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'If you want people to come and watch, you have to give them something they want to watch'

Dublin star Noelle Healy shares her thoughts and opinions on the ladies’ game ahead of tonight’s historic double-header.

FIVE O’CLOCK CAN’T come quick enough for Noelle Healy.

Noelle Healy celebrates at the final whistle Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Croke Park plays host to the battle of the champions this evening. 2017 All-Ireland senior champions Dublin and 2017 Lidl Ladies National Football League Division 1 winners Cork go head-to-head.

Their history is a coloured one of late. A repeat of the 2014, 2015 and 2016 All-Ireland championship deciders, all edged by the Rebels. The Sky Blues’ showpiece pain was finally numbed last September as they beat Mayo to lift just their second-ever title.

And to the fore of that day was Healy.

She’s no stranger to numbing pain, an anaesthetist by trade having qualified fully in 2015. She’s working in Holles Street at the minute and is bubbly and obliging as ever as she meets the media after a night shift earlier this week.

She’s a realist. She loves what she does both on and off the pitch, and although it’s difficult to do it all at times, she’s aware that if she wants to do it, she has to deal with it.

As she speaks of her profession and balancing each of her commitments, she radiates this refreshing glow. The two just bounce off each other. It’s all she’s ever known.

“It’s the way I enjoy it, it’s what I like doing,” she smiles.

“I’m sure there will come a time where it’s just not feasible to do both and if I’m not enjoying it, there’s no point in forcing it because you’re just going to make yourself miserable.”

She’d rather talk football though.

The St Brigid’s star casts her mind back to the days, weeks and months which followed the 2016 All-Ireland final defeat to — who else — Cork. One point the difference. Heartbreak again. Pure devastation.

Noelle Healy Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Admittedly, she thought that was that. They’d never add a Brendan Martin Cup to that win in 2010. Gregory McGonagle passed off the reins, Mick Bohan took over.

Uncertainty. Would she get that phonecall? Doubt overtook her.

But once it all came to fruition, there was no hesitation in her mind. She was back for more.

“We just love playing football,” she smiles.

“When you get the opportunity to play at that level, you want to keep playing it. Regardless of what you’re thinking about, when the opportunity comes to play football again, you’re not going to turn it down.”

On board once again, no pressure. No looking at All-Irelands. Improve the basic skills, improve oneself as a player. The rest will come.

And it did, with the results evident on 24 September as they were crowned champions and finally numbed that pain.

That was 2017 though. As defending champions, their focus is constantly on the next goal.

“You always just want to keep your standards high and that’s what we’re focusing on; not letting our own standards drop,” she explains.

“We’ve been able to reach a standard of football that we’re happy with but we want to be able to progress it as well. (Bohan) has got massive standards.

“Even after, we weren’t long being told the mistakes we made in the All-Ireland final. Me, myself, at full-forward, not scoring isn’t good enough regardless of what else happened in that match. There’s a lot of stuff that I need to improve on as well.”

Raising the standard of the game in general — basic skill and fitness in particular — is something that Clontarf clubman Bohan has spoken about over and over since taking on life at the helm.

And Healy is first to echo those words.

“If you want people to come and watch, you have to give them something that they want to watch.

Mick Bohan and Noelle Healy celebrate Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“The game has become so much more faster, so much more skilful than it would have been when I was the young girl going watching the All-Ireland finals. It’s a completely different game.

“You don’t have the type of cynicism that the men’s game has. They are generally high scoring games, the score can turn very quickly, the goals just seem to come a bit easier in ladies football. The games are much more exciting, no result is a given until the last few minutes.

“Hopefully, if the skill levels continue to improve the way they have been improving, the audience will increase and increase.”

This evening brings the perfect opportunity to showcase the improvements across the board and to build on the progress made in the game of late.

The battle of the champions at GAA HQ is the first of the double-header series announced by the Ladies Gaelic Football Association (LGFA) last month, a development Healy welcomes with open arms.

It’s something she called firmly for before Christmas while speaking to Peil magazine.

“To be honest, when we were saying that it was more of a wish list and then all these double-headers are popping up everywhere,” she reflects now.

“It’s not just Division 1, it’s not just the big names like Mayo-Dublin or Mayo-Galway. It’s brilliant. It makes sense. If the teams are playing the same day, if it facilitates both at home then why not let the supporters watch and support both teams?

“It just makes sense like. If you’re an inter-county footballer you want to be playing on the best pitches that are available. It’s brilliant, it’s absolute credit to the LGFA and the GAA for making it happen.”

As Jack McCaffrey, who was speaking at the same event and a brother of Dublin forward Sarah, added: “It’s a no-brainer really. You’re kind of wondering why it didn’t happen sooner but it’s great.”

That said, Healy is unsure if she’d be advocate for doubling up billings at championship time, explaining that it’s been proven that ladies football can stand on its own two feet — a record-smashing crowd of 46,286 present at 2017 All-Ireland finals day just one example of how.

“When you think of the crowd that come to our games, it’s young girls,” she says, referring back to calls for an All-Ireland final double-header with both Dublin and Mayo sides in September.

Noelle Healy Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“They’re getting their first taste of a big match occasion, their first taste of an All-Ireland final. The tickets just wouldn’t be available for them if they were going. They’re losing out on that experience.

“I think it would mean the LGFA losing out on a chance to further grow as well. I think the game in itself, which was proven the last day, is a good enough spectacle to show itself.

“It’s a good enough spectacle, not just at the All-Ireland final stage, but provincial final stage and semi-final stage. I think we need to build on that and we need to call on our own players who are playing the game at club level – there’s enough of them – to come out and support and watch their inter-county players play.”

Her face lights up when the news that three of Dublin’s double-header outings will be broadcast live on eir sport, the first of those kicking off at 5pm this evening.

“I was thinking it’ll be funny,” she nods, speaking of how they were doing some coaching with a Gaelscoil that morning.

“My football Irish is probably better than my other Irish from watching games on TG4. It’ll be strange watching commentary in English. TG4 have obviously been brilliant for ladies football.

“But it’s a new audience, it’s a Saturday night game in February. It’ll be brilliant. It’s winter, dark nights, I think people will be more likely to stay in and catch it so hopefully it opens up to a new audience.

“I think it’s a fair reflection of other people taking our sport seriously as well and saying, ‘There will be an audience for this.’ They feel that it’s something that’ll attract attention as well.”

Is it perhaps something that’s been too long coming? No, she doesn’t think so.

The leagues in general, the men’s have only been properly televised over the last few years. It’s only in the last four or five years that you’ve seen them get into Croke Park as well, they had no floodlights until a few years ago.

Noelle Healy kisses the Brendan Martin Cup Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“Ladies football has been blessed with the coverage TG4 have given them. It’s 11 years now and so many games have been televised. I think it’s just a further step in the right direction. I don’t think we’re stamping our foot saying, ‘Now you’re taking notice of us’.

“We’ve made an appealing sport and there’s finally an audience there and when you get an audience, people are going to react to it. You can’t just expect people to give you something because you’re playing a sport, you need to make an argument for yourself why you should be given support or why you should be given a greater audience.”

With two away wins under their belt to Donegal and Westmeath, Healy is relishing today’s assignment. It’s the first Lidl Ladies National Football League Division 1 clash that she’s available for, and what an occasion it’s set to be.

“It’s always nice to get a run out in Croke Park so we’re looking forward to it. Cork and Dublin is always going to get a bit of attention.”

She won’t get too carried away.

Dublin have never won the league. With a panel of 43, Bohan is using it as an experimental period of sorts and making sure he sees as many players as possible.

With many familiar faces returning to the fold — 2010 All-Ireland winner and All-Star Siobhan McGrath one of many — it’s the perfect opportunity to adjust to the style of play and learn more about one another on the field.

Healy will stay grounded though. She won’t lose sight of the end goal.

“Look, I think every competition you go in to, you want to do as best as you can in it,” she answers, when asked if winning the campaign outright is top of the list of goals.

“We’ve never won it so it’d be obviously something nice to do as a team, as a unit that we are, it’d be nice to get another achievement.

Noelle Healy, John Mahony and Jack McCaffrey Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“At the same time, we got an awful lot of benefit from girls getting experience in different positions and also in different games (last year), it gave us the strength of the panel and it people different opportunities to learn how to play and how to build themselves into a game or finish out a game. If you’re playing your strongest team every week, they wouldn’t necessarily get that.

“It’s just about getting that balance right — getting the performance with strengthening their squad. I think that’s the way we’ll go about it again. It’s up to the girls that are getting the chance to play to get the performance and get the win if possible.”

Both with two from two, today’s showdown will obviously have a huge say on the top of the table standings in Division 1. On the contrary to Dublin, Ephie Fitzgerald’s charges are bidding for six-in-a-row.

They’ve never lost to Dublin in Croke Park, and that adds another edge to today’s meeting. Dublin want to overwrite that history, understandably.

The pain would well and truly be numbed then.

But Healy’s utmost respect and admiration for Cork shines through. The sign of a truly brilliant sportsperson.

“Just their pure ability to grind out games and their self-belief is an absolute inspiration,” she concludes.

“Even when you meet them off the pitch as well, they’re lovely, they’re humble, friendly, they’re open, they’ll chat away to you. They’re everything that you’d want in a football team, they’re always absolutely brilliant ambassadors

“They’ve been the standard bearers and they still are the standard bearers.”

Denis Mahony Motor Group has renewed its support of Dublin footballer Jack McCaffrey and Dublin Ladies footballer Noelle Healy.

By simply registering to take a test drive in any Toyota Hybrid model at either of Denis Mahony Toyota branches, drivers can nominate a local GAA club of their choice to be in with a chance of winning an exclusive training masterclass, led by Jack and Noelle and held at their own club. For more information, see: http://www.denismahony.ie/web/test-drive-competition/  

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Emma Duffy

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