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.
While Dean Rock revels in his role in attempting to take the men’s senior title to the capital for the second year on the trot, with his county season spilling over to occupy weekend’s either side of the ladies’ final, Niamh McEvoy – his partner in both life and lethal forward play – will be having a quiet one as she prepares to take on Cork in the ladies’ finale.
“I’ll be watching the men, but I also have to focus on myself,” McEvoy told us ahead of the first rendition of the men’s final against Mayo. “Dean’s great about it. He’ll enjoy his moment, but I know he’ll be there for me during the week. We had exactly the same thing last year.”
Talking to McEvoy, in fact, you get the sense that the whole process – from training to coaching and the time time constraints around the game – comes extremely naturally to her. There’s almost an edge of guilt to the way the full-forward describes her approach to training, and how it might differ to some other members of the squad.
“I’m a primary school teacher, which could hardly be more perfect for football,” she says. “I turn up to training in the evenings having been home, eaten, and sometimes had a nap as well. The summer fits well with the football season, too. It can be difficult for the younger girls to manage, as lot of them are students and might have an evening or weekend job to worry about as well. I get kids and parents asking me about the games instead, and work starts just a couple of weeks before the final. Both, to be honest, are a nice distraction. I’m really lucky.”
Footballing life hasn’t always been simple for McEvoy, though, who is quick to note the progress the ladies’ game has made in recent years, giving her club environment as an example.
As a star at Malahide club Sylvester’s, McEvoy recalls her early footballing days as “playing with the boys until I was 12, as there just weren’t enough girls interested. You can see by the attendance at Croke Park last year how much bigger the game has become [at a touch over 30,000, last year’s final attendance made it the bigger women’s sporting event in Europe, ahead of the women’s FA Cup Final in England].”
“I sometimes work with the nursery at Sylvester’s now, and there will be sixty there on a Saturday morning. Sylvester’s are a medium-sized club, but it’s just not necessary to mix everyone together anymore. In fact, you have to separate them out because of the numbers involved.”
Despite only being in her mid-20s, McEvoy finds herself in the unlikely position of being one of Dublin’s senior players. Having been part of the side when Dublin won the county’s only All Ireland in 2010, she sees abundant similarities between the panel that took home the Brendan Martin Cup that day and today’s set up.
“In 2014 we had that huge lead in the final [10 points over Cork at one stage], but we really lacked experience. 2010 was a fantastic blend of young players and experience, and that really worked for us,” she explains. “I was one of the young players then, and I feel like I’m on the other end of it now. There are some phenomenal players coming through for us. There’s also some great players back with the squad this year. Last year we were missing Leah Caffrey and Siobhan Woods, for example. They’re both back this time around.”
“I think I probably took it for granted a little bit at the time,” McEvoy says, recalling Dublin’s 2010 win. “I don’t think we really understood how hard those days would be to come by.”
As for Cork’s ten All Ireland titles in the last eleven seasons, a run that’s taken them within one win of equalling Kerry’s all-time record? McEvoy doesn’t seem particularly daunted. “They are just a team, the same as us. Obviously they’re a very good one, but they have two arms, two legs… We’re not getting caught up on the past.”
“This year, we beat Cork the first time we played them and we had a lot of injuries the second time, so we didn’t really read too much into it. They’re a great side, but I think we have a great chance,” she argues.
Alongside fellow Dublin star Sorcha Furlong, McEvoy also took on a new coaching role in 2016, sharing eight weeks worth of sessions with the Dublin under-21 side that won their All Ireland title during the summer, standing on the sideline for a panel containing many of her senior teammates.
“It’s definitely more nerve wracking on the sideline than playing, as you can’t physically influence the game,” McEvoy says. “Greg [McGonigle, Dublin manager] asked me to get involved. I’ve been involved at under-15 level before, but this felt like a first little taste. It helps figure things out in your own game, and to understand the emotional control that’s necessary to coach.”
Not that McEvoy’s above learning a few new tricks herself, particularly in adapting to a forward role that remains a relatively new development. “I feel more comfortable there this time around,” she explains. “The key is to keep the scoreboard ticking over. If we get a goal chance, we’re the kind of team that will take it, but Cork are a defensive side, especially this year, so it’s all about taking our chances.”
“I’ve learnt a lot from Sinead Aherne coming back, and from Lyndsey Davey, who I used to play with a lot. It took a bit of getting used to, and you need a lot more patience playing at full forward. I’ve had to learn to train for short, sharp sprints, and to take the ball with my back for goal.”
“There are other specific extras I do – I don’t focus on high fielding anymore, but on the way I receive the ball. In a way it’s lot easier to clip the ball over from midfield when you’re looking at the goal. But Greg’s been very patient with me, and I’ve learnt a lot from watching people like Lyndsey play.”
The increasingly integrated learning cycle, you feel, is key to Dublin’s future success. Sitting right at the heart of both the skills development and coaching scene, McEvoy is the kind of player who’s helping to close the loop. The blend of youth and experience in the side that emerges at Croke Park on Sunday could be the ultimate proof that it’s working.
Written by James Hendicott for (and reprinted with permission of) the DLGFA.