Don't just watch on TV, come to our games - new ladies boss
Published 18/04/2015 | 02:30
IT was only in Kuala Lumpur last year that Marie Hickey fully realised ladies Gaelic football's growing reach and potential.
The 2014 Asian Games attracted two teams from Japan and one of them won the junior title.
"There wasn't one Irish person on it - there was a girl from Britain, another from Australia and the rest were all Japanese women," she marvels.
"The other thing that struck me was the number of Irish girls who had never played football at home. They got involved initially for the social aspect, but then loved it because ladies football is a perfect marriage of basketball and soccer."
You expect such evangelism from the new president of the Ladies Gaelic Football Association (LGFA) but Hickey - a native of Ballylinan, Co Laois, who lives in Kilcullen, Co Kildare - is a pragmatist too and understands that not everyone shares her passion.
In her 25 years teaching maths and science in St Kevin's CC in Clondalkin she has tried repeatedly to win over the girls.
Yet most remain more drawn to soccer, dancing and boxing - understandable given that Bernard Dunne and Kenneth Egan are Neilstown and Quarryvale's local sporting heroes.
St Kevin's still competes in Gaelic football blitzes and benefits from the GAA influence of local primary St Bernadette's and the Round Towers and Lucan Sarsfields clubs.
Hickey will not have the luxury of secondment over the next three years. Juggling both roles means time will be at a premium and she has two clear priorities.
With 152,000 members (from U-10s upwards) the women's game grows by a couple of thousand every year.
The LGFA has always innovated, from its playing rules to grassroots' initiatives like gaelic4girls and gaelic4mothers, and its TG4 All-Ireland showpiece attracts close to 30,000 spectator every year.
When Hickey played junior for Laois in the early 1990s, she says: "You'd be fighting to get a pitch to go training or get into a dressing-room. A lot of the time you'd be changing behind a bush".
"It has come so far in such a short space of time. The association is only just over 40 years old and the players, at club and county, are incredibly skilled and professional."
But there is more to be done and she takes the reins at a time of some momentum.
"The rugby team, Nina Carberry and Katie Walsh, Katie Taylor. . . there's a lot of successful women in sport with higher profiles now and that lends to creating a higher profile for everyone else," she notes.
"People talk about the great game that ladies football is, how free-flowing it is and the wonderful talent that there is there, but they usually only see it on the TV.
"The numbers attending our games need to improve," she acknowledges of Tesco NFL finals that attract only one to two thousand. "If that improves I think we'll get better coverage, but attendances and publicity feed into one another and that's hard to crack."
Increasing attendances and, by extension, publicity, is one of her main aims and a summit of all county PROs will be held this year to try to leverage more publicity.
She also plans a national meeting of players (current and former), a major brainstormer to get more ex-players involved, as coaches and administrators.
"As playing numbers increase we need more volunteers, and ex-players have so much to give," Hickey says.
Does she ever envisage a time when it won't cost ladies' superstars money to play? When Briege Corkery and Sinead Aherne will get travelling expenses and won't have to buy their own boots or food?
"If we had more people attending our games we'd have more money to put back in. If you don't have it you can't spend it," she argues.
"Of course it is something we want for our players but we have to be practical and ask where is it going to come from? I think the players are very realistic on that front.
"Obviously there's huge commitment put in by players but if you were going to a gym, or involved in other sports, it's still going to cost you money and, in some cases, cost you more."
Her thoughts on discipline in the sport are equally no-nonsense. A single red card in a season still debars a female footballer from an All Star. In the past week a Mayo mentor got a five-year ban for verbally abusing a ref; two draconian punishments that are far harsher than in the men's game.
"We have to make a stand on people who abuse referees," Hickey counters. "It doesn't happen in other codes and unless we can support our refs then we're going nowhere trying to recruit new ones.
"We don't give out red cards willy-nilly. If you've got a straight red it's a serious offence. You don't want to be promoting your best players as players who are accepted to be carrying out serious offences."
Yet she believes that fun must remain central to the sport;research shows enjoyment is particularly important for retaining female athletes.
"We have to make sure we keep the fun in our game, at all levels, not just for kids but for senior inter-county players, administrators and officials," Hickey says.
"Why would someone want to stay involved in a sport if they're not seeing any rewards and enjoying it?"