Dublin’s Noelle Healy determined to turn back red tide in All-Ireland final

Dublin captain is not letting hard days against Cork dent her optimism

Dublin’s Noelle Healy is pursued by Cork’s Aisling Barrett in the All-Ireland women’s football final in 2014. This season is 25-year-old Barrett’s ninth year on the Dublin panel. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho

Dublin’s Noelle Healy is pursued by Cork’s Aisling Barrett in the All-Ireland women’s football final in 2014. This season is 25-year-old Barrett’s ninth year on the Dublin panel. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho

 

“They’re only human,” insists Noelle Healy, “they’re not this unstoppable force.” But there will have been times through the past 11 years, when Cork amassed those 10 All-Ireland titles, that she and her Dublin team-mates wondered if their nemesis was just that. An unstoppable force.

Not least in 2014 when Cork came back from 10 points down in the last 15 minutes to leave Dublin hearts in smithereens. And they’d hardly mended when they were broken again, Cork beating them by two points in last year’s final.

Trying to take positives from such experiences can be a testing enough task, but after the initial despondency, Healy, appointed Dublin captain at the start of the year, gave it a go.

“After you lose, I genuinely think you go through those stages of grief. You put so much in to it and all of a sudden it’s gone. You wonder what was the point of it all. There’s just a sadness.

“And I know some people really struggle with it. But I’m very much the glass half-full person – and I’d be slagged for that,” she laughs. “So, I would have said to the players: getting to an All-Ireland final in the first place is amazing, but very few people make back-to-back finals after losing one, so we showed great character. We got to play in front of a crowd of 31,000 people, the biggest ever, so we broke a record – and we got to do it with our best friends.”

How did they react? “Some of them were like: ‘SHUT UP! WE LOST!’”

The bulk of them have yet to savour that winning Croke Park feeling, but Healy, along with other stalwarts like Sinead Aherne, Lyndsey Davey, Sorcha Furlong and Niamh McEvoy, was part of the group that won Dublin’s first ever senior All-Ireland title – and still their only one – in 2010, when they beat the Tyrone side that had stunned Cork in the quarter-finals.

Opposition

Since then, though, Cork haven’t put a foot wrong. Sick of the sight of them?

“I actually like playing Cork,” she laughs. “I think we bring out the best in each other. I know we’ve been on the wrong side of them a few times, but in the last two finals especially that was some of the best football I’ve ever seen played, from the team-mates around me and the opposition.

“So despite our record against them, I genuinely always look forward to playing them – especially in Croke Park. The most we’d get at our games might be 300, at a push, and you’re going to 30,000, so it’s a completely different level of noise. You come out and there’s that big scream, it’s like a One Direction concert.”

She’s only 25 but this is Healy’s ninth year on the senior Dublin panel, the St Brigid’s, Castleknock player having won all that there was to be won at underage level, her highlight the 2008 All-Ireland minor title.

And in that spell she’s also managed to qualify as a doctor. She finished her internship in July and is now based at Beaumont Hospital, where she specialises in anaesthetics.

“It’s a nice mixture of all the different areas. There are a lot of skills in it. It’s a very hands-on job, and I like using my hands.”

Do you ever worry for their safety?

“Sometimes! Because you’d be very, very limited if you injured them, but . . . [knocks on wood].”

You don’t look at a 50-50 tackle and think, I’ll keep out of that?

“Maybe the more clever part of my brain says ‘STOP!’. But the rest overrides it and says: ‘GO!’”

Managing to carry on playing football while studying and then practising medicine has always been a challenge. Healy has to master the art of time-management.

“They’re both really important to me. I get a lot of enjoyment from football and so do my family. It provides a balance in my life. And I have been able to balance the two, even if it’s been hard at times.

Stay in sport

“I’d just like to see girls encouraged to stay in sport. I definitely noticed when I was 15, 16 a lot of my friends giving it up.

“They were like, ‘I have grinds every Tuesday so I can’t make basketball training’ – whereas the lads would be ‘ah no, I can’t make grinds, I have basketball training’.

“Playing a sport will probably stand to you more than that English grind. You learn an awful lot, not just about yourself but about team work, being able to be a leader, standing up, having responsibilities, really important stuff. Life lessons.”

Since first taking up the sport as a child, she has seen huge changes in the women’s game. “It’s like chalk and cheese. The standard has improved so much. When I first came in, the strength and conditioning thing was just starting. I didn’t know if that was for me, I didn’t want to get all big and bulky. Telling a guy you play ladies football is hard enough, but then if you have bigger biceps than him? But I loved it,” she laughs, “and still do.

“Even just the recognition people get now. After the Mayo game [this year’s semi-final] we were doing our recovery down on Dollymount Strand and loads of people walking by were saying ‘well done yesterday, great win’. And we were like, ‘do you know them?’ But nobody did.

“There’s just been great publicity, and social media has helped a lot. I wasn’t so sure at the start with the whole Ladyball thing, whether it was ‘serious support’ or Lidl just jumping on the whole women’s sport thing, which had become kind of cool.

“But the ad they did was brilliant, it was bang on. It showcased our game and had some of our best footballers. It just looked really cool – when women’s football mightn’t always have been looked upon as a cool thing.

Grassroots

“And in fairness, they have put their money where their mouth is, they’ve given stuff to grassroots – I know our ladies section got a €1,000, which was massive, a huge amount of money for a Gaelic football club. But generally in the women’s game, there’s work to be done.

“Even something like not having warm water in the showers, not having floodlights so having to train in a corner of a pitch, I have heard stories like that and that’s just not good enough.

“Something as small as meals after training, physio expenses, scan expenses, things like that. Access to gyms and equipment. You’re putting in time, we give up just as much. These are things that would help you perform and recover better. All the facilities are there, they just need to be opened to us.”

On to Sunday, then. Her parents would relish a victory probably as much as herself. They’re going through a challenging time.

“They’re both from Mayo.”

So, who were they up for in your semi-final? “Well, thankfully they like me more than they like Mayo, so they were happy. Well, as far as I know.

“But watching the men’s final with them was awful. Mayo football means so much to them and Dublin football means an awful lot to me, so it’s very hard to enjoy those games. A draw just means we have to go through it again. And they’ve been through their fair share of heartbreak, so I’d love to see them win. But it’s Dublin . . .

“Dad’s claim to fame is that he played minor hurling for Mayo – I think he came from the only hurling stronghold in the county. I always say ‘I don’t know where I got the football from’, and he says ‘me!’ And I say ‘right!’.

“But they’re brilliant. They come to absolutely everything, them and an aunt and uncle, club games too, rain, hail or shine, friendlies, the lot. And a lot of the girls’ parents are like that, we know everybody’s families because they’re always there.

“That’s what’s very special about ladies football, it’s a very small community, it’s all the same faces and you know how much it means to them.”

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