'When I started playing football, it was all about the men': How women's football is coming of age
Regardless of audience, tomorrow's All-Ireland ladies' football final will be analysed in as much detail as the men's. Change has come, writes John Meagher
The year was 2003 and Niamh McEvoy, then 12, was taken to see Dublin ladies play the All-Ireland football final. They lost to Mayo, but a spark was formed.
The following year, the Dubs reached the final again and, once more, her father Dave brought her to Croke Park. The losing streak continued - this time it was Galway who got the upper hand. But it didn't matter to the schoolgirl from Malahide, Co Dublin - she knew she wanted to play Gaelic football and she had a new bunch of heroes to look up to.
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"I don't know if I'd be here today," she says. "Seeing those matches really inspired me. [Former Dublin player] Ciarán Whelan used to be my hero, but now there were women that were playing sport at a high level and I could look up to them.
"Before that the only female role model I had was Sonia O'Sullivan - she was the only Irish female sportsperson who was visible in media - and my sport wasn't athletics. And now, at my club [St Sylvester's], the girls talk about people like [Dublin captain] Sinead Aherne as someone to aspire to."
In the early 2000s, ladies Gaelic football was on the up - participation levels were growing at such a rate that it was hailed by some as Europe's fastest growing team sport. And there were about 20,000 in GAA headquarters for both of those finals. And yet, it appeared to be little more than a fringe attraction in the Irish sporting calendar - one that swathes of the media, and population, largely ignored.
Fast forward to the All-Ireland Final of 2018 and a crowd of 50,141 was in attendance to see Dublin - and McEvoy, now a goal-hungry forward - bag their second title in a row. Not only was it the all-time highest attendance for a women's sports event in Ireland, but it was one of the largest crowds for a female competition anywhere in the world last year.
It generated enormous media interest, too - as the previous year's final, against Mayo, had also done. And, as McEvoy points out, it wasn't tokenistic coverage - but the type of detailed analysis the men's code has long taken for granted. Something had changed.
"I've been involved in the All-Ireland Final for the last six years and the attendances have picked up every time - and the interest around them has gone up, too," McEvoy says. "I remember after the 2017 [final], and some people seemed a bit shocked at the skill level: they'd be going, 'I really, really enjoyed that game' and I'd be thinking, 'Of course! It's the final - the best players are here and the standard of the game has gone up so much.'
"The following year was a great game, too, but that surprise wasn't there - those who watched thought it was normal that it would be just as skilful as the men's game."
Kate Flood has also noticed a change in how women's football is perceived. The captain of the Louth team will contest the ladies' junior final on Sunday in advance of the senior decider between Galway and Dublin.
"When I started playing football," she says, "it was all about the men - this idea that the men will go to play in Croke Park but nobody talked about the women doing that. For the last couple of years, it's come along so much. Now it's 'Will you get to Croke Park this year?' That's what the talk is about at the start of the year - that's the goal that's been set.
"Success breeds success," she adds. And with more female role models for young girls to look up to, the chances of keeping them playing to adulthood keeps improving. "To see women being applauded for the hard work they've put in and getting that recognition in any sport is an amazing thing."
And, she is convinced the conversation has changed, too. "People are realising now that the girls are as good as the boys at playing sport. They're not saying, 'But their skill levels are lower'."
Marie Hickey is president of the Ladies' Gaelic Football Association (LGFA). She says there is still a concern about the drop-off rates among teenage girls when it comes to playing sport, but says the trend has been improved.
"Ages 15 and 16 is the critical time," she says. "We have figured out from our own anecdotal research and more formal research that the reasons they drop out include a lack of confidence. Sometimes, they don't feel part of what's going on, they feel under pressure, or that there's too much being put on them. So, really, it's trying to retain the fun aspect and that's hugely important."
Different to coaching boys
Hickey says the quality of coaching is key. "Coaches have to realise that coaching girls at that age its not the same as coaching boys, and that they have different ways of looking at things and take things to heart differently as well. They have to be mindful of all of that, because something that's said without thinking could result in a girl deciding she didn't want to play any more.
"And we're really keen to promote the game for younger players with initiatives like Gaelic4Girls and Gaelic4Teens. We try to make the sport fun for them and give them a sense that it's something they can continue to play well into adulthood."
Hickey has long held the view that the more exposure women's sport gets, the greater the chance it has to grow, and she says the pan-sport 20x20 initiative launched last year has helped do that. "20x20 has been significant because it's got publicity and anything that promotes women in sport benefits everybody," she says. "It's promoting all women and that has a knock-on effect. Your ordinary, everyday person realises that women are involved in sport, that the standard is good, that it's entertaining and that support is being given to it."
There have been some significant milestones for women's sport in Ireland. The World Cup silver medal achieved by the country's hockey team in London was one of the feel-good stories of last summer. And, last Sunday's senior, intermediate and junior camogie finals pulled in more than 25,000 at Croke Park - a record crowd when one considers that previous higher attendances were skewed by the fact that men's under-21 hurling finals were on the same bill.
Internationally, the Women's World Cup Final in France this summer was seen as a watershed moment for female team sport thanks to big attendances and huge international TV audiences who thrilled at the exploits of the all-conquering US soccer team.
And, last weekend, the opening fixtures in the FA Women's Super League in England pulled in crowds of 31,213 and 24,564 respectively for Manchester City-Manchester United and Chelsea-Tottenham Hotspur, although some sniped that the latter attendance could not be counted as tickets were distributed for free.
"It's an exciting time," Niamh McEvoy says, "but we can't get complacent. As players, we have to deliver a high standard and provide entertainment to make people want to come back time and again - and to inspire the next generation."
A third successive title would certainly do no harm to the status of ladies' GAA in the capital and to those girls who may be inspired to stay in the game longer. And it would be a special moment for McEvoy, who turns 29 next month. "You and your team work so hard all year. We know what it's like to lose finals and we don't want that feeling again."