At the turn of the year, Dublin women’s football manager Greg McGonigle commented on the state of women’s football. “There are great footballing teams around,” he said, simply, but was quick to zone in on the reason that’s so apparent: a difference in rules.
“We’re at a stage where it’s different to the men with the pulling and the dragging, because a yellow card is a sin bin in the women’s game,” he explained, “and we can’t afford to have players sitting on the bench for ten minutes.”
The women’s game is arguably at its highest ever ebb. The addition of a well-known German supermarket chain on sponsorship duty and substantial coverage on TG4 have raised the profile substantially, with county players occupying billboards throughout our cities and increasingly recognisable as a result.
Last season’s All Ireland Ladies’ final was the biggest women’s sporting event of the year in Europe in terms of attendance, attracting just over 31,000 attendees, and topping the women’s FA Cup Final in England by a few hundred. If recent trends are anything to go by, this year should be still bigger.
The game, admittedly, tends not to be quite as physical as the men’s game, or quite as fast-paced, but there’s a purity to it: a focus on technical aptitude and fluid gameplay seems to be the dominant feature. While there are still thrashings, they’re becoming rarer, especially at the game’s upper echelons.
It’s hard to imagine a better advert for the game than Dublin’s last-second game-winning point against Mayo in the semi-final a week ago, in a game that went to the absolute wire. Dominant county Cork were given a serious test by Monaghan this weekend, with the Ulster side shooting 14 wides and still finishing only three points short.
Convinced on the strength of the county game, I decided to spend a week watching the Dublin championship club finals. The experience was one of the best adverts for a sport you could hope to see:
Senior Final: Foxrock Cabinteely 1-13 St Brigid’s 2-9 (my report).
An athletic, pacey Foxrock Cabinteely side powered by playmaker Amy Connolly appeared in charge throughout much of the game against their gritty rivals. St Brigid’s needed incredible late input from county goalkeeper Ciara Trant to reach this stage, with the goalkeeper making a number of point blank saves against Ballyboden St Enda’s in their semi-final before stepping up to score a penalty that forced extra time.
The sheer grit was on display again here, with Trant, Sorcha Furlong and Leah Mullins the stars in a late comeback, after Connolly and Amy Ring took charge for Foxrock. Trailing by six points with five minutes left on the clock, Brigid’s harried their way back into things to get within two as the clock ran down. The game ended with a series of frees that saw half the Foxrock Cabinteely squad lined up along the goalline. Defensive pressure eventually forced a last-gasp goal effort just over the bar.
Intermediate Final: Clanna Gael Fontenoy 3-09 Clontarf 1-12 (my report)
With Clontarf on top for the majority of the game, Clanna Gael’s goalscoring prowess proved the difference, with a goal from substitute Sinead Taylor from almost the last kick of the game giving the Ringsend side take the title. Clontarf – armed with Dublin men’s star Jack McCaffrey’s sister Sarah (a similar style of player) and under-16 starlet Caoimhe O’Connor will feel harshly done by: as an ambitious and creative side they fell just short of putting their opponents away.
Junior A Final: St Maur’s 1-11 Castleknock 1-10 (my report)
St Maur’s dominated for 25 minutes, and then scored just three points for the remainder of the game as Castleknock hit back from eight points down. A tight defence helped against the battling west Dubs, though. When Castleknock equalised with seconds remaining, all the momentum seemed theirs, but woman of the match Olivia Leonard stepped up to knock over the title-winning point against the run of play.
Junior B Final: Naomh Barrog 1-10 Templeogue Synge Street 0-10 (my report)
In a match also notable for the Portmarnock club’s sizeable backing at Fingallians, Naomh Barrog were second best for much of the game, but battled back at the last, with Aisling McDonald fisting into the Synge Street net in the final five minutes to grab the Junior B title.
Junior C Final: O’Dwyer’s 4-17 Na Fianna 3-6 (my report)
The only game that didn’t come down to the very finest of margins, O’Dwyer’s dominated throughout, with all three Na Fianna goals coming in the last ten minutes as they took their feet off the gas.
What stood out about watching all five finals from the sideline was not just the competitiveness, though, but the style of football: the inventiveness, the skills and the strategy.
St Brigid’s boss Con Brennan highlighted the trickle down effect of county standards ahead of their senior final:
“The Dublin girls’ attitudes really rub off on the squad,” he argued. “They train in a professional environment where everything is monitored, from food intake to fitness. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear they monitor the time they go to sleep.”
Rival manager Pat Ring, of Foxrock Cabinteely, argued that companies should get in on the ground floor of the ladies’ game while they still can. One of his stars – Sinead Goldrick – has been the face of Lidl’s ad campaign, alongside players from the other top counties.
“The game’s getting bigger over recent years, and there’s more money behind it,” Ring explained, “Sinead has been a great servant to our club and she’s been right at the heart of it. It’s great to see.”
Back before the county season got underway, county boss McGonigle said his team were “talking in terms of 1%. In fact, we’re talking in terms of inches.” The Sky Cycling approach has reached women’s football. It became abundantly clear over the past week that the game should be thinking that way: throughout the tiered system, it’s at a point where inches are everything.
Dublin play Cork in the All Ireland Ladies’ Football Final at Croke Park on September 25th. Cork have taken ten of the last eleven ladies’ All Ireland titles – Dublin took the other – but with both sides scraping through their semi-finals, things have rarely seemed as tight as in 2016.