Unfinished business brings McGrath back to Dublin fold
Long-serving defender walked away in 2014 but is back for another All-Ireland final
Siobhán McGrath: “Every year it [women’s football] just gets better. It’s a much higher standard than 2003.” Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Up until she left town at the end of 2014, Siobhán McGrath had known no other life than that of a Dublin footballer. As a 15-year-old away back in 2003, Mick Bohan smuggled her in along with Sinead Aherne and told her she was a senior now. At times, she would have been forgiven for wondering whether she should thank him or curse him.
By the time she upped sticks and headed for Australia at the age of 26, she’d been around for four All-Ireland final defeats, with only a single winner’s medal in 2010 to act as a makeweight. Her last act as a Dublin player was the horror show ending to the 2014 final when Cork outscored them 2-7 to 0-2 in the last 15 minutes to beat them by a point.
“I just needed a break from everything,” she says. “Life was just very regimented and seriously committed and I just needed to go and be different for a little while.
“I was leaving anyway [regardless of the Cork defeat]. I was just hoping to leave on a high – that didn’t work out! I’d decided I’d done enough years and at the time I didn’t think I was coming back to this level.”
So why did you?
“I don’t know! Ah, I think you always have that in you. I really enjoyed my time away and when I came home last year... you think you’re happy with that lifestyle but then you realise that’s what really in you. That you like to be that competitive. You like to have that drive and I really missed it. You’re still playing senior club football but it’s just not the same thing.”
Bohan has known McGrath and her family from way back. Her father John played for Clare in three different decades and when Bohan was a selector for Colm Collins, her brother Shane transferred down. Bohan used to slag him that they’d have been really cooking if they’d got Siobhán instead.
Though she was still in Australia when he took the Dublin job this time around, as soon as he heard she was back in the country, he made sure she knew there was a spot for her if she wanted it. She didn’t. Or more accurately, she couldn’t. Not given the timescale involved.
“I had spoken to her last April,” Bohan says. “She was back in Ireland but she was looking to review a visa to go back to Australia. She said, ‘Look, I wouldn’t be close to where those guys are at and I’m not coming back to let myself down’.
“I was trying to convince here that there was plenty of time between April and August or September if it was to go well but she said no. ‘They’ve done the hard yards and I haven’t’.
“I think there was huge doubt in her head. She’s one of those people, like Sinead Aherne – if she hasn’t ticked all the boxes, she can’t jump. But she’s been an incredible leader to the younger kids. She doesn’t say anything – it’s just the way she goes about her business. You’d have to admire people like that.”
Women’s football is different now. Anyone can see it. McGrath has been around for every new rung on the ladder. Every innovation, every step forward. Even when she came back in early this year, the changes since she left in 2014 were obvious.
“The first night back was daunting. I obviously knew I had so much work to do, the conditioning, strength, fitness, speed. Everything’s at a different level from the year years since I’ve been gone.
“I just think the science of everything has changed and the game and the funding has grown so much. Every year it just gets better. It’s a much higher standard than 2003. In 2003, Mick was the manager then too and there was a massive jump then from the year before.
“He brought it in that level of more commitment. Lifestyle has always been like that for me – we had to always be strict but the level of conditioning has improved so much. You were always restricting your diet but every year you came back it’s tweaked a little bit more and you find out more about how to get it to fuel your body.
“The level of how hard you push your body [is the biggest change]. Now there’s more emphasis on controlling it, making sure the body is right rather than just, ‘Get out there and run 20 miles and push yourself as hard as you can’. Back then a manager would pretty much have been delighted to see his team puking at the end of a training session. The control is so much better now.”
So here she is, back in harness, back in another All-Ireland final. Two of the four defeats have come at Cork’s hands, although she won’t cop to any particular ill-feeling for tomorrow’s opponents.
“I think we just have to trust and believe in our ability and what we’ve been working on. Dublin and Cork have improved in the past year, it’s all about the performance on the day.”
Always has been.