The big prize beckons for a pioneer

LAST October, with just two weeks to go before the birth of her fourth child, you would think football would have been the furthest…

LAST October, with just two weeks to go before the birth of her fourth child, you would think football would have been the furthest thing from Brenda McAnespie's mind. However, the 30 year old native of Scotstown in Monaghan was a frustrated spectator at the women's AllIreland football final as she watched her, county lose for the second year running to Waterford.

Tomorrow afternoon her 11 month old son Ryan will be in Aughnacloy with his father's family while his mother takes to the field at Croke Park against Laois in search of her county's first senior women's title.

"I was there in the Hogan Stand watching them, I felt much for them that they didn't win. I'd halve gone out in a minute - it's far easier playing than watching, you can't do anything for the girls, you're just sitting there. At least if you're playing some days you might be fit to do something for them, some days you mightn't but at least you're involved," says McAnespie.

Ryan was born on October 12th and despite being advised to take a break of a few months from the game his mother was back playing club football for Monaghan Harps in weeks. The decision to return to football wasn't taken lightly with four children under six and a full time job in the FAS office in Monaghan Town to occupy her time. Deciding to give it all up, she insists, would have been harder.


"I think it's just a love of the game that makes me come back. I always loved football from when I was a child, I mean it's just me. It's a challenge as well, especially this year because there were the twins (six year old Aoife and Ciara) and Shauna was a troublesome enough baby. Then when I had Ryan I said right, I'll give it one more go to win the senior and if we win it I'll decide what I'll do next year . . . but that's the big dream, to win the senior."

Almost 100 training sessions, two months of gym work and hill training demanded total dedication from all the Monaghan players from January on and McAnespie admits she will welcome the rest once the final is over. "It took a lot of commitment and a lot of time away from the wee ones. I think I'll be glad when it's over, just for a break, but I don't know if I could ever give it up - the wee ones will probably be playing along with me in no time.

Aoife, Ciara and Shauna will have a lot to thank their mother for if they ever decide to follow her path to Gaelic football. While the women's game is now booming in Monaghan, as it is in many other counties around the country, it was a different story when the pioneering Brenda Mohan was a schoolgirl.

"They used to all say that I was a tomboy when I was a child because I always loved football and I followed Scotstown who were doing really well at the time. Then when we were about 10 or 11 Maureen Boylan and myself played on the boys' under 12 team in school and we won the 1978 county championship. I think we were the only two girls playing in the whole county but we had to play with the boys because there was no ladies' football at that time.

Everybody thought we were boys anyway - at that stage you couldn't tell the difference. I think this other girl and myself were always very tomboyish, we were strong and nobody really knew the difference so we got away with it. The boys just looked on us as one of themselves.

The man McAnespie credits for giving her the chance to play on the boy's team was Sean McCague, then principal of Urbleshanny National School.

"Sean used to take us out every lunchtime and just give us the basic skills and training in football.

"That will always stand to me. Even going back now you remember every single thing that he taught you. Even after school he took us down to the football field and played away, it was really him who got me involved."

McCague, who was appointed joint manager with Eamonn McEneaney of the Monaghan men's team earlier this week, has vivid memories of McAnespie as a schoolgirl. "I remember Brenda and her great pal Maureen Boylan well. They both got on to the boys' team purely on merit, they were equally proficient in the skills of the game.

"Lord rest him, the man who was principal before me wasn't very taken with the idea of girls playing football, he thought it was a bit tomboyish, but when I took over in 1977 anyone who wanted to play could play," says McCague.

"I don't think I was ahead of my time, I think Brenda and Maureen were - they were football crazy and were always playing in the playground. I can remember Brenda as an 11 or 12 year old and she was so exuberant about the game that it would have been practically impossible for me to stop her playing even if I'd wanted to."

WHEN she reached the age of 13 or 14 was no longer allowed to play on the boys teams partly, she says, due to the pressure of concerned mothers who "were afraid we might get injured. The boys were getting stronger at that stage and we were changing."

With no Gaelic football team to play for she turned to soccer, her second sporting passion, and played as goalkeeper for Monaghan's indoor team. Her hero at the time was Gordon Banks and that revelation leads to a startling confession, made with the air of someone just relieved to remove a large skeleton from her closet.

"When we were at school everyone had a team to follow and . . . I get slagged an awful lot about this at the minute because ... I support Stoke," she admits as she buries her face in her hands. "When I was seven or eight I had my mother driven astray because I used to cry every time they were beaten, which was quite often."

This passion for Stoke led McAnespie to do things as a child that still cause her great embarrassment as an adult. "Much to, my shame I wrote to Jim'll Fix it' to see Stoke playing. He was supposed to make dreams came true but he didn't make mine, I never got to see them.

"I started following them when I got the wee Leaf chewing gum which used to have player profiles in them and mine had Gordon Banks. I remember the words on it were `the best goalkeeper in the world' and from that I supported them."

While she tried to cope with life as a Stoke City fan, she reverted to the role of a Gaelic football spectator, following the fortunes of Scotstown's men's football team and working as PRO for the club for three years. In 1989 she married Vincent, and two years later women's football in Monaghan was officially born. "I've been playing ever since ... between being out for a year now and then."

The county's first year in competition was an unsuccessful one. "We were being beaten well in every single game". But in 1992 they achieved senior status beating London, with McAnespie in the team, in the junior All Ireland final. The following year they lost to Waterford in the senior semi final and have been beaten by the same county in the last two finals.

The Waterford jinx finally came to an end in this year's semi final when Monaghan had a comfortable victory and now McAnespie, who usually fills the right half back position for the county, is looking forward to her second senior final.

Whatever happens tomorrow she hopes it will be a good advertisement for the women's game although she believes there are some people whose views will never be changed. "Of course you have people with a negative attitude to girls playing football. A lot of them think it's a joke but they've never been at a match. Once somebody has gone and watched it they realise that `God, they can play'.

"Sometimes those attitudes annoy me but you expect it, it's like camogie, it's like hockey. You probably have to face reality. It's the same for all women's sports everywhere, so you just accept it. If you let it bother you, you probably wouldn't play."

However, McAnespie has been delighted with the reaction of the people of Monaghan to the team's success this year and she hopes they can reward them for their support by returning home on Monday with the Brendan Martin Cup. "The fact is that there isn't that much excitement with men's football in Monaghan at the minute so now with the ladies coming into it hopefully it's bringing something back to the county. It gives them something to shout for."

Mary Hannigan

Mary Hannigan

Mary Hannigan is a sports writer with The Irish Times