'It was harder for them to take, not to get over the line'
After taking a year out, Sinéad Aherne is enjoying her second coming with Dublin
This is what Sinéad Aherne sees when stepping up to a free with ball in hand. "Pick a spot on the ball, a little bit like a golf shot, keep the head down and stay in the shot as opposed to thinking about it going left or right or over the bar."
It's a process, a honed process, that stood Aherne in good stead as she was presented with the chance to send Dublin through to a TG4 All-Ireland final when the Sky Blues edged past Mayo at the semi-final stage.
Aherne won the free herself when she was upended by Sarah Tierney and the kick was nerveless. Steal a few yards, process, right foot . . . point. "I look directly down through the middle of the posts and see the stop-net behind," she explains. "That's what I'm aiming for. That gives you that bit of margin for error either side and a bit of distance hopefully on the far side.
"Where it was, it was a good angle for a right-footed kicker but it was a good enough distance out that it wasn't a 'gimme'. If I didn't make it, it was extra-time, so you make sure you get into a routine and let adrenaline take over."
Aherne's effort was the final kick of the game and it could turn out to be the most priceless score of her career, if Dublin finish the job against Cork in today's Croke Park final. After the ball sailed over the bar, the hooter went to signal Dublin's progress to a third successive decider with the Rebelettes, and Aherne knew exactly what was at stake.
"I was conscious of that," she nods. "That probably helped me in a certain way. As long as I didn't drop it short and they had enough time to go up and create a score . . . that's the last thing I wanted so I tried to slow it down and make sure that, whatever happened, the clock went dead.
After the game, Dublin boss Gregory McGonigle revealed that Aherne had been working on her free-taking with men's counterpart Dean Rock.
Aherne smiles: "We were practising in the same venue but I don't think it was necessarily a case of standing over me with a ball or anything like that. He's having a great season, he's been magnificent with the frees. If I could be replicating that, I'd be happy." During Dublin's successful Leinster Championship campaign, Aherne collected 2-18 before adding 1-6 in the All-Ireland quarter-final victory over Donegal and another 2-6 in the Mayo win. Her free-scoring form has prompted some suggestions that Dublin might have beaten Cork in last year's final, a war of attrition that finished 0-12 to 0-10, had she been on board.
Aherne, a 30-year-old accountant who made her senior debut 13 years ago, disputes that claim but admits that watching from the sidelines was "tough". She was back in the country less than two weeks and McGonigle asked if she could fulfil the role of water carrier for the day. Aherne recalls: "It was hard, but the girls did great last year to get back to a final.
"You're in a situation where you haven't found yourself before, watching on and yeah, it was hard but it was a harder one for them to take on the day, to not get over the line."
After the heart-breaking 2014 final loss to Cork, when Dublin coughed up a 10-point lead down the home straight, Aherne knew that she wouldn't be around for the following season. There may have been a temptation to build on McGonigle's successful first season at the helm, but Aherne's mind was made up. The St Sylvester's player had been bitten by the travel bug and it was a case or now or never.
"I had friends who had left the summer before to go travelling through Asia and on to Australia," she explains. "I was tossing up whether I'd travel at that stage but I'd gone back at the start of the year, it was Greg's first season and things were going well. I kind of felt I'd like to see where the year was going and I enjoyed it. We came up short but I was happy I made that decision. I had it in my head at that stage that next year was the year I was going to go travelling, and I headed off around New Year's. At that stage, the crew I was supposed to be travelling with had arrived in Australia."
When Aherne landed Down Under, she caught up with one of her 2010 All-Ireland-winning colleagues, Siobhán McGrath, who's now based in Melbourne.
Aherne spent six months there, having taken in Sydney too, before travelling through Asia. McGonigle, Aherne admits, was "probably a little bit surprised" when she left. "I think he probably didn't know I was so final in it (decision) but he also probably didn't know I had given up the opportunity the year before and I decided to stay on.
"For me, it was never a case of 'I'm not sure', it was always 'I won't be playing next year.' Even with work and that kind of thing, I wasn't going to be able to put it off much longer. Where I was, it was something I wanted to do and I thoroughly enjoyed the year out."
Suggesting that things would have been different if Dublin had her last September is rejected out of hand by Aherne.
She says: "No, not at all. It doesn't stack up. You can say that about any teams that have lost players in the past. James O'Donoghue was injured for Kerry this year and they were still fantastic.
"You've got lots of examples where squads turn over and it's not noticed. Players step up and last year, lots of young players came in for Dublin and they managed to integrate them very well.
"Considering five or six left and went travelling, a few girls on J1s as well, it was a rebuilding process but it was water off a duck's back to the girls, all credit to them, and they were straight back to a final."
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