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Sonia O'Sullivan: Inspirational women’s football final an example to other sports

Dublin and Mayo produced a great occasion at Croke Park in front of a huge crowd

Mayo’s Sarah Rowe is challenged by Dublin’s Lauren Magee and Martha Byrne. The speed, the skill, the passion of the game thrilled the 46,286 fans in Croke Park. Photograph: Cody Glenn/Sportsfile

I found myself in Croke Park last Sunday and on the final whistle turned to John Treacy in the seat next to me.

“No silver medals for finishing second here, John”.

It was after several years of trying my first time to attend the women’s All-Ireland football final. And just like the noise and atmosphere and fanatical support, nothing had prepared me for the intense level of competition.

The final scene was more like a battlefield. There were the Dublin players, ecstatic in their moment of victory, while many of the Mayo players were strewn across the pitch, devastated in defeat.

The scoreboard in no way reflected the effort it had taken Dublin to win, closing out the second half the dominant team, Mayo fighting until they could fight no more. A bit like coming fourth in the Olympics, a feeling I also know too well.

Mayo’s Sarah Rowe is tackled by Dublin’s Martha Byrne at Croke Park. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

I’ve been to Croke Park many times over the years, and this was an occasion to match any of them. I’ve also got to run a couple of laps of Croke Park, sharing some of my own successes with a full stadium as part of the pre-match build-up.

In 1998 I ran a lap when the lilywhites of Kildare took on the might of Galway, I couldn’t resist taking off my black top uncovering a white shirt to join the sea of white as I passed by Hill 16. Just for a bit of fun.

In 1999 I was back there to see Cork lift the Liam MacCarthy, and only last week came across a picture of my then 10-week old daughter Ciara fitting neatly into the cup as we boarded the coach to congratulate the winning team.

The climax of the hurling and football seasons always coincided with the end of the European athletics season, so it was only after my career finished that I was able to think about being there on All-Ireland final day.

Same with the camogie and women’s football final. For the last couple of years I wasn’t in Dublin on the day, and often found myself listening on the car radio in some far flung corner of West Cork, then reading all the detail in the newspaper the following day.

About two weeks ago I was back in Croke Park to pick up my Olympic silver medal from Sydney 2000, which had been on display in the GAA Museum throughout 2016 as part of a special display of nearly every Irish Olympic medal ever won. That’s when I realised I’d be back staying in the Croke Park Hotel on the same weekend as the women’s football final.

Great buzz

I was there to take part in The Ireland Funds 5km event along the Clontarf seafront on Saturday morning, then The Great Dublin Bike ride on Sunday morning. Just a few activities on the weekend before flying back to Australia. It’s nice to have a few active days like that before a long-haul flight.

Still I wasn’t sure if I’d have the time to make the game. On the Friday evening, I bumped in to a few lads from Kerry in the hotel lift, wondering why they were in town. I soon found out they were the referees for Sunday’s game, and already the excitement was building. 

The logistics were starting to spin around in my head, and if I finished the cycle in time, there was no reason not to be in Croke Park. It would have been nice for Cork to be in the final, but all I had to do was walk across the road from the hotel and get a first-hand experience of the game.

I’d also met Cora Staunton a few times on trips to Mayo, reason enough to go and watch one of the greatest women’s Gaelic footballers ever, and a very nice person too. I’d heard her give a radio interview during the week and that further piqued my interest to go along.

Dublin’s Niamh McEvoy is tackled by Mayo’s Sarah Tierney during the All-Ireland final at Croke Park. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

I was thinking the best thing would be to just turn up and get a ticket on the day, still weighing up the option of sitting in the stands after 100km on the bike, or heading over to the comfort of a couch in a friend’s house.

There was also great buzz around the hotel on the Saturday evening, several former women’s All-Ireland football champions wandering around, mixing with enthusiastic supporters up for the weekend.

Early on Sunday morning I was standing at the start of the Great Dublin Bike ride alongside John Treacy, who was there with his Sport Ireland cap on, also getting ready for the biggest cycle sportive to take place in Dublin. It’s hard to believe John won his Olympic silver medal 33 years ago already... also hard to believe it’s 17 years since Sydney.

We got talking about the finals at Croke Park later in the afternoon, and straightaway John told me it was one of his favourite sporting events, that he had a spare ticket in his car, and to definitely come along. My mind was made up, still plenty time to make the 4pm throw-in.

Then, as I was cycling back to the hotel, the Tipperary intermediate team were being whisked towards Croke Park by a police escort. Very impressive.

The atmosphere was certainly building, and I couldn’t believe the crowds heading into the stadium. Mostly mothers and daughters, yes, but also large groups of young girls from schools and clubs, all walking proudly in their team colours, singing and waving flags.

Founding members

I tried to disappear into the lift so that I could quickly change and get ready to head across the road. When there is a buzz and energy you just want to join in and be a part of the carnival atmosphere as soon as you can.

From the moment the ball was thrown in for the senior game my attention was grabbed. If any young girls in attendance needed inspiration to work hard and play hard, this game had it all. The speed, the skill, the passion could be felt throughout the stadium and the appreciation of the 46,286 fans could be heard for every second of the game.

I’d been reading up about the Mayo and Dublin teams during the week. There were emotional favourites and statistical favourites, but neither team were willing to give an inch.

I’d also read about the Brendan Martin Cup that morning and wondered why it was called that. Then one of the first people to come and talk to me when I arrived in the stadium was Brendan Martin himself, one of the founding members of the women’s Gaelic football championship. He gave me a quick history lesson on the women’s game, how much it had grown and changed throughout the years. 

I certainly left Croke Park inspired and motivated by what I’d seen, and can easily imagine it having the same impact on any young girl wanting to play a sport. That’s both a blessing for the future of women’s football and a challenge for other sports to provide that same level of inspiration.