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Sinéad Aherne looking to erase Dublin’s painful past

After number of heartbreaking finals, captain is keen to triumph over Mayo on Sunday

Cork’s Brid Stack and Dublin’s Sinéad Aherne in the 2014 All-Ireland Ladies Senior Football Championship Final. Dublin were 10 points up with 16 minutes to go but Cork came back to win it. Photograph: Alan Betson

It’s a common enough sight after Dublin training, a lone figure out on the pitch, taking free after free after free from every possible angle. Practice might not make Dean Rock and Sinéad Aherne perfect, but they both know it gets you closer.

After last year’s All-Ireland quarter-finals, when she missed a few frees she knew she should have been nailing, the pair teamed up for a couple of evenings, just to share a few thoughts on the process.

A couple of weeks later: the All-Ireland semi-finals, the sides levels. Aherne won a free out on the left and with just seven seconds of the game to go, she sent the ball sailing over the bar. She did unto Mayo what Rock did unto the same county last Sunday. Left their hearts in smithereens.

“That’s why we practise,” she smiles. “You just stick to your usual routine, it’s almost mechanical, you’ve been in the situation hundreds of times before. You try to stay calm, keep a clear head, not let the excitement get to you – if you let that in, your concentration is gone. It’s just about bringing it back to that routine, doing what you always do.”

Dublin’s Sinéad Aherne celebrates her goal in the 2010 All-Ireland Ladies Senior Football Championship Final. Aherne scored 2-7 that day to ensure a victory over Tyrone. Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Mayo manager Frank Browne talked earlier this year about how his players used the pain of that moment to drive them on in 2017, their determination to banish the shattering memory making them dig that little bit deeper to reach their first final since 2007.

But Dublin are no strangers to pain either: their defeat by Cork in last year’s final was their third in as many years to the same county. To this day they can’t figure out how they lost the 2014 final when they were 10 points up with 16 minutes to go. Since 2003 they’ve played in seven finals in all and have lost six. Three of them by one point, two by two.

Pain? They’ve had it in spades.

Unimaginable

The one bright spot on that journey was their 2010 victory over Tyrone, Aherne’s 2-7 that day winning her the Player of the Match award. It remains Dublin’s only senior All-Ireland title, a prospect that would have seemed unimaginable to this year’s captain when she first came on to the panel as a 17-year-old.

It was 2003. By then she’d left behind her other sporting passions, basketball and hockey, to concentrate on Gaelic football, encouraged by her progress with St Sylvester’s in her native Malahide, where she’d played from under-12s up.

She was barely on the senior panel when she found herself running on to the Croke Park pitch as a 40th-minute substitute in the All-Ireland final, the teenager looking to the manor born when she cut in from the right and chipped over with her left to level the game. Three minutes from time Dublin went a point up, only to concede a last-minute goal. Their conquerors? The team they meet on Sunday, Mayo.

Full circle?

“Ha, it feels a bit that way, yeah,” she laughs, “and Mick [Bohan] was manager that day too,” she says of the man who returned for his second spell in charge of the team last December. “My memory of that day is just being so carefree, really. When you’re that young and not much is expected of you, that’s how you are. And you probably think you’ll get there every year, you don’t have that much appreciation of what goes in to it, how much work it takes to get there. It’s when you go through the leaner years that you learn.”

Dublin’s Sinéad Aherne in action against Tyrone player Eimear Teague in the All-Ireland Ladies Gaelic Football quater-final in 2005

“And Mayo and ourselves have had a lot of disappointments over the years, that was their last All-Ireland win having been so successful for a long spell. So, we can both use the pain of defeat. It’s a grim winter after you lose an All-Ireland, but when it rolls around to January, much as you’re struggling to get your head back in to it, you remember all the reasons why you got involved in the first place and why you stay involved. Then you’re back in it again.”

“You just have to be resilient. There’s a fire in this team, we want to push ourselves, to get the most out of ourselves. In all the finals we lost we would have been disappointed with the performance, we got so far in the games but we just didn’t complete it. I think that’s the biggest motivating factor, the feeling that you just haven’t done yourself justice.”

Sixth final

This will be Aherne’s sixth final, having taken 2015 out to go travelling before returning to her job as an accountant with KPMG. “I suppose there are certain things you miss out on when you’re involved that long, but I’ve certainly got as much, probably more, out of it than I’ve put in. Most of all, the friendships. And the way we felt after winning in 2010, it made it all worthwhile.”

Now she’s hoping history will repeat. Since 2005, Cork have only been knocked out of the championship twice, during which time they won 11 titles. The first of those defeats was at the hands of Tyrone in the 2010 quarter-finals – and Tyrone went on to lose to Dublin in the final. The second of the defeats? To Mayo in last month’s semi-finals. And?

Dublin’s Sinéad Aherne in action in the All-Ireland Football Championship quarter-final last year. Photograph: Tom Beary/Inpho

“Fingers crossed,” she laughs, willing a pattern to develop. “But it’s been that kind of year. You look at Mayo losing to Galway in the Connacht final, then Cork hammering Galway in the quarters and then losing to Mayo in the semi-finals. Anyone can beat anyone, it was that way in the league too. We always wanted to measure ourselves against Cork, the standards they set. They were out in front for a long while, but gradually everyone stepped up to the pace they set. Now it’s ourselves and Mayo fighting it out.”

Any mixed feelings about not having another crack at Cork on Sunday?

“Well, I don’t think we’ll be short of motivation for playing Mayo either,” she laughs.

Plenty of pain to be erased, after all.