Some of the finest GAA players you’ve probably never heard of

Many of the top performances in this season’s championship have come from women

Sporting heroes: Waterford’s Trish Jackman, Cork’s Bríd Stack, Roscommon’s Amanda McLoone and Tyrone’s Shannon Quinn. Photograph: Inpho

Sporting heroes: Waterford’s Trish Jackman, Cork’s Bríd Stack, Roscommon’s Amanda McLoone and Tyrone’s Shannon Quinn. Photograph: Inpho

 

“It’s a pity to think that I have played with Cork for over 10 years now and I have never once played an intercounty game in Pairc Uí Chaoimh – that’s an opportunity lost.”

Bríd Stack has won nine All-Irelands with that Cork football team in those 10 years. She has completed nearly 1,000 training sessions under Eamonn Ryan’s tutelage as well as winning six All Stars.

She is arguably one of the most successful players the game has seen, and yet she has never played a single intercounty game in Cork’s home ground.

More than 1,200 female intercounty players, in 52 county squads, in 1,500 clubs, all training on average five times a week across both codes of the Gaelic games – but how many could you name?

“Visibility and acknowledgement remain the main challenges to women in the GAA. People usually can’t name any more than three players at most,” says Aoife Lane, chairperson of the Women’s Gaelic Players Association.

Free-flowing

James Daly, the Armagh football manager, says the women’s game is more “natural and free-flowing, there’s no pullin’ and haulin’, no cynical fouling.”

Jackie Cahill, a football reporter, says women like to play an “open, expansive” game.

“Some of the best games I’ve seen over the last few years have been ladies’ football matches. The 2014 All-Ireland final, when Cork came from 10 points down to beat Dublin, was one of the greatest sporting comebacks I ever witnessed in the flesh.”

According to another reporter, Daragh Ó Conchúir, camogie is “on a whole different planet in the space of about three years”.

There is “greater emphasis on defensive systems and sweepers, which would have been unheard of a couple of years ago, as well as isolating a couple of forwards inside”.

Tyrone footballer Shannon Quinn agrees. “It’s all just out and out football; you might have one sweeper who’ll come back but they don’t actually sit back – they’re going back and attacking too.

“One of the best attributes of ladies’ football is the fact that it’s so open, free-flowing, with lots of kick passing.”

That free-flowing nature of the game has produced some of the finest showings of athleticism this championship season.

Cora Staunton scored a stunning 1-15 for Mayo against Galway two weeks ago, all but two points of her team’s total. Dual-players Breige Corkery and Rena Buckley played two county championship matches for Cork within four hours of each other on the same day.

Strength and conditioning, as well as diet and coaching, has also become increasingly important to keep up such a high level of fitness required for forward play.

“I remember 10 years ago there was none of this psychology or gym programmes or diet but that’s all been introduced just because teams are all looking for that edge to stay up,” says Stack.

Sledging

“I’d be surprised if ladies’ football went to the same extent in terms of defensive systems as men’s has gone, and I’d be sad to see it go like that,” says Quinn.

“Girls hate to lose as much as men do, but you would never hear girls bitching and moaning to their own team mates. I train the Drumintee men’s minor team, so I know what the men’s game is like. There’s so much giving out for not making a tackle, or not catching a ball, where you would never hear that at a ladies’ game,” says Daly.

The much discussed sledging “does not feature at all”, according to Quinn and every other player who I spoke to throughout this has agreed.

“I’d be horrified if anyone ever said anything along those lines to me. I’ve never heard of it featuring and I hope it stays that way.”

1,200km commute

Trish Jackman

“It’s not something which I feel is an effort. Don’t get me wrong, it’s tough, but I took it on as a challenge. I don’t see that challenge as being greater than anyone else’s on the team.”

James Daly sums it up, saying, “It’s not a Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday thing for county players. It’s full-time, seven days a week. When you’re not training you’re watching your diet, you’re in the physio – there’s so much more to be done.”

For a woman who has played for her county for the past nine years, the new challenge of a weekly 1,200km commute doesn’t dull Jackman’s sense of enjoyment in the game.

“I really appreciate the nights I’m home to train, I’m always really fresh coming back into it. I’m really enjoying being at this stage of my career and enjoying my camogie now more than ever.”

Injury

Shannon Quinn is one of many players to have recovered from a cruciate ligament tear and return to the pitch – no mean feat.

“Injury is an emotional and physical rollercoaster,” says the Tyrone footballer. “It takes a lot of work on your own [in the gym], which isn’t always the best thing, especially when you’re so used to being with a team. It’s a very challenging place to be.”

“There were times when you’re nearly thinking, God, if this happened again I don’t think I could do this.”

Amanda McLoone, the Roscommon footballer, is another player to have suffered cruciate ligament damage and recovered after surgery.

“I was diagnosed with the injury the day before we were due to play in the intermediate All-Ireland semi-final. I was vice-captain at the time, and it was absolutely heartbreaking to miss out on the biggest game of my career. Sitting on the sideline was just so frustrating.”

Respect

Gaining recognition and respect for that level of skill and commitment is a real problem for these women.

“It’s not fair, because these girls train every bit as hard and are as committed every bit as much as the men, and to me they don’t get the same respect,” says Daly.

“I have never heard any players complaining about this. Every club and county girl goes to training off their own back. They don’t get a cent towards miles or any kind of expenses and you never hear them talking about it.

“We never played one game in the Armagh county grounds this year, and I know a lot of other counties are the same. Whenever you play on your county’s own ground you take extra pride in your jersey, but instead they’re off on some backwards pitch in the arse-end of nowhere somewhere down the country.”

When they get to that backwards pitch in the arse-end of nowhere, it’s tough to encourage supporters along too. Attendances at games can be very low, but when compared to European standards on women’s sporting finals, Ó Conchúir points out that it can be quite high: “Fifteen thousand would be a massive turnout at an FAI Cup final.”

Increasing attendances would be a key step in increasing the coverage of women’s GAA in the media. As Ó Conchúir says, “You still get the sense that if copy was’t supplied, it wouldn’t necessarily be covered. Coverage will come with attendances, because attendances reflect interest and translate into newspaper sales.”

Motivation

“Younger club girls who I play with are opening up the paper now and seeing my face in it and they think to themselves, Well if she can do it there’s no reason why I can’t.

“It gives girls the motivation to help them realise that: ‘Well you know maybe I can go out and play for the county.’ It’s those small things that will increase the participation rate,” says Shannon Quinn.

More than 1,200 intercounty players, 52 county squads, 1,500 clubs: the sport is growing, the spectacle has been acclaimed. All that’s missing is for us to be able name those three players.

Amanda McLoone (24)

Roscommon football

Amanda plays wing-back or midfield for Roscommon and her home club of St Faithleach’s. She started playing with her school in Ballyleague when she was eight and in her own words: “I was really, really crap at it. But I stuck at it and worked hard because I really wanted to impress my dad.”

The hard work paid off and she made her county debut when she was 15. She also lined out for UCD while she studied nutrition there. She went on to become a fitness instructor.

While playing Longford last August, she tore her cruciate ligament, which led to her missing an All-Ireland semi-final and in need of reconstructive surgery.

During this time she decided to set up a blog called CleanAndLeanSportyGirl, which combined her knowledge of nutrition and training with her story of recovery. The page now has almost 5,000 followers between Facebook and Instagram, and gives advice on how to follow a more nutritious diet which fuels exercise and sports training.

Sarah Donnelly, (27) Ex-Tyrone football

Sarah is a former Tyrone footballer who is now living in Perth and captain of her local team, Southern Districts.

She was 15 when she started playing football for her home club of Trillick. She says that from about the age of 17 her career in football “snowballed”, especially when she went to college in Jordanstown whose “culture for football was massive”. Donnelly won the O’Connor Cup with her college.

A highlight of her time playing in Ireland was beating Cork in the 2010 All-Ireland quarter-final, the only time the Rebels have been stopped in the last 10 years.

After deciding she wanted to travel, she moved to New York in early 2012 and then on to Australia at the end of that year, where she now works as a maths teacher.

Making the decision to leave her county team was tough but that has been eased through playing abroad. “I wouldn’t go anywhere where there wasn’t football. I make my friends through it and it’s a way of having a family when you’re away.”

Donnelly says leaving her club in Australia would now be almost as hard as leaving Tyrone was three years ago.

Trish Jackman, (24) Waterford camogie

Trish plays centre back or midfield for the Waterford camogie team. Her love of the game goes back to 1996, when at the tender age of five she took to celebrating on the streets of New Ross when her mother’s home county of Wexford won the All-Ireland.

Her home club is Gailltir, which she has been playing with since she was seven. Trish spent six years at Waterford Institute of Technology.

Her college team won the Ashbourne Cup five times. Trish also won the All-Ireland Poc Fada final six years in a row. She is now doing a PhD in sports psychology at the University of Lincoln.

Over the past academic year she has spent five weekends in England, flying over and back to train with her Waterford team every other weekend. After playing on the senior county team since she was 15, her decision to continue was simple: “My goal was to play this season. There are far worse things than having to make a trip over and back from England.”

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