This article is part of a series of feature interviews prepared for the Dublin Ladies’ Gaelic Football Association ahead of their All Ireland 2016 final with Cork.
Always a football lover, Dublin ladies’ first team coach and selector Bobby McNulty got into the managerial side of things early: he’s been coaching for longer than he’s been an adult.
Starting at his own club, Thomas Davis in Tallaght, McNulty – a garda outside of his love of football – worked his way up the sidelines of a number of underage panels before moving on to minors, under-21s and the senior men, as well as working with a number of Dublin age group sides. His Dublin minor side, alongside Conor Barry, won two Leinster titles and made an All Ireland final in 2013, before losing out to Galway in a replay. And then came the ladies’ seniors.
McNulty joined Greg McGonigle with Dublin senior panel in 2015, with the pair setting their eyes firmly on the All Ireland, a prize that had proved – by the narrowest of margins – elusive for the capital county over the previous couple of years.
“A few years ago, we wouldn’t have won that game against Mayo,” the coach says of the county’s recent semi-final victory. “Sinead Aherne having the confidence to put aside her earlier miss to put over that [match winning] point is the mark of a major player. We didn’t have a good second half, but we always knew it would be close.”
That semi-final saw Dublin snatch a last-gasp winner against the Connacht powerhouse through a break that was finished by the brilliant composed Sinead Aherne from a tight angle, with the westerners having earlier whittled away a substantial halftime lead and looking to be edging into control. McNulty believes that the days when these narrow games went against Dublin are a thing of the past; that the girls in blue are mentally tougher; composed and better equipped for the battle.
“We are very, very closely matched,” he says of the forthcoming finale against Cork. “If we get everything right, we could come out the right side of a single score game. The midfield battle is key, especially as Cork have two serious players in there; Briege Corkery and Rena Buckley are highly experienced. Obviously they’re a challenge.”
“A mark of our players this season, though, is that they’re extremely consistent. We’ll try to go in there and hurt them a little bit. I’m very confident our forward line is up there with the best in the country, and it’ll be about taking chances.”
“You could argue that we’ve been consistently the second best team in recent years,” McNulty continues, “though Mayo – with the experience of Cora Staunton in particular – were a serious threat this year as well. The subs have made all the difference. It’s often been a player coming off the bench that’s proven the match winner this year, and we have a lot of strength in depth. The game plan, definitely, will change for Cork. I feel that if we stick to the plan like we have done until now, it will come good.”
Having worked his way through the age groups with many of the girls now eligible for the Dublin panel, McNulty knows as well as anyone what Dublin’s player pool had to offer.
“It’s not always the girls who played minor we’re interested in,” he explains. “There are always one or two rough diamonds in there who develop into great players later in life. But we watch a whole lot of football. I think it’s really important that the younger players see myself and Greg [McGonigle, Dublin manager] down at age group games. It shows them that we’re interested, and gives them something to aim for.”
“We’d spend a lot of time watching the under-16 and even under-14 squads, as well as watching club games,” he adds. “There’s a lot of depth in the county now, and especially a few younger girls who are going to make a serious mark. Julia Buckley from Kilmacud Crokes and Emily Flanagan at Ballyboden St Enda’s are two great examples at the moment.”
The turnover in the women’s game makes McNulty’s shared scouting role all the more important. While this season has seen a few notable losses – something that happens nearly every off season, there are also a few new players around who could make a huge difference for Dublin
“The return of the likes of Siobhan Woods, Leah Caffrey and Deirdre Murphy and especially the likes of Amy Conroy, Emma Colgan and Rebecca McDonnell, who have come into panel from minors last year, are all great for us,” McNulty argues. “Lauren Magee’s – who was part of extended panel last year but didn’t get to tog out in the all Ireland final – has also made huge progress. This year she has moved to starting midfield in both the All Ireland semi and quarterfinals. There’s some great players making their way through.”
“Our squad has a young age profile, particularly compared to Cork, where some of the players are going for their 11th All Ireland football title. That’s just the nature of the sport, though, and it has its advantages, too. The game has come a long, long way. There’s been a huge markup in attendances compared to a few years ago.”
“At the semi-final, the crowd made some serious noise, and I think people saw from the TG4 footage what kind of state the game is in. Their broadcasting has been really good for the sport. But most importantly, there are really superb games of football to watch.”
Having helped some of this young Dublin squad through several age groups before playing his role in picking out the cream of the crop to represent their county at full senior level, McNulty will be hoping next Sunday marks the true coming of age of the county’s nearly girls. With the blend of youth and experience and a newfound grit coming together at just the right time, Cork’s winning streak might be facing it’s biggest challenge yet.
Written by James Hendicott for (and reprinted with permission of) the DLGFA.