'If someone told me this time last year, 'You'll sign a contract to be a professional athlete,' I'd have said, 'Never''

Cavan star Aishling Sheridan has penned an AFLW deal with Collingwood, where she’ll join Sarah Rowe for the 2020 season.

FROM CAVAN TO Collingwood. 

It was confirmed this morning that Breffni star Aishling Sheridan will become the 12th Irish player in the AFLW for 2020, joining Mayo’s Sarah Rowe at Melbourne outfit Collingwood. 

aish Collingwood have landed a second Irish star in Aishling Sheridan. Collingwood Women's. Collingwood Women's.

Eight months after taking a dive into the unknown and heading to the Australian city on a CrossCoders trial camp, 22-year-old Sheridan set off again in May to chase a coveted professional contract. 

And after a four-week stint in Darwin lining out with Northern Territories [NT] Thunder in the Victorian Football League Women’s [VFL Women's] — the AFLW’s second-string — she’s back on home soil; signed, sealed and delivered for next season. 

“It probably hasn’t hit me yet,” she smiles, in conversation with The42, explaining how it was a really difficult decision in the end with several clubs interested. But more on that later.

It’s massive. If someone had told me this time last year: ‘You’ll have gone to Australia twice by the end of May and you’ll have signed a contract to be a professional athlete,’ I would have said, ‘Never’. It definitely would have been a massive shock.

“That’s why I think it still hasn’t hit me because sport has been a massive part of my life and my family since I was born, and the fact that I’m getting the chance to be a professional athlete is something I’ve never dreamed of.

“I’m so grateful to be getting the opportunity. Yes, I’m moving across the water and it is a different sport, but the way the seasons work with Gaelic and with AFLW, I’ll be doing my winter training in Australia, really, and then back home for the middle of the league and championship.

“I’m kind of getting the best of both worlds. I just want to give it the best shot I can.”

That was the Mullahoran native’s exact same mindset before heading Down Under in May anyway, and she has noting but good things to say about the entire experience.

Highlights, there were many, and casting her mind back to her feelings in Dublin Airport before jetting off brings a chuckle or two. 

Now that she’s home and well and truly back in the county set-up as they prepare for an Ulster semi-final this weekend, the entire time went so fast. In the lead-up to leaving too, the time went quickly as it all happened pretty suddenly. 

“I don’t think it actually hit me that I was going until I was on the plane on my own,” she laughs. “I kind of sat back in the seat and it all hit me at once. I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to the other side of the world to play a different sport’.

I did get a bit nervous then when, like, ‘Oh my God, what am I doing?’ It all came around so fast.

“When I look back on it, I’m very lucky and grateful that I got such an amazing experience. I got to see three different parts of Australia, I got one-on-one practice learning the game. It’s harder at home. When you’re out there and you’re immersed in the sport, you do pick it up easier.

Aishling Sheridan Tom Beary / INPHO Tom Beary / INPHO / INPHO

“Then just to get to see the different cultures and everything, I never felt homesick at any stage. I just enjoyed the experience so much.”

While she was one of 11 Irish players who travelled as part of the CrossCoders week-long camp in September, this time around, Sheridan had the chance to fully immerse herself in the oval ball sport, and life in general over there.

“Getting to meet new people,” she continues, with a piece of home there too as she played alongside Clare and Adelaide Crows 2019 Premiership winner Ailish Considine, “and making friends, getting to see what the set-up is like.

I know VFL isn’t professional or anything like that but the set-up is still higher probably than what our county set-up would be like. Even just to get to see what that was like was amazing.

“Two of our games were in Melbourne so we had to fly down and then fly back the next day, or that night. Not many people have got that experience [before signing]. Even if nothing had came out of it, I was just so thankful that I got to experience to see what it could actually be like.”

Heading out, it was thought that she’d get four games in the competition under her belt, but that changed to two. One of the fixtures ended up being a bye, while there were registration issues so she was forced to sit in the manager’s box rather than tog for the first game in Melbourne. 

That was no harm, she concedes, as she had just landed and wasn’t up to scratch on many rules of the game, so the learning experience alongside the coaches in the box, taking notes and asking questions, helped in the long run. 

Her chance to shine came in the second game, she explains, NT Thunder’s home ground and second home to Considine’s Crows.

“That was in TIO Stadium, it was pretty cool getting a chance to play there. I had picked up the rules of the game a lot after getting a few trainings in under my belt. I was happy enough with that game, but it still did take a while once I got into it to understand what was happening.

It was in 30-degree heat so that was a massive shock to the system. I actually settled in well to the game. I got a behind, I was unlucky not to get a goal. I know at one stage I caught the ball, I marked it and I nearly went to run on but I remembered to stop!”

The third week, NT Thunder were gifted a bye but they played a challenge match against the U18 side. The more minutes, the better for Sheridan.

And then the fourth week was a showdown against her new club Collingwood — well, their VFL side, who Kildare native Aisling Curley plies her trade with — in Melbourne.

“I was kind of playing back and midfield so I was out of my comfort zone which was good because it’s the best way probably to learn,” the athletic therapist enthuses.

as Aishling Sheridan Instagram. Aishling Sheridan Instagram.

While obviously there were collective training sessions on the pitch and in the gym and matches every week, a lot of the onus fell on Sheridan to do her own thing. There was plenty of time for extra training and of course, exploring and other activities.

It really was a case of you get out what you put into it.

Then coming into play with, and against, girls who had played this sport all their life, that was another story.

“It was hard in one sense,” she explains, telling of the many extra sessions, “I suppose in the six days I was out in September, every evening you were doing something whereas within this competition your training load has to be managed.

“As much training as you do, you still do forget the simple things. You get to learn one-on-one, you get to learn from the forwards coach, the mids coach and the backs coach. If you’re ever stuck for a question or anything like that, there’s always someone around that will help you.

It was tough being thrown straight into the deep end, as such, with the [first] home game, but then it obviously worked out well. The hardest part was probably the weather!”

She loved Darwin itself but the heat and humidity did take some getting used to. Finding her feet there and living in a new city was amazing though, and made all the better by having a friend to do it with.

Both on and off the field, that was huge.

“It was a massive thing,” she says of having Considine there. “We were staying together and we had a car so when we didn’t have training, we were able to go off and do things and explore Darwin.

“We did our bits of gym and training every day in the morning time. Ailish worked a lot with me on my kicking, basic hand balls and ground balls and stuff like that. Her skill-base is extremely good. She’s naturally right and left footed.

I was comfortable with her teaching me. She was part of the team that won the Grand final last year, she got a goal in it so she really was the best person to coach me.

“She understands the Gaelic side and how to keep me changing my foot position, little things like that that that is built into me from playing Gaelic that I need to change when it comes to AFL.”

AFLW CROWS CATS Ailish Considine. AAP / PA Images AAP / PA Images / PA Images

While Considine has re-signed for Adelaide’s AFLW side, Sheridan will now have a different mentor in Sarah Rowe at Collingwood. The pair lived together while studying at Dublin City University (DCU) and are great friends, so that surely was a slight swaying factor when the Pies took interest.

Truth be told though, it was a really difficult decision. 

Sheridan landed back in Ireland last Tuesday, and it took her until Sunday to make her mind up with a few different offers on the table.

“I had a choice to make between a few different clubs so when I came home, it was hard to be excited or happy because I was worried that I was going to be letting someone down. 

When I came home I probably was more stressed than I was going over. I went over with the idea that I probably wasn’t going to get even one offer.

“I came home and I don’t know if it was the jetlag or the worry, I didn’t sleep straight for a few days until I finalised my decision and got everything sorted.”

The deal is now done, thankfully, and out in the open that she’s off to Collingwood. Why them though? Well knowing the club from everything Rowe shared helped, of course, but direct contact and their promises that someone would always be there to help her was the deciding factor.

“After chatting to some of the management, they really reassured me that they do look out for their players and they’ll help me any way they can with accommodation and little things like that.

“They’re offering me a chance to do a bit of shadowing in my area of athletic therapy. I know they didn’t have a successful year last year, that’s fair enough. With Cavan, it’s kind of been like that for us as well.

Winning isn’t always the be all and end all. I want to go over there and give it the best chance I can. If you win, that’s obviously a bonus. It’s going to be my first year going into it and I kind of want to get the best opportunity I can playing, and try and get into the game and do well in it, because it’s a sport I actually like.

“They just really showed an interest in me and want to do as much as they can for me, and that won me over in the end.”

“Aish has been on the radar,” as Collingwood’s General Manager of Women’s Sport Jane Woodlands-Thompson said in the club’s release.

Aishling Sheridan with Rachel Dillon Facing Westmeath in 2017. Tom Beary / INPHO Tom Beary / INPHO / INPHO

“We’re wrapped that she decided to find a home at the Holden Centre. There’s a really high transfer of skill from Gaelic to Australian rules football and we’ve seen that success in Sarah Rowe and across the league.

“As well what she’ll bring to the game, Aish is culturally fitting. She displays great.”

And for Sheridan, the fact that Rowe is there, and they’ll be team-mates on the biggest stage, helps.

It’s massive. We get on really well. We think the same and we train the exact same. When we were in college, we would have gone to the gym a lot together. Our nutrition and little things like that, we both keep ourselves in line with.

“I’ll be living with Sarah. The extra bit of training that I’ll need to be doing with the ball, she’ll probably be helping me and doing them herself because she’ll be coming back from the round ball.

“It will be nice to have someone there. We’ll never feel homesick or anything, it’s kind of like when we were in college in Dublin together. We’re just in a different country this time!”

At the minute though, they’re both firmly on home soil and ready to lead their respective counties into championship action.

Sheridan was straight back into James Daly’s Cavan set-up, togging out for a game the Wednesday evening after landing in Dublin. The excitement of the professional deal is parked, with her full focus on the summer of Gaelic football ahead.

With championship starting now, I haven’t had a chance to think about AFL. My mindset is fully now on our Ulster semi-final. 

“That Wednesday evening game, I don’t know if I was jetlagged or what but just getting back to using the round ball, it was definitely a challenge and I didn’t think it would be. But it does take you a little bit of time to get back.

“We have the Ulster semi-final this weekend, it’s a massive test for us. We finished the league in the semi-finals and we weren’t happy with how we finished it. Now coming into championship, all focus is on doing the best we can and trying to overcome Donegal.

“We’ve played them a few years now, we were lucky to beat them three years ago. It’s all focus on that now. I’ll worry about the AFL come October when county football might be finished.”

Her family, friends and team-mates are understandably delighted for her, with her proud parents and sisters already looking into flights for a visit next February or March. 

Aishling Sheridan All focus is on Donegal. Tom Beary / INPHO Tom Beary / INPHO / INPHO

“It’s massive, especially someone from Cavan going. It’s getting bigger now that more girls are signing which is amazing. It really is class, especially when we’re young, to get the opportunity to go out there.

Cavan is a county that had a lot of losses in a lot of years with the men’s and women’s so little things like that, when you see someone do well, everyone gets behind them and really supports them which is massive.

A final word, perhaps, goes to CrossCoders. Sheridan has nothing but glowing reports to tell of Jason Hill and Lauren Spark, and everything they’ve done for her.

Between the original camp, the opportunity to go back and now, the deal getting over the line, she has nothing but praise for the endless hours of work they’ve put into her, and other Irish players.

While Rowe and Cora Staunton are not CrossCoders graduates, the remaining 10 Irish confirmed for 2020 are — and helped along the way in some capacity. So that’s Sheridan, Considine, Mairead Seoighe (North Melbourne), Kate Flood and Áine Tighe (Fremantle), Orla O’Dwyer (Brisbane), Niamh and Grace Kelly (West Coast Eagles), Aisling McCarthy (Western Bulldogs) and Yvonne Bonner (GWS Giants).

“I have to give it to them,” Sheridan smiles as the conversation ends. “It’s massive. Only for CrossCoders, I probably never would have got the opportunity to go out there again and especially then, get signed with a team. I’m so thankful.”

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