Aisling O'Kane.
Their new roving and defensive roles have coincided with the arrival last season of a new two-man management team, who have gone out of their way to get the county's wealth of individual female talent gelling as a team.
"A lot of people in the county would have looked on Gemma as maybe a greedy footballer sometimes, but she puts in an awful lot of work throughout the field for us and she has brilliant vision," stresses co-manager Niall Colton.
When Begley was a nipper in St Patrick's NS in Creggan she was the only girl on the school's football team -- an unprecedented event that her county team-mate Roisin Rafferty next emulated seven years later.
Now heavily involved in coaching, ex-county star and Carrickmore clubmate Eilish Gormley says: "It was clear from a young age that Gemma had talent.
"We had one great club U-12 team and herself and Elaine Coyle were both outstanding on it."
Gormley, like Lynette Hughes and Shauna McGirr, was part of the previous generation of talented Tyrone women who came heartbreakingly close to making a senior final.
They memorably led mighty Mayo by seven points in an All-Ireland semi-final in 2000, which provided a cracking curtain-raiser for the Kerry versus Armagh men's replay in Croke Park, yet still lost by 5-10 to 2-12.
Tyrone did reach three All-Ireland junior finals in the late '90s and eventually won one in 1999, with 14-year-old Begley watching in the stands.
Yet she was already playing senior for her club and lined out in the All-Ireland 'Sevens' the previous day.
She was still only 17 when she played in the 2002 All-Ireland club final against Carnacon and Gaelic football, on and off the pitch, has been an obsession since.
Hughes even spent last summer doing her placement with the Ulster GAA Council as part of her Masters in Sports Management in UUJ -- confessing, in fact, that football has distracted her slightly from completing a dissertation that is due any day now.
She certainly has a decent excuse, because Tyrone's women have never had a busier summer. After suffering a shock defeat to Armagh in Ulster, they've survived an unusually lengthy eight-game campaign.
As a result of this extended run -- and their own high-scoring abilities -- her team-mates Cathy and Joline Donnelly are also in the nation's top five scorers.
Possibly the most significant result of the eight games came in the quarter-finals, when they knocked out Cork, who were chasing six in-a-row.
"We were wild lucky in that game," Begley says. "They got two injuries and two sin-binnings and even for Sarah's (Connolly) goal, the ball came back off the post first. Everything went for us on the day, but you have to take your chances when they come."
Kerry were next up in the semi-finals and some doubts emerged as they required two games to put away the Kingdom, especially in the second game when they trailed 1-2 to 0-8 at half-time. "I think we were just afraid of losing it, more than going out to win it," Hughes reveals. "That was natural enough after the Cork game, we were a bit apprehensive about getting carried away."
Any worries that their arduous campaign may have exhausted Tyrone before their historic first final?
"Not at all, the games stand to you," Begley insists. "I'd rather be playing football week in, week out."
In Dublin they face a side with even more motivation than themselves: the Jackies have lost three finals in 10 years and won't want to lose a second in-a-row.
"Last year's final will stand to Dublin surely," she warns. "They'll be back to prove that they can do the job this time and that is part of the challenge for us."