Saturday 24 February 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: Awesome attendance makes the heart swell

 

Dublin players Niamh McEvoy, left, and Nicole Owens celebrate with the Brendan Martin Cup after their victory over Mayo. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Dublin players Niamh McEvoy, left, and Nicole Owens celebrate with the Brendan Martin Cup after their victory over Mayo. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

46,286 - It's perhaps the most important figure from the ladies football final, even more important than the 4-11 which gave an outstanding Dublin team their first title in seven years.

The score matters a great deal of course but the attendance figure is absolutely extraordinary. How extraordinary? For one thing it's comfortably the biggest crowd to attend any women's sporting event in Europe this year. It's 18,000 more than attended the women's European Championship soccer final between Denmark and home team Holland and almost three times as much as watched the women's rugby world cup final last month in Belfast.

But why confine the comparisons to women's sport? 46,286 is more people than watched this year's Munster senior hurling final, and only a couple of thousand less than attended the Munster and Connacht senior football finals combined. It's 7,000 more than watched Ireland's home world cup qualifying match against Georgia this time last year at the Aviva, 2,000 more than saw last year's Pro 12 final between Munster and Scarlets at the same venue, several thousand more than witnessed the clinching game of last year's World Series.

It is bigger than the average weekly attendance of every top-tier professional sports league in the world with the exception of America's National Football League, bigger than this month's Champions League home crowds at Chelsea, Roma and Benfica. This is not just a big crowd, this is a thing of wonder.

Perhaps most wondrous of all is that it's happened in a country where women's sports, women's rights, and, if we're honest, women's lives have not always been accorded parity of esteem with those of men. Ireland is hardly the obvious candidate to become a trailblazer in this area.

Yet the trail has been blazed all the same and we should regard that 46,286 with the awe it deserves. It is a triumph not just for those involved yesterday but for everyone involved in the promotion, administration and playing of ladies football since that very first championship back in 1974.

The Ladies Gaelic Football Association deserve to be invited all over the world to explain how they have managed to achieve what in some respects seems like a miracle. It would certainly have seemed that way to the players from Tipperary and Offaly who fought out the first final 43 years ago on a pitch in Laois in front of something like a hundredth of yesterday's attendance.

Yesterday should finally demolish the idea that the ladies football final is anything other than one of the biggest days in Irish sport. Yet the sexist mentality hasn't entirely departed. Why else would one of the biggest sporting events in the country be confined to TG4?

The Irish language station have done a marvellous job in the promotion of the women's game yet it's strange to see an occasion of this magnitude ignored by a national broadcaster which barely escaped injury from slapping itself vigorously on the back for covering the women's rugby world cup.

Similarly, the coincidence of two Dublin-Mayo final showdowns drew well-meaning suggestions that the women's decider might be accommodated on the undercard of the men's match and gain in prestige as a result. Yet this made no sense at all. (A) The women's game deserves its own big showcase. (B) It's doing pretty well prestige-wise as is and (C) You'd have needed a stadium that holds around 120,000 spectators. The days when ladies football could be condescended to as a mere adjunct to the men's game are over.

Fittingly, a glorious crowd got to see some glorious football as Dublin ran up the fourth-highest total in final history, in the process becoming only the second team in the last 20 years to find the net four times.

Devastating

It may be hard for the rest of the country to think of a Dublin side as sentimental favourites but the Jackies deserved to occupy that position. Losing to Cork's miracle comeback three years ago must have been devastating enough but getting edged out of two subsequent finals would have been enough to break a lesser team.

Instead Mick Bohan's charges came back stronger than ever and looked the best team throughout a championship where nobody got within ten points of them at the final whistle. There is a freedom and flair about their play which makes Dublin a different kind of champions from the Cork teams who ruled the roost for so long. The Rebelettes were largely defined by the defensive brilliance of Briege Corkery, Brid Stack, Geraldine O'Flynn et al. Dublin, on the other hand, are all about attack. The blistering pace of Noelle Healy and Carla Rowe, and the unerring accuracy of Sinead Aherne will be the abiding on-field memories of this year's final.

Aherne has been a long time on the road which, with her accuracy from frees and play, makes her a Dublin counterpart of Cora Staunton. Staunton had one of those days which remind us that even the very best can't always mould games to their liking. Seven points, three from play, isn't that shabby a final performance but there were wides which seemed sacrilegious by Staunton's normal standards. Like Gary Cooper in High Noon she often found herself outnumbered and got her best support from Grace Kelly.

Staunton's frustration was evident in the first half when, having been dragged down, she launched a tirade against Kerry referee Seamus Mulvihill who, to say the least, didn't do much for Mayo. The Carnacon sharpshooter will be bitterly disappointed this morning but might reflect that, as one of the greatest players in the history of the ladies game, she has done her part in raising its profile to the stratospheric level apparent yesterday.

Staunton won her first All-Ireland medal 18 years ago. There were 15,000 people at that final and we thought it was a good crowd. As they say, you could tell the young people that and they wouldn't believe you.

They live in a world of 46,286 at the ladies football final. That's this year's final. 50,000 next year? Why not? There's nothing these women can't do.

Irish Independent

Promoted Links

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Promoted Links

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport