Friday 18 October 2019

Marie Hickey: 'Constant development at heart of game's phenomenal growth'

Dublin's Michael Darragh Macauley. Photo: Sportsfile
Dublin's Michael Darragh Macauley. Photo: Sportsfile

Marie Hickey

As we anticipate a great attendance for today's TG4 All-Ireland finals at Croke Park, it struck me recently how much of this phenomenal growth is due to the work being done at grassroots level.

We have so many wonderful initiatives that have been rolled out by our development team in recent years, including Gaelic4Teens, Gaelic4Girls and Gaelic4Mothers & Others, which is becoming a mass movement of females in itself. It was incredible to witness the teams from Ballybough and Sheriff Street derive so much fun and enjoyment from their once-in-a-lifetime experience at Croke Park last month.

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The ladies from inner city Dublin graced the hallowed turf at half-time during the Cork/Dublin semi-final fixture for a very special Gaelic4Mas game, with Dublin footballer Michael Darragh Macauley and former Dubs LGFA star Niamh McEvoy present to lend a hand.

What these programmes do is increase the number of females playing ladies football - and we're seeing increasing numbers continuing to play our game, which in turn ensures more of them continue into adult level.

When they do, and when they reach the very top of the game, they become role models for our younger players. After all, and as the 20x20 hashtag says, if she can't see it, she can't be it, and the more role models that we have for the aspiring inter-county stars of tomorrow, the better.

I attended the John West Féile Peile na nÓg tournament, hosted by Connacht, earlier this year. In the souvenir programme, girls were asked to name their favourite player, or the player they look up to most. A number of the girls quoted ladies footballers. This is a seismic shift.

I was asked at the TG4 All-Ireland finals media day about where this turnaround has come from. The advent of social media has played a huge role for our Association, in that we can now direct so much of our own content and material to a potential worldwide audience. So many more people can now see and access our content, whereas prior to that, our coverage in national media outlets was limited.

That's also improved immeasurably in recent times but it was very much a chicken and egg situation with us for so long. It was great to see so many print, online and broadcast media personnel present at Tuesday's media event. This has the very positive effect of enabling young girls to access images and footage of adult players that they look up to.

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We also streamed a large number of games from the Lidl National League and TG4 Championships on the LGFA's Facebook page this year, and the numbers that tuned in to watch were huge.

The knock-on effect of all of this is an increase in the number of people watching and playing our games, and standards on the pitch at all levels of the Association have risen considerably.

I've lost count of the number of people who have talked to me about the great game that we have now, the intensity of it, the great scores, the speed, the purity of the football and the enjoyment derived from some great contests this year.

Hosting our TG4 All-Ireland senior championship semi-finals at Croke Park for the first time was another huge boost, and the coverage of them was encouraging.

It was yet another example of our increased co-operation with and work alongside our friends in the GAA. We've had access to quality, county grounds for our knock-out Championship fixtures and we also had the intermediate semi-finals at the fabulous venue that is Nowlan Park.

Croke Park today is the pinnacle for our players who deserve to be well supported for their hard work and commitment to the game.

I must also reference our revamped under-14 championship this year, and the success that it proved to be. There was some initial resistance to the plans but the overwhelming feedback was that the new structure worked well, with young players getting the chance to play more games.

For many of the players involved, it was the first time they pulled on their county jerseys, and they can now aspire to playing at Croke Park.

That's what lies in wait for the six counties who will line out on the big stage today, as Louth and Fermanagh compete for the TG4 All-Ireland junior title, before Meath and Tipperary compete for the intermediate crown. At 4pm, Dublin aim for three-in-a-row at senior level but they'll meet a determined Galway outfit.

The sense of anticipation is huge but none of this would be possible for any of our players had they not been afforded the opportunity to hone their skills from a young age. Development remains very much the key to success.

Marie Hickey is president of the Ladies Gaelic Football Association

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