Thursday 19 September 2019

'The trust they have put in me is brilliant'

Helebert hails support of management and team-mates after taking centre-back role by storm in whirlwind season

Therese Maher lifts the silverware following Galway’s senior success in 2013. Photo: Sportsfile
Therese Maher lifts the silverware following Galway’s senior success in 2013. Photo: Sportsfile

Daragh Ó Conchúir

The number six jersey has not rested easily on anyone's shoulders since the retirement of one of the all-time greats, Therese Maher, after Galway's emotional All-Ireland senior final triumph in 2013.

Galway's inability to claim the O'Duffy Cup in the meantime might just be a coincidence, but succeeding a legend can be a burden.

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Attempting to bed in a centre-back isn't straightforward either, particularly when management is changing on an annual basis. Cathal Murray was the fifth manager in four seasons when he came in at the end of last year's league.

After getting to know his squad, he turned to Emma Helebert at the start of this season to take on a key position that wasn't alien to her. The 22-year-old had served her time in the panel and was willing, but having never been a regular was given time to grow.

She has done just that, although the biggest test of all lies ahead. But with so much experience around her in the form of skipper and five-time All-Star Sarah Dervan, 2013 captain Lorraine Ryan and Heather Cooney, another member of that victorious team from six years ago who has worn the armband, Helebert has had the perfect platform to flourish.

"Starting the league there probably helped a huge amount," Helebert observes of her role. "Starting the championship knowing that I had a full league under my belt was huge for my own head.

"I have played centre-back in under 16 and minor. In my own head I was experienced there but just maybe not at senior level. The trust that the management put in me and the backing they give you is brilliant. The girls as well. We have that tight six all year, you know that you are supported, we know each other inside out.

"Even Niamh (Kilkenny) and Aoife (Donohue) in the middle of the field are brilliant. You know that they are outside you when you need them. It is an honour for me to be playing there at such a young age, and to be playing such a vital position. I can only thank them for it and hope that I am doing it justice.

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"I have looked up to people that have played there for years. Therese has been the biggest one. But even Shauna (Healy), Heather and Becca Hennelly were there before. I am taking tips from each one of them and trying to build on that as well."

The league ended with a prized medal, earned in Croke Park at the end of March and the Ballindereen defender enjoyed a titanic tussle with Anne Dalton, the reigning player of the year who has flourished since being redeployed in attack this year. After a quiet first half, Dalton's influence grew in the second half as Kilkenny fought back but Helebert stood her ground well.

The pair resumed their rivalry two and a half months later in the opening round of the championship when the Cats prevailed. However, today is what counts and Helebert knows what lies ahead against one of the best players of the modern era, who has racked up a tally of 6-11 from play to date, four points of which came in that initial clash.

"Every centre-back loves to sit there and mind the house. You would love to do that every day. The difference between the league final to our first round championship was Anne made my life hell. She did not want to stay, she wanted to go. You have to credit them for it. They saw what didn't work in the final and they changed it."

Murray is quick to respond on the line and while they have plans for any eventuality that may arise today, Helebert knows that if Kilkenny throw a curve ball, Galway will find a solution.

This assurance is in keeping with what we have seen on the pitch all year. It continues into an ownership of the flaws that have hindered Galway since 2013, even though she has only cemented her place in the team this year.

"We know that ourselves, no more than anybody, what has happened for us in the last two or three years. When the going has gotten tough, we have collapsed and died.

"This year, we focused so much on (accepting) everybody's going to make mistakes. Other teams are going to get their purple patches but it is how we react to it. We have done ourselves proud this year in how we have reacted. In nearly every game we have had that moment where we have had to say, 'It is now or never.'"

The response to Kilkenny's fightback in the league final and the second-half display against Waterford in the All-Ireland quarter-final underlined that approach.

It was quite evident in the thrilling semi-final against champions Cork. Sarah Healy had a penalty saved in the 12th minute and Julia White scored a goal at the other end six minutes later. Maybe it wasn't going to be Galway's day. However, they struck the next three points in rapid fashion and you knew they were not going away.

"You tell yourself, 'This is not happening again'. A lot of us have been in those dressing rooms afterwards. You have that sick feeling in your stomach thinking that is another year gone. We weren't ready to let that happen again this year."

She credits Robbie Lane, a full-time strength and conditioning coach, for the manner in which the westerners stood up physically as well as mentally to the Rebels' examination, and praises referee Liz Dempsey for allowing them to make their presence felt.

"A bit of physicality was let into it. A couple of people said the physicality made a great game of it. Girls are putting huge effort into doing the gym and strength and conditioning. It is nice that you can use it and not be penalised for it.

"It probably is such a driving force when you are on the team, to get a ball turned over, using a bit of strength. It can be a huge boost. The turnover rate was one of the changing points in the Cork game, especially from the half-forward line. That was one of the things that kept us ticking over for the last 10 minutes."

Helebert insists she's a different person away from the pitch. She qualified as a midwife last week, and is enthused by caring for people, having worked in a nursing home during the four years of her studies.

However, on the field she only cares about winning her battles - it's in the genes. Her uncles Tom and Christy both manned defensive roles for Galway hurlers, with the former winning an All-Star in 1996.

"I don't remember Tom playing but I look up to him a lot. He is very good for advice. I find him very wise when it comes to hurling. You nearly take what he says for gospel."

Her father Gerry played under-age for Galway while her mother also wore the maroon jersey for the Tribeswomen at junior level. Husband and wife have been mentors together with county camogie teams that have appeared in seven under-age All-Irelands and remain immersed in Ballinderreen.

They will be at Croke Park today to watch their daughter get the chance to compete on the biggest stage.

"It is a big family day out. They are probably proud as well. They were one of the first that put me in centre-back with the under 16s. They are probably thinking, 'I told you so' now! It is paying off. I am there five years with the seniors. I have a bit of experience and I am ready to go."

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