Marie Hickey: One day we hope to sell out Croke Park for our All-Ireland finals
Our first ever All-Ireland final took place in Durrow, in 1974, when Tipperary and Offaly were the last two counties standing from the eight who took part. Ladies football has come a long way since then.
Today, we host our finals in Croke Park and our three championships are contested by 34 counties - including London and Lancashire. When our association was established at Hayes Hotel in July of 1974, I doubt if those present would have dreamed how far we would come in such a comparatively short time. For instance, 12 years after the establishment of the LGFA, we hosted our first All-Ireland final in Croke Park. This was a momentous occasion for the sport which until that time had been marginalised, but once we saw the ladies of Kerry and Wexford take to that field there was no longer any choice but to take the sport seriously.
The Kerry team that contested the first final in Croke Park embarked on an era of dominance which saw them win nine titles in a row. Amongst their team was the great Mary Jo Curran, regarded as one of the best players of all time who eventually retired with 10 All-Ireland titles and 11 All-Stars.
Something those involved in the foundation of ladies football realised was that there must be football for those outside the top counties. The junior championship was introduced in 1985 to give those counties meaningful matches with the possibility of All-Ireland glory. The first final at this grade was contested by Galway and Cork. Incidentally, this was the only championship final that Cork have lost.
Ladies football continued to grow in popularity as more and more counties entered the championship, and in order to facilitate this growth the intermediate grade was introduced in 1997.
Inter-county football is the pinnacle of our game but it is just the tip of the iceberg. Only a talented and fortunate few will ever have the honour of pulling on their county jersey but with a membership of over 180,000, the vast majority of our members are not competing at that elite level. We pride ourselves on providing the opportunity for everyone to play football which is why we have introduced our social football programmes. Of these, our Gaelic4Mothers&Others programme has been an incredible success.
This programme has given women an opportunity to enjoy all the benefits that sport has to offer without the competition tied into club and county football. It is non-competitive, a purely social outlet. It helps women stay active away from the responsibilities of work and family and allows them to enjoy an hour of laughter and exercise. Each year there is a national blitz that brings teams from all around the country together for a celebration of sport. Over 100 teams - 2,000 women - came to Naomh Mearnóg and St Sylvester's in Dublin to take part in the blitz. Scores are not kept, it is just a joyous celebration of all that is good about sport. I think other governing bodies that forget about their players once they finish competitive sport can learn from it.
As milestones go, there have been few more important than the partnership entered into with TG4 in 2001 when they became title sponsors of our championship and began televising our matches. This partnership brought our game into the living rooms of families throughout the country on a weekly basis. The return for TG4 was immediate as their first televised final was one of the all-time greats when Laois finally won the All-Ireland after losing seven finals in a run dating back to 1988. The manner of their win over Mayo was also memorable, with a last-gasp free deciding the outcome.
Our partnership with TG4 has ensured that some great moments in our sport have been witnessed by supporters throughout the country. Moments like Mayo's back-to-back wins in 2002/'03, Cork's first All-Ireland final win in 2005, Dublin's only win in 2010 and possibly the most famous final of all time in 2014 as Cork mounted a thrilling comeback against Dublin.
Last year, we welcomed our biggest ever attendance - 34,500. This was the most-attended female sporting event in Europe for the second year in a row. Naturally, we are delighted with how the sport has been progressing but nobody will be resting on their laurels.
We have also enjoyed dramatic growth internationally that has seen ladies Gaelic football spread far beyond our own island. In two of the last three years the number of female participants in the Asian Gaelic Games has outnumbered that of the men. Indeed the current champions of the intermediate grade of the Asian Games are a Japanese team which does not include even one Irish person in their panel.
As an Association, there is more we want to achieve as we continue to grow this great sport. Chief amongst these is to some day sell out Croke Park on All-Ireland final day. We also want to see more people attend the early rounds of our championship and league. We want to attract more partners like TG4 and Lidl who want to be associated with this great sport. But, most importantly, we want to ensure we continue to encourage Irish girls and women to take part in sport generally and Gaelic football particularly.
Sport is about more than just competition, it is also about enjoyment and feeling you are part of a community. We will work to ensure that we continue to give every female the opportunity to be involved in this great game.
Marie Hickey is president of the LGFA
Sunday Indo Sport