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Dublin tomboy grows into a sports princess

IF this Dub was a he, she would be a superstar. She would be a household name, a poster-girl for the GPA or some cross-channel soccer club, complete with a boot contract, a sports car and a sponsored wardrobe.

Her dad often teases her with a phrase that still tickles her pink. "Dad says that if I was a boy he could have retired at 40!"

Paddy McNally isn't far off. Can you think of a recent Irish man who has excelled, to the highest level, at not two but THREE completely different sports?

Well, Angie McNally has. She has already represented Ireland close to 70 times in two different disciplines - soccer and basketball - and was once paid to play tennis in the home of the US Open, Flushing Meadow.

Tomorrow she passes a phenomenal third sporting milestone; playing in an All-Ireland senior football final.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the Dubs' midfield dynamo is that she only took up Gaelic football seven years ago.

She is the eldest of six and the girls - herself, Eileen, Tricia and Digger (Deirdre) - all play on the same Ballinteer-St John's women's team that their dad has also managed.

"All four of us got booked in a game once, the referee was convinced we were taking the piss!" she reveals, laughing.

Brother Johnny plays corner-forward for the Dubs and Kevin is the club's senior goalkeeper.

Paddy played for Dublin himself in the '50s but their memories of him are from his time as a referee.

"That's what got us into sport. Dad would throw a geansai-load of us into the back of the car and we'd play away on the sideline while he was reffing."

Are they all as competitive as her? "You'd want to see 'Three Goals an' In' in our back garden!" she quips.

Sports mad they may be, but it is only in reaching Gaelic football's Holy Grail that she has seen how deeply the GAA resonates in the psyche of her family and community.

The day after she got 'Player of the Match' in Dublin's semi-final win over Kerry, Johnny got engaged.

When the family walked into their local, the Coach House, to celebrate, she was blown away to see a wall flashing with a 'Good Luck Angie and Dublin' shrine.

"Never, ever when I was playing basketball or soccer, have I had as many people coming up, shaking my hand and wishing us well, it's just amazing the interest people have in this," she marvels.

A female hybrid of Kieran McGeeney's tenacity and Jason Sherlock's versatility, there is probably not an inch of McNally's body which has not been pushed to its limit over the past 18 years.

It is almost impossible to believe this glowing, sinewy, vital woman is 35. "The oldest on the team? I think I'm the oldest damn player in the country!" she laughs. "But I feel in great shape, I'm as sharp now as I was at my fittest playing soccer, probably because I am getting more rest."

She won't go into the mad days when she rushed from one sport to another, night after night, but you can only imagine.

Mick Cooke, the new Monaghan United boss who managed herself and Dublin teammate Louise Kelly (as well as Arsenal's Ciara Grant) during his six-year stint in charge of the Irish women's team, says McNally and Yvonne Lyons (Waterford) were two of the finest athletes he has ever seen.

"Angie was supreme, a dream to coach and what an engine," says Cooke. "How she did it I don't know. We used to have weekend training sessions in Marino for the six or eight weeks before an international and on Saturday nights, after two long sessions with us that day, I'd have to let her out for a basketball match and she'd report back in again for training the next morning."

Her basketball haul includes two Cup and one national league medal with Meteors and another league title with Tolka Rovers, as well as over 40 senior caps.

In soccer, her first love, she has a LFAI Cup medal with Rathfarnham FC and 24 full soccer international appearances.

Her only sporting regret in her remarkable life is not to have reached the quarter of a century in soccer caps.

But when Dublin's women won their first Leinster title last year and got to within three points of Mayo (tomorrow's opponents) in the All-Ireland semi-final, they decided they would collectively focus all their energies on GAA and McNally's soccer career was one of the casualties.

Many of her Dublin teammates are dual-talented in camogie, basketball or soccer but none will ever cram into their lives what she has managed.

In Ballinteer, locals remember how she had to be increasingly 'handicapped' in the 'School Sports' to stop her winning absolutely everything.

At 17, prompted by her far-sighted teacher Paddy Flanagan, she got a sports scholarship to Long Island University in downtown Brooklyn.

Leafy academia was her dubious expectation so when she pulled up outside, took in the security fencing, bleak buildings and wailing cop sirens, her first thought was "LA Central!"

Most of the whites on the predominantly black campus were on sports scholarships and her Dublinese was another drawback.

"Who's yer man?" she'd ask innocently and teammates would take umbrage at her apparently intimate question.

Worse still was her tendency to mutter 'knickers!' as an expletive when she'd miss a lay-up.

"WHAT did you just call me?" they would thunder back. Fortunately 'sport' was her most fluent language. She thrived in the gritty locality and still returns to visit college pals.

"The college needed to play three sports competitively to keep its status, so they used to actually pay us to play tennis for them as well. I played in Flushing Meadows once.

"Mind you, yer woman who beat me didn't even take off her tracksuit!" she giggles.

After graduation McNally, who had never before played club basketball, hit the Irish hardcourts and soccer pitches like a white tornado. Basketball in winter, soccer in summer and international duty year round.

Her staffroom colleagues at Rosary College, Crumlin, where she teaches accountancy and maths, must have difficulty sometimes marrying this soft-spoken, modest, gentle woman with her ferocious reputation as an athlete.

She reckons, without a trace of arrogance, that she would have been a pro soccer or tennis player if born in the States and you don't doubt it.

Put her on any sporting surface and she will, quite simply, go through you for a ball. There is a Keanesque determination that she has had to learn to temper but her philosophy and commitment has never waned.

Want to really rile her? Tell her 'Sure, it's only a game'.

"That sends me completely over the top because it means people haven't a clue how much time and effort you put into it."

With Dublin, her lifestyle is as spartan as ever. On Saturday nights she can be in bed as early as 8.30pm because they train at 8.30am every Sunday morning across town in Clontarf.

"Since January 5, we've had 150 or 160 sessions. Most of it ball work. The management are just fantastic, their attention to detail is amazing - diet, tactics, you name it. Basically they take care of everything, we just have to go out and play.

"More than any other team I've ever played with, this team lives in each others' ears.

"There's a real family atmosphere but there has to be because all of us have put our lives on hold for this, literally."

So if she adds an All-Ireland medal to her bulging trophy chest, could McNally retire demurely after conquering a third magnificent sporting peak and wander off into a sedate, golfing horizon?

"I honestly don't know. I've really enjoyed coaching recently so maybe . . . But definitely not golf anyway because I'm crap at it!" she says revealingly.

"And it's way too slow for me, I'd die of boredom."

To relax she walks her dog or gets out on the bike for a spin (okay, seven or eight miles, actually). She did a triathlon once, a multi-discipline event you could easily imagine her throttling into submission.

"But I'm not into all that individual training, I'd hate it," she reveals.

"I'm from a big family and it's the team thing, having the craic with the girls, achieving things together, that's what sport is all about for me."

She sees sport's gender anomalies of course, but doesn't let them get to her.

Like, what about all the brilliant women athletes who started with her but gave it up because of marriage and children? How come they quit their sport, not their husbands?

And like how the Dublin County Board got Johnny straight into Blackrock Clinic when he got injured and took care of him.

The Jackies had to sell team pictures themselves last Autumn to set up their own team injury-fund and it still costs them to play.

But things are improving. They've got a sponsor and free adidas 'Predator' boots tomorrow and she's delighted to see one of their opponents - Cora Staunton - doing a television ad now, another milestone.

"I was always 'the little blonde tomboy', the only girl who collected football cards and wore the jerseys," she admits, grinning.

"Now you see girls everywhere wearing them. It's okay for girls to follow and play sport now.

"And sure look at me! I've been all over the world thanks to sports, mad places like Moldova and Belorussia!

"I'm not from a wealthy backround but my skills and talents have brought me places I could never have dreamed of.

"That's what I tell my students always; what a fantastic life sport has given me."

The feeling, in Irish women's soccer, basketball and Gaelic circles, is mutual.