Wednesday 21 February 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: My first ladies football final - The day I went to Croke Park to condescend and left converted

'The last five finals have drawn a much larger crowd than the FAI Cup final, 34,445 watching Cork women beat Dublin last year, while 26,000 saw Cork City beat Dundalk.' Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach / Sportsfile
'The last five finals have drawn a much larger crowd than the FAI Cup final, 34,445 watching Cork women beat Dublin last year, while 26,000 saw Cork City beat Dundalk.' Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach / Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

I went to my first ladies' football final in 1998 prepared to condescend.

Had you accused me of that at the time, I'd have fervently denied it. But it was true all the same and perhaps derived less from sexism than from a lack of familiarity with the territory. It was like when you travel abroad for the first time and puzzle over the local customs. I didn't really know what counted as 'good' in ladies football.

My attitude was not unique. I can remember a few years later watching a camogie final when both teams got off to a nervous start and the first few minutes were little more than an aimless skirmish. Yet all the while the RTé commentator was exulting, 'Look at this, look at the intensity. Who can deny that this is a serious game.' In due course the players settled down and produced an excellent final which made your man's early paeans look very foolish indeed.

Almost as foolish in fact as I felt watching that 1998 final between Waterford and Monaghan, which turned out to be the most entertaining game of football I'd seen that year and remains one of the best I've witnessed in Croke Park. It taught me that good in ladies football meant exactly the same thing as it does in the men's game.

They were the two great teams of that era. Monaghan were going for three in a row, Waterford had won four of the five All-Irelands before that. The game I went to was the All-Ireland final replay, Monaghan having rescued the first game at the death. For the first 45 minutes Waterford were absolutely sensational and led by 10 points at the end of the third quarter. Then Monaghan produced a scintillating rally, scoring three goals and laying siege to the opposition goal in a finale every bit as tense as we saw last Sunday.

Waterford held out to win by 2-14 to 3-8 and I experienced one of those great moments in a sports fan's life, total emotional involvement with teams you knew little about beforehand. I'd gone to Croke Park to condescend, I left it converted.

Two performances that day still stick in my mind. One was that of Edel Byrne, whose runs from centre half-forward brought Monaghan back into the game. Byrne was a spectacular athlete with a blistering turn of pace who at times seemed to be playing Waterford on her own. The runs were direct and exhilarating and they were also brave because she had to cope with some pretty ruthless Waterford defending.

That the best ladies teams, Cork being a notable example, have all been pretty ruthless is something only the deepest dyed sexist would deny. Byrne's was one of those performances which made you feel hurt on behalf of the losing player, made all the more remarkable by the fact that she was just 16 years old at the time.

Byrne's athleticism was Monaghan's greatest weapon. Waterford's was the intelligence of their full-forward Geraldine O'Ryan who got out first to every ball, seemed to have loads of time no matter what pressure she was under and never put a pass astray. I've seen few players of either sex with her knack for picking the option best guaranteed to damage the opposition. I learned a lot about football watching her orchestrate things for Waterford that day.

The two finals did a great deal to heighten the profile of ladies football, but the saga also seemed to herald the end of an era for both counties, neither of whom have won an All-Ireland since. Waterford lost the following year's decider in a huge upset to a young Mayo team who went on to win two more in the next three years. Laois and Galway had one glory year each and then the championship became more or less all Cork all the time as they amassed 11 titles in a dozen years.

The Rebelettes won't be here today and I can't help thinking that's a good thing. Every game benefits from a transfusion of fresh blood at the top. All the same, their dominance has done nothing to lessen the appeal of a game whose attendance figures have been a spectacular and largely unsung story. Since 2010 every single ladies' football final has had a bigger crowd than the Women's FA Cup final, England's biggest female sport event. And the last five finals have drawn a much larger crowd than the FAI Cup final, 34,445 watching Cork women beat Dublin last year, while 26,000 saw Cork City beat Dundalk.

Over the last couple of years we've seen a lot of suggestions that essentially we have a duty to watch women's sport because in some way it might make us better people. I can't think of any strategy better designed to turn people off. Trust me, I went on like this about the League of Ireland for years. Its main result is to gather supportive tweets from hipsters who wouldn't go to a match in a fit and who, at the back of it, are every bit as condescending as I was before the 1998 final.

The ladies football final is the best-supported female sports event in Europe and its attendances have soared for the very old-fashioned reason that if you give people something great to watch they'll come out in their droves. This is simply one of the biggest games of the Irish sporting season. It's also usually one of the best.

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