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Aoife Cassidy wins Sportswoman of Month award

Captain played a huge role in Slaughtneil’s march to All-Ireland camogie club title

Slaughtneil’s Aoife Cassidy lifts the cup after the Derry club’s victory over Sarsfields in the All-Ireland senior club camogie final. Photograph: Tommy Grealy/Inpho

The Irish Times/Sport Ireland Sportswoman Award for March: Aoife Cassidy (Camogie).

It was a sporting story like few others, Slaughtneil, a club from a Derry townland made up of just 350 homes, winning an historic Ulster treble in camogie, hurling and men’s football.

The hurlers’ dreams of a national title ended at the semi-final phase, while the footballers lost out to Dr Crokes in their St Patrick’s Day final, but the camogie team went all the way, winning their first All Ireland senior club title and only the second ever for Ulster.

And there was, of course, a poignancy to the story with the death last October of Thomas Cassidy, one of the driving forces behind the development of hurling and camogie at the club and father of three of the camogie team, Eilis, Brona and captain Aoife.

A week after he died all three turned out for the Ulster final replay against Loughiel and despite trailing by three points with five minutes to go they prevailed, Aoife raising the trophy in salute to her father who had helped coach her and her team-mates since they were children.

His absence, then, made that memorable day a bittersweet one, as it did their wonderful journey to All-Ireland success, Slaughtneil making it to the big day with a surprise semi-final win over Tipperary’s Burgess-Duharra.

The final against Galway’s Sarsfields was played at Croke Park in front of a record crowd for a camogie decider of 6,123, a sizeable chunk of that number travelling south from Derry.

It was a tight affair, Slaughtneil leading by just a point at half-time, but a brilliant reverse pass from Eilis Cassidy set up the only goal of the game five minutes into the second half, Mary Kelly converting to put her team 1-7 to 0-6 up.

Sarsfields rallied and drew level, but points from Louise Dougan and Eilis Cassidy put Slaughtneil two points clear, an advantage they held until the final whistle. The noise from the Slaughtneil contingent made it sound like they were 60,000 in the stadium.

Shannon Graham took the player of the match award but by common consent it could have gone to just about any member of the Slaughtneil side, including the Cassidy sisters.

Aoife collected the Bill & Agnes Carroll Cup and delivered her speech in Irish, in a tribute to her father who had a passion for the language. “Ni neart go cur le chéile,” she concluded, “there is no strength without unity”.

Aoife Cassidy is, then, our sportswoman of the month for March, for her leadership of her team, her performances through their season, as a representative of the remarkable Cassidy sisters, and the Slaughtneil team as a whole.

Previous monthly winners (awards run from December 2016 to November 2017, inclusive)

December: Leanne Kiernan (Soccer). The Cavan teenager had an exceptional 12 months on the club and international front, excelling for the Irish under-17s and 19s before making her debut at senior level, marking it by scoring and collecting the player of the match award. She helped Shelbourne to a league and cup double, scoring a hat-trick in the FAI Cup final, and won the FAI Young Player of the Year award.

January: Gráinne Dwyer (Basketball). The Thurles woman won her fifth National Cup medal and third MVP (Most Valuable Player) award from the last four finals when Glanmire beat Courtyard Liffey Celtics 61-48, Dwyer’s outstanding form helping put the Cork club on course for its third consecutive league and cup double.

February: Paula Fitzpatrick (Rugby). In the absence of the injured Niamh Briggs, Fitzpatrick captained the Irish team to victory in the opening four games of their Six Nations campaign, setting up a Grand Slam decider against England on St Patrick’s Day. It wasn’t to be, England much the stronger side on the day, but the team will have taken encouragement from their results and their runners-up finish as they prepare for this summer’s World Cup.