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Bottling hurt from 'disappointing' end to 2020, saluting big departures and chasing glory under new boss

Galway star Áine McDonagh on Tim Rabbitt’s departure, Gerry Fahy’s arrival and Sinéad Burke’s retirement.

Áine McDonagh after the 2020 All-Ireland semi-final.
Áine McDonagh after the 2020 All-Ireland semi-final.
Image: Bryan Keane/INPHO

ÁINE MCDONAGH, LIKE everyone else involved, would rather not dwell on it.

The All-Ireland semi-final debacle of December 2020 is well documented at this stage: Cork and Galway’s battle for a place in the final, which was overshadowed by off-field matters.

The second of two venue changes a last-minute one from Parnell Park to Croke Park, with the throw-in time changed and Galway left with a seven-minute warm-up. The fallout in the media. The war of words between Tim Rabbitt and the Ladies Gaelic Football Association [LGFA].

“I think the whole thing was just very disappointing,” McDonagh tells The42. The Galway star recalls the situation bit by bit from a player’s perspective: how Rabbitt told his side of the change on the bus, how others were excited about the move to HQ, but she worried.

“I remember I turned to Megan Glynn and I was like, ‘There’s no way we’re making it up to Croke Park in time.’ I knew the distance, I’ve been up there a good few times, I was like, ‘We’re very far out, I don’t think we’re gonna make it.’”

She didn’t voice her opinion too much, conscious that any potential time issues had likely already been discussed. The arrival to Croke Park is one she’ll never forget.

I felt like I was back in school and I was after turning up late to a class and everyone was being given out to, almost as if like, ‘Get out as quick as you can.’ Even when we were running across the pitch, there were a few words being shouted at us from the officials, basically saying that the ball was being thrown in with or without us.

“Don’t get me wrong, Cork would have bet us with or without the proper warm up but I think the whole thing was just a bit disheartening when you’ve been training for so long and especially the year that everyone had.

“We just were looking for a good, fair game, but that’s not really what turned out on the day. It is disappointing looking back on it but you can’t dwell on it too much. I don’t think it would have changed the result but listen, it is what it is. You kind of have to get over it, and hopefully we can take a little bit of that hurt and bring it into next year — and make sure that there will be no excuses. We’ve just got to bring our A game.”

Rabbitt announced that he was stepping down in early January, stating that it was time for change.

tim-rabbitte Departed Galway boss Rabbitt. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

In an emotional parting statement, he referred to the controversial last-four battle, after which he was prominent in the media, as “disappointing” and a “dark cloud.”

His exit wasn’t to be the end of the ugly aftermath, however; LGFA CEO Helen O’Rourke saying that Rabbitt “attempted to destroy the integrity” of the Association in her annual report ahead of Congress, an accusation the former boss said he was “deeply hurt” by.

For players watching on, the fallout was undoubtedly tough. And even more so given it took the gloss off how brilliant Rabbitt’s  reign was, and the excellent progress made. In his two-year tenure, he led the side to their first All-Ireland final since 2004, a Connacht title and a Division 1 National League final. 

“I think it did tint his whole stint in a poor light which I think was very undeserving,” McDonagh nods. 

“When Tim came into the panel, he brought a different professionalism into the team and he really did bring us on leaps and bounds. I do think he was he was a great manager.

I didn’t think the light that was shone on him was fair. He really deserved a better leave but he was a great servant to Galway ladies at the end of the day, and I think that’s what he should be remembered for instead of the last day out.”

Another great servant McDonagh rues the loss of is Sinéad Burke, the two-time All-Star recently bringing the curtain down on her 14-year inter-county career.

One of Galway’s greatest, on and off the field, Burke will be sadly missed.

“I have to say I was very gutted to hear that Sinéad was leaving,” Moycullen star McDonagh says. “I think I was 18 going into that panel and from the second that I saw Sinéad Burke play, I was in absolute awe of her.

sinead-cafferky-with-sinead-burke Burke facing Mayo in 2019. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“She’s still, to this day, the one person that I’m like, ‘Please do not come near me’ playing! She’s so good, and she goes so unnoticed sometimes, the work that she does and the way that she plays, ah she’s an absolute joy to watch.

“The first year that I was on the panel, our first championship game was the Connacht final against Mayo. She was marking Cora Staunton and obviously everyone knows how amazing Cora Staunton is, she’s an absolute stalwart. But I remember Sinéad Burke had her in the corner and in the blink of an eye, Sinéad had her stripped and gone the other way. Cora was left standing, I was left standing, I think everyone was left standing saying, ‘How did you just do that?’

I was really sad seeing her leave and to be honest, someone has extremely big shoes to fill because she’s a real character. When I came in first she was so welcoming and you know, always pulling me in, saying, ‘If you ever need anything, just let me know’. She’d give me lifts to training and everything. She really will be sorely missed.”

Those shoes must be filled, just like those of Rabbitt. Gerry Fahy will do just that.

Well known in Tribe football circles, Fahy steered the county’s U21s to the All-Ireland final. He is no stranger to this side either, having been involved in the backroom team last year. 

That continuity and familiarity is certainly welcome, and will be useful given the potentially short turnaround when inter-county activity resumes.

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“I’m very excited to be working with Gerry,” McDonagh nods. “I think he’s a really special guy, he has a lot of knowledge on the game and from having him in last year, that was quite obvious. I think he will definitely bring something new to the team.

“He has a great backroom team in there as well. [2004 All-Ireland winning captain] Annette Clarke is in, I think everyone that knows football knows Annette Clarke. I haven’t worked with her yet, but I’ve played against her and I’ve seen enough of her to know that she knows exactly what she’s going to be on about.

gerry-fahy New manager Fahy. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“I think it’s gonna be really exciting. It’s new, but we’re used to it as well with Gerry being in there. We all know him well. I think it’s really exciting going in and hopefully we’ll have a good stab at it this year.”

She won’t let herself dream too much of winning an All-Ireland title just yet, but she knows that the potential is certainly there, with so much incredible talent still so young.

“There’s still a lot of work that we need to do to get to the standards of say Cork and Dublin and the likes,” she concludes. “There’s few things we need to fix.

“Obviously it would be massive. I think it’d be massive for any county at this stage to win the All-Ireland final, but Dublin are obviously the standard setters and we need to push on to reach those standards and then hopefully go further.

“We’re definitely on the way there.”

********************

NUIG Mystics and Ireland underage international Áine McDonagh was speaking at the announcement of NUI Galway as a Basketball Ireland Centre of Excellence.

nui-galway-announced-as-a-basketball-ireland-centre-of-excellence McDonagh at the announcement of NUI Galway as a Basketball Ireland Centre of Excellence. Source: Eóin Noonan/SPORTSFILE

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Emma Duffy

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