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A glittering first season in Oz, Gaelic football on hold and home to a GAA-mad family to find her passion

Cavan and Collingwood star Aishling Sheridan has enjoyed a hectic few months at opposite ends of the world.

Collingwood and Cavan star Aishling Sheridan.
Collingwood and Cavan star Aishling Sheridan.
Image: AAP/PA Images

Updated Jun 7th 2020, 12:00 PM

BACK TO BASICS in rural county Cavan.

The Australian dream came to an abrupt close as the world got to grips with the Covid-19 crisis and Aishling Sheridan soon found herself on an extremely long flight back to the Emerald Isle after an impressive debut season at Collingwood. 

One minute the Aussie Rules season was going ahead, the next it was curtailed. One minute her side were in the finals, they next they weren’t. When all was cleared up, Collingwood were included but watching the Irish shutdown from afar, Sheridan knew what was coming.

“It was literally a roller coaster,” the Cavan CrossCoder tells The42. “We trained on the Friday before the finals weekend and I said to some of the girls: ‘I feel like this is going to be my last training session in a group environment for a very long time.’”

Here she is three months later, still sitting tight.

The Pies lost out in the end but shortly after their game, the season was pulled. The scramble for a flight home began when they were out for food and the news notifications started rolling in about airports closing and airlines cancelling flights.

It really hit home then. After plenty of panic packing, her Irish team-mate and good friend Sarah Rowe headed home the next day and Sheridan followed suit shortly afterwards. Eventually — following lots of confusion and cancelled flights in between.

After a 24-hour airplane journey and plenty of Covid-19 precautions and protocols en route, Sheridan was never as happy to see her beloved Mullahoran.

“It definitely has been a massive change,” the 23-year-old says now, happy to be home and counting her blessings to be living in the countryside. Thankfully, her training routine can continue in the fields and grass around her house, and in the garden shed gym. 

“Everything has pretty much snowballed: I’m back training, doing my gym and running. It nearly feels like I’m in pre-season again, just not knowing when the season will start. But everything’s been fine, thankfully.”

This chunk of time being spent with her family is invaluable, especially after her stint Down Under. The youngest of four sisters — Louise, Mona and Geraldine are excellent footballers too — it’s almost like they’re reliving their childhood. 

They’ve unearthed videos of their father, Gerry, in action back in his day having never seen him play football before and everyone is enjoying the slower pace of life. A family steeped in GAA history, Gerry managed Cavan — and his daughters — to All-Ireland intermediate glory in 2013 while his wife, Monica, still lines out for the club, remarkably.

aishling-sheridan In action for Cavan in 2017. Source: Tom Beary/INPHO

“Ah, there’s always a football flying around the house,” Aishling grins, pleased to be surrounded by her nearest and dearest.

“Just with everything that’s going on — and being away, too — it made me appreciate the small things probably that bit more. We have family dinner nights, we do challenges, myself and my sisters were making up routines on the trampoline and doing random stuff as if it was our childhood.

“And then we have each other to train with as well. I’m thankful that there’s four of us. It’s definitely brought back memories from my childhood, just everyone being at home, and we haven’t been fighting or anything which is good.

“I definitely find that appreciation for the smaller things because you never know where we’ll be next year as things get better and stuff. Will we ever get that chance to have that time where it’s just our family together? It’s a big positive in my eyes.”

Another huge positive is her blossoming career as an athletic therapist. With a degree from Dublin City University [DCU] — where her friendship with Rowe began — Sheridan has been focusing on her social media offerings, running live home workouts and blogging about different topics through lockdown. 

And she’s enjoying every minute of it after leaving it off for a while in Australia.

Moments before boarding her flight home to Dublin, it all recommenced though.

“I actually ended up buying a laptop in Sydney Airport to cheer myself up but I said to myself, ‘If I buy this laptop, I’m really going to put in the work,’” she explains. “And to be honest, it was the best thing I did.

“It’s really helped me, I’ve had that motivation and drive and my page is growing slowly. I’m getting nice feedback and lovely comments and people asking me questions and stuff.

“It’s definitely kind of opened my eyes to where I want to be when I’m older or what I want to do. I’ve always kind of been stuck in that, ‘What is the job I want to work in when I’m older’ and I’ve never actually known.

“That’s another big positive from everything that’s going on: I’m actually starting to find what my love is and what my passion is. It’s been brilliant. I’m enjoying posting on the page and just being me and people seem to really enjoy it. So hopefully I can keep it up.”

Away from work and play, there’s plenty of time for reflection. 

It’s a golden opportunity to look back on a whirlwind debut year playing Australian Rules full-time and finishing up as one of Collingwood’s best first-year players.

shero Source: Collingwood AFLW.

“Because it ended so quick, it was nearly a shock to the system. I probably didn’t reflect on it until I got home and I was going for a walk on my own, just daydreaming and then when I would talk to my sisters and actually explain everything.

“It’s only then you realise how amazing some of the stuff was, and the actual experience, how brilliant it was and how lucky I am. When you’re out there, you nearly sometimes forget and then when you come home you’re like, ‘The environment I was training in, the girls I was training with, the experience of being out in Australia and getting to solely focus on being an athlete, it is amazing.’

“I’m very thankful and grateful and I actually really enjoyed it. It’s only now I realise how much I miss sports and being around other people and that whole community feeling with the team.”

The whole thing was just incredible; the set-up, her team-mates and how different Aussie Rules is to Gaelic football. A different taste of a different sport. “It’s something you don’t understand until you experience it,” she adds.

So surely the best first-year player accolade was a huge honour?

In short, yes. Sheridan watched the virtual ceremony from her hall, not expecting the award at all. Her family soon saw the social media posts, so there was plenty of cause for celebration when she came back into the kitchen.

“It was just nice because I put in a lot of work,” Sheridan smiles, “even before I went out to Australia. Don’t get me wrong, everyone puts in so much work but I was very conscious of… I didn’t want them to feel like they made a mistake picking me.

“I just wanted to make sure that I gave myself every opportunity to really push myself and I definitely put in a lot of extra hours every day even in the lead-up to going when I was out there doing extra sessions and training all over Christmas.

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“I really just wanted to push myself and know that I gave everything I could. Just even to get that was a nice tap on the back, like, ‘Well done to yourself. You set yourself a goal and you really worked yourself hard and good things came out of it as well.’ I was delighted.”

It wasn’t an easy transition to make, but certainly having a piece of home in Mayo star Rowe helped. The pair lived and played together while in college in DCU so to have one of her best friends there to share the experience with was extra special.

Rowe certainly helped her settle in too, with the Mayo star enjoying a second campaign at Collingwood.

“I was very fortunate to have Sarah,” Sheridan beams. “When we were going out to Australia, we were on the same flight and her dad was with us. I know her dad for a good few years, it was nice because he’s nearly like a second father figure to me.”

They explained everything to the newbie and assured her that she’d settle in just fine.

aflw-lions-magpies Sarah Rowe and Sheridan. Source: AAP/PA Images

“Then our other housemate, Ruby [Schleicher], I warmed to her straight away. She’s such a lovely girl so I felt very at home.

“Having Sarah there and having her present my first jersey to me, it actually did mean a lot because we played together in college, we won the O’Connor Cup together and we’ve been friends for a good few years now so it was nice.

“Her dad was there when she presented the jersey to me, he was able to Whatsapp my family at home,  send them pictures and let them know that everything was fine. I was very, very lucky to have them out there and it definitely helped. It kind of give me that sense of home, which being so far away, you kind of need as well.”

Thankfully, Sheridan had no real sense of homesickness early on because she knew after five weeks of pre-season training, she’d be home to her family for Christmas. Shortly after her return, her boyfriend went out for a trip while her dad was also due to visit so she knew it wasn’t long-term. She always had something to look forward to.

While she took to the game brilliantly and carved out an excellent debut season in the black and white stripes, she was also excited to get back to her first love of Gaelic football upon her return to Ireland.

There was an O’Neill’s ball kept in the house and after Christmas, herself and Rowe made great use of it. On their evenings off, they’d head to the park for a kick about and some skills practice.

“We assumed we’d be coming home and straight into football within being home a day,” she says. “We wanted to be as prepared as we could be for that.”

With all Gaelic games activity on hold, there was no immediate switch. It’s been a weird time but Sheridan is focusing on the positives of having this period to hone her skills, sharpen up, practice and perfect ahead of the big return.

Herself and her Cavan team have been kept busy doing their own bits and pieces of training and keeping in contact through Zoom quizzes and what not. It’s the same with the club set-up.

“It is hard for everyone to keep up that whole sense of training,” she concedes, “so even just that whole social aspect is massive just to make sure everyone is is getting along okay because it’s obviously different for everyone.

“It definitely was disappointing missing football at the start but it’s probably nice to have a break all the same. From playing college and county and club, you’re always going straight into the season like I don’t think I’ve ever gone away that I’ve missed a sport.

“This is definitely the longest. Thankfully, touch wood, I’ve never suffered an injury so I’ve never actually had a long break from sport. As sad as it is or as annoying as it was at the start, I’m kind of like, ‘Look, it’s a nice time to focus my concentration on other stuff, whether it be work or with my family and stuff like that.’

“Look, football will eventually come back someday. Hopefully when it does, everyone will be ready and we’ll have a better appreciation for it, which would be great.” 

aflw-magpies-eagles Facing West Coast Eagles in her first game. Source: AAP/PA Images

While it’s something her Collingwood team-mates just didn’t understand, it’s all Sheridan has ever known. They couldn’t grasp the fact that top Gaelic footballers and hurlers — male and female — don’t play for money. They almost didn’t see the point. 

It’s something they had never been exposed to, watching AFL and rugby league.

“They never really understood either that you play for where you’re from,” Sheridan adds, citing the examples that she plays for Cavan and Rowe represents Mayo, while there’s a Draft and Sign and Trade periods in the Australian sport.

“They were like, ‘So what happens if your team isn’t good? What do you do then?’ And we were kind of like, ‘You just play with them and you hope that in time, they will become good.’ They were like, ‘Can you not switch to a better team? What if you’re a good player, can you not switch to a better team?’ We were like, ‘No, Like, that’s not how the game works and that’s not how we want it to work either.’

“Everyone loves playing for where they’re from, it gives you that whole sense of pride and passion. You want to represent where you’re from. Obviously you want to do that with any team you play with but when you’re from that specific area, that’s where that extra sense of pride and community and stuff comes into it.

“It’s just I suppose what we’ve grown up with and what they’ve grown up with is two different things. Then again it’s an amateur sport so that’s that’s another thing as well. We know no different and I suppose it’s the same with them.”

Likewise, she knows very little about where her future lies, especially in the current climate with the uncertainty surrounding Covid-19 worldwide. 

A return to Oz is certainly appealing and “if everything was normal and Covid-19 hadn’t happened, it definitely would have been on the cards.”

But with uncertainty reigning over the seasons here and in Australia, there could be an overlap should the ladies football championship start in October — when AFLW official pre-season usually starts.

Not only that, there’s also questions surrounding the price of travel — it may rocket — and the complexity of visas and navigating countries’ borders. Long story short, it’s very much all up in the air.

“At this present moment, I honestly don’t know anything,” Sheridan concludes. “There are so many unanswered questions and until I get more answers, I probably won’t know anything.

“I’m just literally taking it day by day. If I get news some day and then I have to make a decision, I will. But at the moment, it’s been pretty chilled and there hasn’t been much word of anything yet.

“So I’m kind of just again, taking it day by day.”

Like she, and pretty much everyone else has been, through these unprecedented times.

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Emma Duffy

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