I’ve been lucky enough to be asked to cover the All Ireland Ladies Football Final (this Sunday, September 27) by both the Dublin Gazette and Dublin GAA themselves, which means I’m lucky enough to have one of the most complete sets of interviews with the Dublin panel I believe is available anywhere in the build up to the finale, featuring five players (some of whom I interviewed ahead of the semi-final win against Armagh) and manager Greg McGonigle.
Cork will go into the final as favourites, having won nine of the last ten ladies All-Ireland titles, but with Dublin having run them extremely close last year, and made their way to the final fairly comfortably, they certainly can’t be ruled out.
The girls know far more about what’s going on than I do, of course, so without further ado, here are the complete set of interviews ahead of Sunday’s game:
Noelle Healy (St Brigids): “it’ll be a psychological battle as much as a physical battle”
Having joined the Dublin panel in 2007, Noelle Healy is one of the more experienced heads in the Dublin side, and one of the most committed. She was part of the side that made it to the All Ireland final in 2009, shortly after doing her leaving certificate, and has been a mainstay ever since, even whilst undertaking one of the most challenging qualifications on offer.
Earlier this year, Healy qualified as a doctor. “You’d be training evening and then have long days in college”, she explains “so you have to be quite prepared. There’s a need to be quite disciplined that means the two things kind of compliment each other. Then there’s the psychology and exercise side, nutrition and things like that. I’m also used to working in a team environment. Doctors very rarely work independently, they’re always part of a team, so I think that has helped me.”
What it does do, though, is impinge on social life. Being a top class athlete and hitting the town have never been known for their compatibility, and combining it with a heady study requirement is only going to exacerbate the problem. “I used to get a good bit of slagging from friends as a result,” Healy says.
“I’d never be out. I always wanted to do medicine. I always wanted to do well, rather than just scrape by. And with football, you kind of have no choice but to work hard. You need to be prepared. You need to have breakfast, lunch and dinner with you on the days you’re training. You need to have your stuff for hospital, and for college. You need to have an escape route, to think about how you’re going to get from college to hospital to training.”
“I think I just got to know that I’d have training three times a week, at a certain time, and I worked around that. I knew that I’d only have two hours before training and one hour after training some days to get everything done. I had to be very organised. But it’s worth it.”
Of course, having been on the panel a while, Healy is more naturally prepared for the big day than most. She recalls the influx of minors, placing it alongside the strange experience of suddenly becoming one of the ‘older’ players.
“Myself, Sinead Goldrick and Niamh McEvoy were the youngest for a good while,” she explains. “It’s been a huge overhaul. All of a sudden we were amongst the oldest. We’re still relatively young, but there’s been a few really good young players. They’re very ready. Underage is a very high quality structure. We’ve had some minors that have come up just after finishing minor, and physically they might be a bit weaker, but from a talent and attitude point of view, they’re virtually the same.”
The work that’s been put in is quickly labelled as a plus, not a stress. “We have to enjoy the small extra parts that come with a final,” Healy explains. “We’re training under floodlights during the cold, wet, dark nights and there’s such a fantastic buzz. The players who get there are the only ones who can really understand what it’s like. We don’t try and make a battle of it. For us, it’s an event, something to soak in and enjoy. We’ve been focusing on ourselves, making sure we gel and really play together. That we can run through our moves in front of a crowd of 27,000, deal with the noise, and connect with the person 20ft in front of you.”
That doesn’t mean opponents Cork are completely off the agenda, of course. The history is a difficult topic to avoid in the context of another final, and Healy looks at the two sides’ history and admits that it’s not going to be easy. She says difficulties on the day are as likely to be psychological as physical, especially given Cork’s emphatic record against the girls in blue.
“From a talent point of view, I don’t think there’s much between us and Cork at all,” she argues. “I suppose we’ve been ahead by 9 points, 6 points and 10 points in games and they’ve come back over the last couple of seasons. There must be a psychological aspect. They’re extremely psychologically strong, I think. They don’t know when they’re beaten, they chip away and play until the last minute. I think it’ll be a psychological battle as much as a physical battle, but it’ll depend a lot on the way the game goes.”
Lessons taken from the victory over Armagh – which seemed to come relatively easily from an outsider’s perspective – have taught the Dubs some critical skills, though, in particular around holding onto leads.
“We’d watched Armagh play, and they looked a really tough team. They really made Donegal work hard. Donegal have two of the top forwards in the league, and Armagh really kept them quite quiet. They scored some huge points from distance, too. It was probably one of the most nervous I’ve ever been for a game to be honest. But when we got into it, we really went through them very quickly. I think from the first five minutes, when we’d scored 1-5, we always knew we were going to win. But we’ve been in that situation before. It taught us to hold on to a lead, I guess.”
It would come as a shock to everyone in the audience if either side feels the game is over in the first five minutes come the 27th, so Dublin’s new, tougher approach is likely to come into play. With her mind trained to deal with medical scenarios and hospital pressures, Healy looks a key asset.
Colleen Barrett (St Brigid’s): “as I get older, I really appreciate what it is have these big days”
In the build up to an All Ireland final, as the evenings begin to draw in and summer sport reaches its climax, players like long-time Dublin star Colleen Barrett have a simple philosophy on big game build up: working hard is better than not having to. “Everyone still wants to be training come September,” she tells us. “There are only two teams still doing it, and it means a lot to be one of them.”
Having spent much of the year on the sidelines with a long-term lower back injury, though, for the St Brigid’s club infants school teacher, it’s been a tough year. The road back to fitness, back to the Dublin starting 15 and – ultimately – back to Croke Park has been harder for Barrett than for most.
“When I had to take time out with lower back pain,” Barrett tells us, “I wasn’t sure I was going to play this year. To be honest, I wasn’t sure I was going to play much longer at all.”
Having first appeared in the Dublin senior side as a teenager in 2006, Barrett returned to the fold this season in time for the Leinster Senior Final back in June, which saw Dublin see off Westmeath by a score of 2-12 to 0-11, taking their fourth Leinster title in succession.
She was part of the side that won Dublin’s only All Ireland Ladies Senior Championship back in 2010. The girls in blue saw off Tyrone by a score of 3-16 to 0-10, in the only break to Cork dominance of the competition in a decade. Barrett also endured defeats to the Leesiders in 2009 and 2014.
Thinking back to 2010, she says: “I don’t know if it mattered quite as much at the time. It matters a lot, of course, but as you get older, you realise not everyone gets to win. At the time I probably thought I might have another one at this stage. As I get older, I really start to appreciate big days like this, though. Going to Croke Park and playing in the final is a really big deal. There are only two teams still training in September. I’m back at work, and I’m still training, having had the summer off. That counts for a lot.”
While Barrett is back in front of a class of 31 students on a daily basis – and identifies the start of the year as one of the highest pressure times for a teacher – the quieter summer period when schools are closed really plays into her hands when it comes to playing football. She’ll have been back in school about a month by the time the final rolls around, but the major games prior to the final have all fallen happily between terms.
“The summer off from teaching really suits football,” she explains. “It’s nice to use the time to, for example, plan your meals really well and make sure you’re in peak condition for training and preparation. Teaching 31 infants is not ideal for rest and recovery, but the school understands that I have a big game coming up and they’re very accommodating. I get a lot of support.”
“A final that was a little earlier in the summer would obviously have been the ideal. But people at my work are understanding. As long as I get all my work done, I can leave a little earlier on training days.”
As for the journey so far, Barrett was surprised by the ease with which Dublin pushed aside Armagh in the All Ireland semi final, but highlights the quarter final against Monaghan and the Leinster final against Westmeath as tough moments on the way to Croke Park.
“Westmeath and Monaghan gave us a really hard time,” she says. “It’s been an interesting year, as I don’t think we’ve been favourites at any points since the Leinster Final. We certainly won’t be favourites in many people’s eyes for the final, especially when you consider Cork’s record. But it doesn’t worry us.”
“Croke Park is wide and long, but so are the pitches that we train on regularly at DCU, so that should help us. So will our experience last year. It is a difficult experience in a way, because we play a lot of our games during the season in front of a small number of people, and then we get to Croke Park and we might be playing in front of 25,000 or so. The noise makes a difference. I’ve heard about some teams training in noisy environments to prepare, but it’s all about knowing each other’s game, really.”
While this Dublin side has really come together over the past couple of years, with a host of young players drafted into the side by manager Gregory McGonigle, the experienced heads are key. Players like Barrett, whose experience dates back to a panel with an entirely different look – and includes three All Ireland finals – who might prove the cool heads on the big day.
Given Barrett’s recent injuries and the increasingly youthful look of the emerging Dublin side, it’s a testament to her ability and dedication that she still looks an automatic pick in the back line. “There are maybe seven or eight players left in the squad from the final win in 2010,” she explains. “You can’t hold back if you want to be part of this.”
“Sometimes it can be hard to keep up. But we’re still here in September. I’m still here in September. That means everything.”
Muireann Ni Scanaill (St Margaret’s): “Intensity is high. It’s girls pushing each other, encouraging each other”
A year ago, Muireann Ni Scanaill watched Dublin give up a ten point lead with 20 minutes left on the clock to be pipped by Cork in the dying seconds of the All Ireland final. She experienced the atmosphere – and the heartbreak – of an final loss, having been promoted to the senior panel three games from the end of the season A devastating experience, no doubt, but also one that’s sure to leave a player wanting more: to play, to perform, to win.
That day, Ni Scanaill was the team watergirl, with no real expectations of getting into the side. A year later, up against the same opponents at the same stage, she’s had a stunning season that’s seen her make the number three jersey her own, and can fully expect to get a shot at helping to make amends for the girls in blue come the 27th.
“Greg asked me into the panel a week or two before the quarter final last year”, she recalls. “I’d always hoped to play for the seniors, but I didn’t expect to be moved up with the team playing so well. I didn’t think they would be room for extra players, but I got asked up along with two or three other girls, which was an absolute honour.”
At first, of course, there were challenges to be faced.
“It’s different to playing at minor level”, Ni Scanaill explains. “It’s so much faster, and more player driven, I felt. When you’re a minor, the managers kind of tell you what to do all the time, and hold your hand the whole way. At senior level it’s the girls pushing you. The girls are bigger and it’s more physical, as well. The intensity in training is high. It’s girls pushing each other, and encouraging each other. There’s a lot more camaraderie, really, with girls saying ‘well done, that was a good play’, or ‘if you do it this way it might work better’. That kind of thing.”
Ni Scanaill’s successes at U-21 level were substantial: “I got players’ player of the year last year. The manager picks a player, and the girls pick a player out of those on the panel. I got the one the girls pick, which was great to get, obviously. It was brilliant.”
These are just the latest successes, though: Ni Scanaill has long had football at the heart of her life. Citing her four older brothers, she says she first picked up a football at the age of 5 or 6, developing a tomboy, athletic style that also incorporated athletics and swimming. She first made the Dublin county panel at Under-14 level, and has been around the county set up fairly consistently since. She combines her athletic undertakings with studying and working at a fruit and vegetable company.
“It’s manageable, life wise,” Ni Scanaill tells us. “It’s taught me a lot about time management. I’m luck in a way, in that I don’t go back to college until after the All Ireland, so I’ll really have time to focus on getting ready for the final and making sure I’m fully focused on the game.”
The game, she expects, will offer new challenges.
“We did well in the first half against Monaghan, then they kind of came back at us with a lot of force. We were almost waiting for the horn to blow at the end. It was a tough game. Against Armagh we had a really strong team performance. But Cork are a different animal. We have to forget about the games that have passed and focus on the next sixty minutes.”
“I’m just going to try and enjoy it. I don’t feel nervous yet. We’re just going to train the way we’ve been training and look forward to it. We don’t need to change anything. We’re training hard, and rest is just as important as training before a game like this.”
The flowing approach the ladies sides have to the game is making waves. Attendances have risen consistently over the last few years, and feedback is strong, too:
“After watching the Armagh game, a lot of people told me they enjoyed it more than they enjoy the men’s game, because the men’s game is so physical,” Ni Scanaill tells us. “I play football because I love football, but it’s always nice to see the women’s game doing well.”
“Last year I was delighted to be on the panel and be training with the girls. This year I’m delighted to be part of it. There is a history for the other girls with Cork. I lost to them at Under-14, Under-16 and other underage levels. They’re such a good county, full of great players. You just want to do the best you can with the players you have at the time. It’s good that there’s youth there, but the experience through girls like Sinead Goldrick and Sinead Finnegan is vital, too. There’s a great mix. We’ve been playing so well together.”
Should she make the side – and she’s expected to – it’ll be the first time Ni Scanaill’s kicked a ball in anger at HQ. Having taken home an All Ireland U-21 title earlier this year with Dublin Ladies U-21 side, and experienced the noise of the season’s finale last time out, she tells us she feels ready. It’s all done bar the playing.
Olwen Carey (Thomas Davis): “We respect Cork, but winning would mean absolutely everything”
Talk for a few minutes about Olwen Carey’s life, and it becomes obvious she lives for football. In her second season with the Dublin senior panel, Carey still makes time to train underage players at her club, Thomas Davis in Tallaght, and also referees. She was part of the Dublin U-21 panel that took home the All Ireland title for the last two years, and still manages to fit in college at IT Tallaght, too. In the build-up to the final, perhaps it’s unsurprising that she identifies time management as her greatest challenge:
“It’s been hard to manage all the different sides of my football,” she admits. “It’s been a lesson, mixing playing with college, and time management has become really important. I really enjoy working with young players. They’re developing players at a really young age now. It reflects in this Dublin squad.”
The benefits of having a senior player contributing at age-group level are obvious: Carey passes her skills down, and though she’s modest about it, admits that the presence of a senior player amongst the Thomas Davis junior sides is aspirational for the club. She’s reluctant to take any credit personally, but clearly sees stacks of long-term potential around the set up.
“It’s definitely a bonus,” she explains. “I’ve had a lot of messages of congratulations and messages of good luck from various people at Thomas Davis, which has been really nice. There’s definitely a buzz around the final, but over the course of the last week we really have to concentrate, and make sure we bring the right attitude on the day.”
For Carey, though, the final also feels like a step towards bigger things; a young team developing within a broader context that’s good for the game in general. “So many young girls are playing now compared to when I was playing at 13 or 14 that it’s extremely encouraging for the future,” she tells us. “The U-21 team definitely isn’t quite on the same level as the seniors, so seeing so many step up successfully has been a great thing for Dublin.”
“A lot of teams and a lot of players have got used to playing at Under-21 level,” she explains “and having so many people step up makes a huge difference. It motivates us to play in front of more people. The only way to see the game develop is to see more people come out and support it.”
That’s happening more and more often. It only takes a quick glance at the attendances of the last few ladies All Ireland finals to see that support it stepping up, from an average of around 15,000 to a peak last year at over 27,000. “I think the women’s game has a lot to offer,” Carey says. “The sin bin from a yellow card reduces cynicism and means the women play a much more open game. We like to play ball. We play because we love it, but we play a great game.”
The All Ireland final isn’t expected to be any different, despite the inevitable nerves of the big day. Cork have taken nine of the last ten Ladies All Ireland titles (Dublin took the tenth, in 2010, when the rebels didn’t reach the final), but Dublin have been getting closer, particularly in holding a substantial ten-point lead with just twenty minutes left on the clock last time out, only to be pipped by a single point.
“We respect Cork as a team,” Carey says. “How could we not, they’re so successful. It’s obvious that we have to step it up for an All Ireland final. It might look like we’ve had an easy ride so far, but it hasn’t felt like that. The scores haven’t reflected the games. The scoreline against Armagh was comfortable, because we controlled the game early on, but we felt it was a tough game; that the score didn’t reflect how competitive it was. I played, and I found it a hard game.”
Anticipation for the final is huge, and Carey is one of several players who identifies crowd noise as a likely problem, given the typical game is played in front of a much smaller audience than the final (though she adds “support for the semi final against Armagh was fantastic”).
“For a place the size of Croke Park, and with an audience the size of the Croke Park’s crowd, communication really has to be spot on. Last year the crowd was very difficult,” she explains. “we’re not used to playing in front of really large numbers, so hearing each other and getting the message across is something we have to think about.”
For players like Carey, for whom this final is a second shot at a senior All Ireland, it’s probably reasonable to expect that there might be more chances in the future, with years of football ahead. For the young Dublin side, though, this is is the culmination of a long journey.
“It would mean everything to win. It’s very special to have reached the last day, and we’ve been working incredibly hard to get to where we are now. We know what we have to bring in advance of the game, and I think my experience with the Under-21s will help. It’s a little bit different to senior level, though. Preparation is so important, and we’re focusing in that.”
“We’ll have to go out and give it everything. Obviously when you lose like we did last year, there’s a lot of hurt. We’ve been working for this for nine months. We know that this is a big event in our lives. We just have to work hard, and go out there and give it everything.”
Note: the above four interview feature articles were produced on behalf of Dublin Ladies GAA, and syndicated to Newstalk 106 FM, the Dublin Gazette, HoganStand.com and more,as well as being published
Hannah Noonan: ‘English Blood, All Ireland Dreams’ (for the Dublin Gazette) – page 29