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Dublin: 8 °C Wednesday 20 November, 2019
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'Sport is sport and the best and worst thing about it is it's always going to be there'

Dublin star Aisling Maher is back at it after living the Central American Dream last summer.

THERE WAS NO one specific highlight. 

All of it, every last minute, surely.

Dublin camogie star Aisling Maher is back in the Sky Blue jersey after a year out travelling. Central America. Mexico, right down through the region to Columbia, where she stayed for a couple of weeks at the end.

Aisling Maher Dublin star Aisling Maher. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“It was fantastic,” she smiles, looking out the window on a dull afternoon in the capital, and casting her mind back to the sun, sand and sea. The simple life.

“Columbia especially was brilliant, Mexico was also fantastic. Just being away and getting away from the responsibility of final year, and camogie and training and everything else for a while. It was just a really good experience.”

The decision was made long before the 23-year-old planned to leave, but it was one she actually mulled over much closer to the time as the departure date neared. 

2017 was a memorable year for Dublin camogie. They broke a glass ceiling of sorts, ending a 27-year wait as they reached the All-Ireland senior semi-final for the first time since 1990 under the watchful eye of former Kilkenny goalkeeper David Herity.

A remarkable rise and a resurgence was capped by a first All-Star accolade — Dublin’s first in a decade — and that well and truly threw a spanner in the works when it came to Maher’s plans for the following summer.

“We had a fantastic year two years ago,” she recalls. “We reached a stage that we had not got to before.

Both personally and from a team point of view there is a massive battle going on internally. Do you go? It is something that I would have agonised over for a long time.

“Ultimately it was a decision that I had made long before then,” she explains, remembering the many conversations she had with Herity and her team-mates, her friends and family.

It was my last year in college, my last summer off, the last time that you have no responsibilities and you get a chance to go off and do something like that. The decision was whether or not I reversed that decision rather than making it in the first place.

As we now know, she stuck to her guns but it really was up in the air for quite some time. 

For someone who has given so much time to camogie and had sacrificed so many things through the years for the small ball game, the St Vincent’s ace decided to ultimately put herself first.

Aisling Maher Striking the sliotar in 2017. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“Don’t get me wrong if the girls had ended up in Croke Park last year, I would have found it very difficult coming home. I would have been behind them 100 per cent but watching it would have been heartbreaking.

But sport is sport and the best and worst thing about it is it is always going to be there.

“I knew myself as well, from the position I was in, we put a massive amount of time and work collectively as a team into getting as far as we did that year [2017] with David. I guess I felt as a player as well, I was emotionally and physically a bit drained from the whole thing.

I felt a bit of time away from it and head space and something different would do me, as a player, the world of good.

“I felt that had I continued on last year and gone straight into it and given up that chance to go away with my friends — watch them go away travelling as I stayed at home by myself doing not much but play camogie for another year — that, as a player, wouldn’t have done me any favours in the long run.

“Hopefully I am going to come back a better player from it. A bit more refreshed, a bit more revived.”

She didn’t miss any trips to HQ anyway, with Herity’s charges well-beaten in the All-Ireland quarter-final by Galway. And on the other side of the world, Maher had the summer of a lifetime. A win-win.

A Trinity College graduate of Medicinal Chemistry, she’s most definitely back in the real world now however. Back to work?

“I am,” she frowns. “The intention was to take the year out. Ran out of money after six months and had to go home. Was going to do not much back here and then realised you need money to do anything.”

She’s doing a bit of contract work in KPMG at the minute and hoping to veer back into her field of expertise. Happy there, but she’s even happier to be back in the Dublin set-up and enjoying her camogie.

So the big question, you’d guess, is did the break refresh and reinvigorate her? Did the time away do her the world of good, as she had hoped?

Aisling Maher and Mairi Moynihan Celebrating reaching the All-Ireland semi-final in 2017. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“It could have gone one way or another, I could have still been over there but I made it home. It did,” she assures.

“There is a good side and a bad side to it. I know myself that it takes a while to get back up to inter-county standard. 12 months out of it is a long time. Then when I got back there in November, there is not much happening until January or February.

“There is another few months before you get into it. I will be judged when championship starts, I mightn’t be at the standard I should be at. But hopefully I get up there eventually anyway.

I am enjoying playing. It is a nice new set-up to go back into. From that point of view it did have the desired effect.

We’ll delve deeper into the new set-up and the changes from last year — former Mayo ladies football manager Frank Browne replacing Herity at the helm being one — shortly, but just a little bit more on the break first. 

She mentioned the fact that it was her last summer off and the last time she had no responsibilities as a college student. The summers that went before she had stayed at home for camogie, watching her friends head of on holidays and come and go on J1s as she remained 100 per cent committed to the Dublin cause. 

It is a huge sacrifice, of course, giving every summer over to the sport and missing out on other opportunities elsewhere. 

Would she recommend others to take the break, and the deserved time out, when they can?

“If they are not in Dublin, yeah,” she laughs. “Anybody outside of Dublin, go off and do your travelling. Anybody in Dublin, stay put please.”

Joking, but half-serious considering the level of competition.

David Herity talking the team before the match Former manager David Herity with the team. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“It is a double-edged sword,” she picks up, much more serious now though. “I would see it with a lot of the younger girls. If it is something that you want to do…

At the end of the day, we all love camogie but it is never going to pay the bills. There are other things in life that have to take precedence sometimes.

“Any of the younger girls that I would see coming up through, if they want to do it it is important that they do. Players that can do it year in year out, and sacrifice things year in year out, and not get sick of it or get pissed off, are few and far between.

“For the vast majority of players it has to be done. It is easier if you are Cork or Kilkenny the last three or four years and you are really pushing to lift the cup and win an All-Ireland title, obviously it makes it that bit easier to get the younger players to hang around or stay and play.

“But if you are in a county where the standard is up and down for any given year, and there is changes and new management and you don’t know what they are going to be like, it is much more difficult to retain, especially the younger players.

“They are in college, they have summers off. It is a big thing to ask of any player to hang around for the whole summer. It is cyclical and that is what we are trying to do with Dublin at the moment, we are trying to get to the place where the likes of Galway, Kilkenny and Cork are at where if you have a really serious team there and you are seriously competing it is much more attractive for younger players to stay.

“Even if they are going to go, maybe they are only going to go for the one summer, or maybe they will be willing to go at the end of it or just Christmas.”

Changes, there have been a few. Since Maher linked up with the panel again, there’s been a switch-up at management level and different players in and out of the set-up too.

In fact, she didn’t recognise some faces on her first night back training. 

“Going into the dressing room, you’re looking around like, ‘Am I in the right dressing room?’ It is not somewhere you expect to be seven years into playing on a panel.

It was definitely a big change. But it is a positive thing. There are a lot of girls who would be older than me and did years and years of experience with Dublin and brought us to where we are. We wouldn’t be where we are without them.

“But at the same time you can only get so far if you keep everything the same.”

Aisling Maher At the launch of the 2019 All-Ireland championships. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Younger players are gaining immense experience coming into a team that are well and truly pushing for success over the past few years. And they’re making their impact felt as well, driving the fitness standards. 

And that’s coming from the top down. Starting with Wexford native Browne.

“Frank has a wealth of experience behind him,” she smiles, and then a giggle. “He has been with the Mayo ladies footballers, and having been in with a ladies team is always better for management. It is not completely new to him trying to deal with us!

He has a bit of experience in that regard. He has been involved in hurling teams and stuff like that in the past. Frank is very good. One of his best attributes is his ability to stand back and be like, ‘Right I don’t know as much about hurling as you do so tell me about this and that’. That for me is a really good trait in a manager.

“He can bring in the people around him. Mark Kenny has come in from Kilkenny doing a lot of the coaching side with us. He does a lot more of the technical stuff with us. Frank and him have a very good relationship. They are both willing to learn from each other. They are both aware of the fact that together they will make much more of a full package than either of them individually.

“David did fantastic work with us, he brought us on to new level. There is no denying that. But a fresh person coming in, a new attitude, a new perspective is always welcome from our point of view. So far there has been great work done. Hopefully it continues in that way.”

Hopefully indeed.

Well, we’ll see later on today just how it’s all going as Dublin welcome Meath to Parnell’s GAA for a 5pm throw-in. And Maher will be right in the thick of it all, rather than watching on from the other side of the world.

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About the author:

Emma Duffy

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