Tuesday 17 September 2019

Cliona Foley: 'What Sinéad Aherne and Dublin's women are trying to do is as significant as their male counterparts'

 

Sinéad Aherne aims to lead Dublin into the All-Ireland final by beating Cork tomorrow as they bid to complete the elusive three in a row
Sinéad Aherne aims to lead Dublin into the All-Ireland final by beating Cork tomorrow as they bid to complete the elusive three in a row

Cliona Foley

They may not have a hashtag-friendly mission like the 'Drive for Five' but what Dublin's women are trying to do this summer is as significant as their male counterparts.

Only two teams in ladies' Gaelic football have achieved the three in a row: Kerry's great nine-on-the-trot champs of the 1980s-'90s and the incomparable 11-from-12 Rebelettes.

Given its much quicker player turnover, notching a treble in women's Gaelic football reflects serious dominance and Dublin's has already been franked this summer.

Their winning margins have ranged from 14 to 25 points and they still haven't started a game with their six first-choice forwards.

Tomorrow is the litmus test.

They face Cork in the TG4 All-Ireland semi-finals, the old enemy who beat them in three consecutive finals before their own pre-eminence, and who pipped them in a fizz-bomb extra-time league semi-final earlier this season.

Little wonder it's regarded as the de facto All-Ireland final, even if Galway and Mayo will bristle at that narrative.

It's already groundbreaking as they're the first women's semi-finals ever played in Croke Park and the location is significant for more important reasons than crowd size, says one superstar who will be in the thick of it.

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A huge 20x20 poster of Leona Maguire overlooks KPMG's canteen in Dublin's docklands. The company sponsors Maguire and has also rowed in behind 20x20, the women's sport's advocacy initiative.

The image could also be of Sinéad Aherne as the accountancy firm also sponsor Dublin's ladies and employs their captain in this very building as a tax specialist.

Mortified

She would be mortified by that notion because her quiet, modest demeanour and petite 5' 4" frame is in stark contrast to her gigantic on-field presence and ferocity. But that doesn't mean Aherne doesn't have strong opinions about where ladies' football is going and few are as well informed.

This is her 15th year in blue and for her to still be lithe as a cheetah and vaporising opponents is remarkable.

Last year, aged 32, she won her first league title, her 12th Leinster and third All-Ireland, racking up 5-31 en route to her seventh All-Star.

After tying a bow on all that with the 2018 Player of the Year award, many would have sailed off into the sunset to swim or play golf in Malahide, two of her rare distractions from work and football.

Despite injury this summer, she's still Dublin's top scorer (3-16, 1-10 from frees), though her in-form St Sylvester's clubmate Niamh McEvoy isn't far behind (4-10, 0-6f).

Aherne is adamant it's the unique challenge of every season, not any three-in-a-row obsession, that's kept her going.

"I'm also lucky to be playing in a team and a management system that is constantly looking to grow.

"We're all encouraged to 'do more' because everyone around you is doing more, whether on your basic skill execution or movement."

And women's football, can it still do more?

The LGFA is arguably the most innovative in all of Gaelic games, reflected by unprecedented growth and development in the last 10 years, yet there are still frustrations.

Like having to trade off for live TV by playing an All-Ireland quarter-final at 4.45pm on a Bank Holiday Monday - "not ideal" - or the gender gap in sponsorships and grants and, particularly, the difficulty in holding on to players and the worrying gap between the top two and the field.

Westmeath's relegation means Dublin may be Leinster's sole senior team next year, unless Meath win the All-Ireland intermediate final, and there are only two in Connacht.

"You can't ask people to go to watch something that's not worth watching, that's not a contest," Aherne acknowledges. "We're seeing that in the men's game now too.

"We need better coaching and resources at the lower levels. It's that constant 'chicken and egg' question. If you don't get the investment you can't grow the game but, if they don't see a payback, people won't invest.

"You'd be hoping that the women's sport movement that's going on now - things like 20x20 - can push the game forward to get more investment and capacity to develop."

Getting away for a training weekend, she says, makes a massive difference, but most women's teams can't afford that because "you'd rather put that money towards feeding your team for a month.

"Is there a bigger role for government funding to come in terms of the women's sport agenda?" she wonders. "We have a product here that is genuinely Irish, that can grow and that has already shown the interest can be there if the standard of play can be pushed forward."

Dublin currently lead the charge and Aherne credits their on-field progress to successive managements.

"We've had stability, first with Greg (McGonigle) for three years and then Mick (Bohan). Mick's a skills coach and brought in others who specialise in skills too."

Has Bohan even managed to change Aherne's game?

"The movement patterns, yes. A lot of us play one way for our club and a very different way for the county. You're fitting into a system with Dublin and, at county level, it's all about systems now."

She says tomorrow's venue has real significance but not for increasing crowd size.

"It's as much about player access and status. Most of the Galway team won't ever have played there before, and the same for a young Mayo side, so that's great for them.

"On All-Ireland final day you used to hear all the horns and the kids cheering for wides but it's very different in recent years. There's much more interaction now from a more football-orientated crowd. Let's hope there's lots more going in tomorrow as neutrals and football fans."

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