Monday 14 October 2019

Sarah dreams of emulating sister Geraldine

Galway’s Sarah Conneally tries to escape from Mayo’s Ciara McManamon during their TG4 All-Ireland SFC semi-final. Photo: Sam Barnes
Galway’s Sarah Conneally tries to escape from Mayo’s Ciara McManamon during their TG4 All-Ireland SFC semi-final. Photo: Sam Barnes

Declan Rooney

It's not often one can pinpoint the exact moment that the inspiration to play a sport to its highest level struck, but Galway's Sarah Conneally remembers. Today she will line out against Dublin in the All-Ireland senior final at Croke Park, and 15 years ago the rush of euphoria that greeted Galway's last All-Ireland win was the catalyst for her football career.

Watching her sister Geraldine in the maroon shirt that day was a nervy, enthralling and energy-sapping experience, but Sarah, too, had her first run-out on Croke Park as soon as the final whistle sounded.

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"The last time I remember supporting the ladies up there was in 2004 when my sister was playing," she recalls. "I just remember running out on the pitch after the final whistle to celebrate. It was an amazing experience that day, even just as a supporter. I remember that day well. That's where I really got the grá for the game, thinking that one day I'd hopefully play there myself.

"That dream happened there the last day (in the semi-final) against Mayo. I really enjoyed it and I can't wait to go out there again. It was unbelievable for all of us.

"Playing in Croke Park twice in the one year is brilliant. I've been waiting over 10 years to play there so it's definitely one to cherish and one to enjoy. I'm really looking forward to it."

It didn't take the younger Conneally sister long to swell the family representation in the Galway squad, and after she made her debut against Sligo in 2009 they soldiered together on and off until last season when a serious knee injury caught up with Geraldine and ended her time playing for the county.

Today it's Geraldine's turn to be in the stands along with the busloads of supporters from Dunmore MacHales and the surrounding areas to watch Sarah and Galway try to pick their way through this three-in-a-row seeking Dublin side.

"I remember the homecoming and everything, it was just a brilliant, brilliant time for Galway ladies football. Hopefully we'll repeat that," she says of that last title.

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Last year Galway's season was ended by Mick Bohan's team in the All-Ireland semi-final, a game that Conneally (28) started at midfieldk, although she quickly drifted into the forward line. That role is a new one for her, as she played the majority of her football in defence until former manager Stephen Glennon sent her packing to the edge of the square.

"Being up there is an experience. I was a back at under-12 all the way up and it's only in the last three years I've played up front. Stephen was the manager at the time and they were watching me in training one day . . . I don't know where the brainwave came from but they moved me up. It's been enjoyable.

"You have to be creative when the ball comes in and, you know, every attack that we get you want to get something from it. But you don't just have the attacking side of things to focus on, the defensive job is there too. Definitely my experience in the backs has helped with that. Putting pressure on the backs coming out is a big part of it."

The mood of the Galway supporters was very different following the 2005 All-Ireland final defeat to Cork, which was Galway's last appearance at Croke Park until this year's semi-final win over Mayo. None of the current squad had ever played there before, but now most of the players on show today have ticked that box.

It has been a strange campaign run for Tim Rabbitt's side with three of their six championship games being against neighbours, Mayo. Playing your rivals four times in one season - when the Lidl league meeting of the sides is taken into account - can elevate existing tensions, but Conneally sees victory as the only thing of consequence.

"I suppose Galway and Mayo games will always be a local derby, you're always going to have that bite in it. But an All-Ireland semi-final is completely different to a Connacht final - there is so much up for grabs. We know each other inside out at this stage from playing each other so often. The last day it was a tight affair but we pulled through in the end and that's the main thing. We learned so much from the last day, but we're looking forward to putting it in place against the Dubs."

Galway could hardly have scripted 2019 any better, and the only blips in their season came in the Division 1 league final against Cork and in the group game with today's opponents. Played in wintery conditions in Moycullen, Dublin cracked two goals to end Galway's 100 per cent record.

According to Conneally they learned plenty that day. "They are a resilient team, they're tough, they're physical, they have lots of pace, they are a big side. We will be looking at areas where we can improve and we won't be overly focused on them.

"Of course the management team will look closely at them, but the players will want to focus on our performance and what we can improve on from the last day.

"I came on as a sub that day. It is always a tough, tough day when you play the Dubs but every time we've played them we learned something new about ourselves. That's the important thing and we'll take that into the final."

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