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Dublin: 14 °C Tuesday 16 October, 2018
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'The kids were so starstruck by the two of us, which was mad. It's great'

Ahead of this evening’s showdown with Cork, Dublin defender Leah Caffrey reflects on the year that’s been and looks to the future.

IT WAS A dark, cold November evening. A substantial group of the 2017 All-Ireland-winning Dublin team gathered in a pub in Phibsborough.

There was a drink or two taken no doubt, but this wasn’t just any Monday evening in McGowan’s.

Dublin players celebrates with the Brendan Martin Cup Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

RTÉ were airing a documentary charting the Sky Blues’ remarkable year and their rise to finally lifting the Brendan Martin Cup after three years of gut-wrenching defeats in the decider.

Naturally, there were some nerves as the camera panned over Croke Park for a birds-eye view in the opening scene and the story opened with some background as to what had happened in the previous three campaigns.

Reliving those heartbreaking memories, lying on the Croke Park turf in tears as Cork celebrated, between snippets of players sharing their experiences.

But now, they were doing so as from the other side of the line. They had gotten over it. They were winners.

“It was funny,” Leah Caffrey smiles as she recalls the evening.

“There were a good few laughs; the pitch dimensions in particular!” she grins, referencing Ken Robinson’s detailed analysis of each field and sod before games.

“It was brilliant. It gave people an insight into what exactly is going on in every county set-up, not just our own. Every county is at it the same as us.

“It was a good way to let people in a little bit and see a little bit more about the women. They know a lot about the men but they don’t know so much about the women. There was a really positive reaction to it.

“We need to promote our game and we saw that as an opportunity to do that. It definitely sparked a lot of interest. I know people who I’ve been speaking to, they kind of underestimated what we were doing but now they understand.

“It’s great. They respect you more because they understand what you’re doing.”

***

Back to the climax. That final whistle on the biggest stage in Gaelic games. The hooter. The precise moment, and winning feeling, that this group of players had been waiting for for so long.

Leah Caffrey Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

It must be remembered that Dublin and Mayo had played out a thrilling and finely balanced showpiece until the final eight minutes. Two key goals from Sarah McCaffrey and another from the boot of Carla Rowe quickly settled matters though.

There was a 12-point difference in the end, an unfair reflection on Mayo perhaps, but it highlighted just how ruthless and clinical Mick Bohan’s charges were as the curtain came down.

What a moment.

“There was such relief,” Na Fianna defender Caffrey reflects, as she casts her mind back to the sound of that final whistle.

“We were all just absolutely delighted to get over the line. We could actually relax when the final whistle went. I think we all just burst into tears. Everybody couldn’t stop crying.

“We were just so used to (losing). After the last three years, we’d lost, we’d go into the dressing room and cry. This time when we won, we were like, ‘What do we even do? How do we celebrate?’ It was brilliant, it was really great.

“I think every team has a good sense of camaraderie. I think when we lost those three All-Ireland finals, that did really help us to bond together as a team. To come back after that, we all had to be really honest with each other and honest with ourselves. I think that helped us get over the line.”

The bridge between that glorious day at HQ and the 2017 opener against Donegal two weeks ago has been a crazy busy one.

The celebrations, the various commitments involved with being crowned champions; school, hospital and club visits, fundraiser appearances and media duties to name a few, have taken up quite some time.

AIG / Dublin GAA 2018 Season Launch Source: David Fitzgerald/SPORTSFILE

She’s currently studying a Masters in Business at Dublin City University (DCU) and they kicked off their O’Connor Cup campaign with a win during the week. There was a second consecutive All-Star accolade for the 23-year-old too, but she’s fairly modest about that feat: “It’s great for my family and everything but the All-Ireland is the most important thing.”

The shift in interest, she says, has been phenomenal and something she’s noticed first-hand herself. Even just around the local club, it’s not just Johnny Cooper in the limelight anymore.

“If there was an event and say Johnny would be there and I’d be there. Obviously everyone loves….. well, like, Johnny would be a lot more well known.

“The last time we were there, there were kids and they were so starstruck by the two of us which was mad. It’s great. It’s really good to see the younger kids getting more involved.”

She adds, of coming back from the break: “I think when you’re going around the schools and that it’s kind of just a reminder of why you’re doing it.

“We knew we had to go back and start working hard, we knew other counties were back. We were all really looking forward to getting back into it. 2017 has gone now so we’re onto a new year. We haven’t won anything this year so we have to work even harder.”

That said. 2018 has started brightly. Two wins from two Lidl Ladies National Football League fixtures on the road, with young, experimental teams holding their own against last year’s league finalists Donegal and Division 2 holders Westmeath.

Bohan has assembled a panel of 43, with many familiar faces including 2010 All-Ireland winner and All-Star Siobhan McGrath as well younger players including Katie Murray, Eabha Rutledge and Muireann Ni Scannaill among those to return to the fold.

Leah Caffrey and Orla Finn Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Caffrey is well aware that everyone is out to beat the reigning All-Ireland champions and that continues as they’re pitted against old foes Cork in Croke Park this evening [throw-in 5pm, eir sport 1].

Dublin won’t get too carried away though. They’ll make sure their own house is in order first and foremost.

“It’s positive,” she grins.

“It’s great to have new faces coming back. There’s added enthusiasm. Everybody’s competing for a place now, it’s a lot more competitive so it’s really good.

“Every game is going to be very hard and every game is going to be a big challenge. We’re just going to take it one game at a time. We’re always just focusing on the next game.

“We are more of an attacking team, more of a running team and it worked for us last year. The standard is always increasing.

“We’ve all improved our own skills individually and then we’ve also improved our performance collectively as well. Hopefully that will continue, that’s the aim.”

Named to start at corner back, Caffrey is relishing the chance to take to that turf once again. It’s destined to be a fiery encounter as the Dubs look to beat Cork on the biggest stage in Gaelic games for the very first time.

It’s an historic occasion also, as they go head-to-head before the men entertain Donegal and both matches will be broadcast live on terrestrial television. It’s Ephie Fitzgerald’s charges’ first league clash in Croker too.

Double-headers are a huge boost for the game, she nods, urging supporters to get in early and soak in the action before their male counterparts go head-to-head for their three against Cork, Kerry and Mayo.

“That’ll be a really good opportunity for the fans to get in early and support the girls as well as the boys. If they see that it’s just as exciting, just as competitive. It’s important.

AIG / Dublin GAA 2018 Season Launch Source: David Fitzgerald/SPORTSFILE

“There’s a high level of skill in the girls’ game as well. It’d be great just to get that support as well for us because it’s definitely going to be close. They’ll all be very tough.

“It’s just that double-headers are a good platform to promote the ladies game,” she adds, recognising Cork camogie captain Aoife Murray’s opinion that she’d rather standalones to allow the game stand on its own two feet.

“The end goal would definitely be for us to play on our own and to have large support following us. Hopefully if people come along to the double-headers they’ll come along to our other games which won’t be double-headers and we can get a bigger fanbase.”

Of course they’re taking the campaign game by game, as she mentioned already, and their focus lies on the Rebels at GAA HQ this evening.

But much further down the line, after the league has come and gone sits the task of defending their coveted All-Ireland crown and retaining the Brendan Martin Cup in the capital.

That’s the real aim. Two-in-a-row?

“Yep,” she laughs, agreeing as it’s all said in a light-hearted way. She’s laughing, but she’s deadly serious at the same time. That is the real aim.

Dublin players Eimear McCarthy, Dean Rock, Leah Caffrey and Danny Sutcliffe were in Parnell Park last week to kick off the 2018 Dublin GAA Season with team sponsor’s AIG Insurance. 

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Emma Duffy

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