Galway's Tracey Leonard: Being a ‘nearly team’ drives us on
Galway captain says Dublin have raised the standard, and it is up to other teams to get there
Galway’s Tracey Leonard and Sinead Goldrick of Dublin in a Division 1 semi-final in Kinnegad, Co Westmeath. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho
Until that final whistle in Croke Park last month, Tracey Leonard would have been forgiven for believing it just was never going to be for Galway. Since making her senior debut close to a decade ago, their Championship journey had ended at the semi-final stage on four occasions, and four more times in the quarter-finals.
And even if she and her team-mates remained hell-bent on getting their county to their first final since 2005, there were others who doubted the players had it in them.
“We were being labelled a ‘nearly team’, called bottlers when it came to semi-finals, but that’s just the kind of stuff that drives you on,” says the Galway captain. “So for us to push over the line this time was … well, it was a dream come true.”
Last year’s seven point defeat by Dublin in the semi-finals was the latest of the bitter pills, but Leonard still took encouragement from the campaign, not least because Galway’s success at underage level was bringing fresh, gifted blood into the senior panel all the while.
However, last October manager Stephen Glennon, a journalist with the Connacht Tribune, stepped down from the job after two years in charge, having led the team to back-to-back Connacht titles, family and work commitments making it impossible for him to continue in the role.
Leonard feared they were back to square one. She had lost count, but she reckoned Galway had had 10 managers in 12 years, so every time it felt like the team was progressing they had to start from scratch under a new regime.
Yet this time around there was a seamlessness to the handover with the appointment of Tim Rabbitt, who had worked alongside Glennon.
“And we just sighed with relief,” says Leonard, “Continuity of management was what we needed, and with Tim taking over we had that. When it’s someone brand new it can take a couple of years to develop a relationship, but we had already worked with Tim, so we had that continuity and consistency.
“Stephen played such a huge role in ladies football in Galway, and he has to take huge credit for us getting to where we are today. But it was left in safe hands with Tim.”
And there followed a league campaign that offered plenty more encouragement, Galway winning six of their seven Division One games – Dublin were the only side to beat them in the group phase – before reaching the final by getting the better of Donegal in the last four. They lost by two points to Cork in the final, but they went into the Championship season with a spring in their step.
Two goals from the prolific Leonard helped Galway to their seventh Connacht title in eight years when they beat Mayo in a replay. Further victories over Kerry, Westmeath and Waterford took them back to the semi-finals where, of all people, they were up against Mayo again. A rollercoaster of a game it was too, one that wasn’t settled until the captain’s cousin Roisin Leonard kicked a late free to end that 14-year drought.
And for every member of the Galway team it was a Croke Park debut. Yet rather than being overwhelmed, says Leonard, they were inspired by playing in the stadium.
“It was a great experience for us all, the memory of a lifetime. It was our dream to play there. When you come out on to the pitch at first it can be a little overwhelming, when you look up around you and see the crowd, but once the ball is thrown in it feels like any other pitch.
“And fair dues to the girls, they took to Croke Park like they do to any other pitch. It’s great to have the experience of playing there under our belts, it becomes less of an issue now for the final.”
The 27-year-old’s memories of Galway’s only All-Ireland victory, when they beat Dublin back in 2004, are, she says, “vague enough”, but getting to play alongside some of that day’s winning team when she joined the panel as a 19-year-old was, she says, a thrill.
“I would have togged out with a lot of those players when I came into the senior team. They would have been role models and idols for me, so getting to play and train with them was a brilliant learning experience. And by winning that All Ireland they showed us that Galway could do it – every player who came after knew it was achievable.
“But we haven’t been there since 2005 [when they lost to Cork] and when you look at all the minor successes we’ve had, it’s a shame we haven’t been able to build on them and have more senior success. But at last we’re back in the final and have that chance now.”
If you had told Leonard, a nurse in the hepatology unit at University Hospital Galway, back in 2016 that she would one day play in an All-Ireland final she would have doubted you as at that stage she wondered if she would ever play again. After suffering a cruciate injury in a league game against Mayo in Tuam, she was out for almost a year, the road to recovery a lonely and painful one.
“When you suffer an injury like that, and you’re at your lowest point, it can feel like the end of your life. You’re left feeling down and out. And one of the hardest parts of it is the loneliness when you’re so used to be surrounded by the girls.
“It was tough to take, but I’m able to look back on it now and see it almost as a positive experience because mentally it has driven me on, and made me realise just how important football is to me.
“I love being part of a group that is willing to learn and put in so much hard work. It’s a joy to be part of, going out with them in the evening, it’s what I love. So I look back on it as a big lesson in life. And definitely, if you’d told me then I’d make it to an All-Ireland final one day, I’d have taken it with both hands.”
But not that too many give Leonard and her team much chance of getting the better of the three-in-a-row-seeking Dubs, the bookies putting the defending champions odds at a remarkable 10-1 on.
“Well, they’ve been the standard bearers for the last couple of years. They’ve had their share of heartbreak, but they’ve come good, fair play to them. We have huge respect and admiration for them. When we played them last year I was amazed by the strength and pace they brought to the game. They’ve raised the standards, and it’s up to the rest of us to get to the level they’re at.”
“But we’re relishing going in and playing this Dublin team. We have a young side that knows no fear, that semi-final win has given us huge confidence, so talk of us having no chance is just added motivation.
“Sometimes the game of football can be overcomplicated or over-analysed when it’s simple enough. So we just need to focus on our own performance and on what we can control. It’s great to be back in a final, but it’s one thing getting there – it’s another coming away with the prize. And that’s what we’ll try to do.”