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'Going out to Australia, it's not to make money - people might think it is. It's more to live as a professional athlete'

Tipperary and Western Bulldogs ace Aisling McCarthy enjoyed her second AFLW season, on and off the field.

IT ALL STARTED with a message out of the blue a little under two years ago.

From there, it’s been an absolute rollercoaster.

aisling mcc Tipperary and Western Bulldogs star Aisling McCarthy. Source: Inpho.

Tipperary star Aisling McCarthy was approached by CrossCoders, a global talent agency and sporting education programme, to see if she was interested in the Australian Football League Women’s [AFLW]. Intrigued, of course, things snowballed, and she soon found herself on a week-long trial camp in Melbourne.

“This opportunity is mad,” McCarthy told The42 before heading off. “It’ll be a great experience, a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”

Two successful seasons in the league later, she’s still living the dream. The 24-year-old obviously impressed at the camp, and was snapped up in the draft by then-reigning champions Western Bulldogs a few weeks later.

Moving her life to the other side of the world, and playing a new sport, appeared to be no hassle for McCarthy from the outside looking in as she kicked five goals and collected 61 disposals in six appearances for the Bulldogs in an impressive debut season. 

Her second season at the club was even better on an individual level. While the team struggled, the Cahir woman was one of the stars of the show as she kept them afloat with stellar performances and goals week on week.

And she definitely saw an improvement in herself.

“My best game last year was probably my last game, and I obviously wanted to pick up straight where I left off,” she tells The42.

“The season at home playing Gaelic, I probably didn’t pick up the oval ball as much as I would have liked. It took a while to get into in pre-season but once the games started, I definitely thought that I was a lot more comfortable.”

No need to spend as much time on rules and basic skills, she could concentrate on developing her own game and the tactical side of the sport.

“I got to play a different kind of position this year as well, I played more through the midfield and rolling forward a bit. I probably played more of a central role on the team, I was kind of in the middle of it a bit more which was great.

“My nature, I’m competitive, and I like attacking and trying to get on the football so that’s what you need to be when you play midfield. I definitely think I played to my strengths in that position, I probably played some of my better football there as well.

“I definitely really enjoyed it on a personal level.”

aflw-bulldogs-blues Winning a mark last March. Source: AAP/PA Images

As a team, it was disappointing as they won just one game from six and missed out in the Covid-19-impacted curtailed season, but she takes the positives. They were unlucky to lose narrowly at times, they had a young, developing team, and were adjusting to life under a new coach in Nathan Burke.

Away from football, McCarthy enjoyed her time even more so in year two. 

With 18 Irishwomen contracted to clubs in Australia, she lived with Mayo’s Aileen Gilroy, Galway’s Mairéad Seoighe (both North Melbourne) and Fermanagh’s Joanne Doonan (Carlton).

And she was delighted to have Donegal defender Katy Herron for company at the Bulldogs. That piece of home was very much welcomed, she smiles.

“It was a completely different experience to last year. I would have spoken to Sarah Rowe about it as well.

“Just little things that you take for granted this year: being able to go home to the girls in the house. If training didn’t go too well, they’d completely understand whereas last year, I guess, my friends were mostly my team-mates so you’re constantly in that football bubble.

“We had a bit more of an outlet this year where you could just kind of switch off from football as well and have things going on in your life in Australia outside of football. Last year, I probably put all my eggs into that one basket and if things didn’t work out, it did feel like the end of the world.

“I know we’re in Australia to play football, but having the outside things really did help –especially Katy as well at the club.”

A special word must go to Herron, who enjoyed a brilliant debut season Down Under herself.

“I guess she understands what way you’re thinking as well, both having Gaelic football brains. If I pipe up and say something, or if she pipes up, we kind of can back each other up because we have that same mindset.

“Katy’s great and she really brought her experience into the club and she tried to drive the standards up as well. I suppose she’s been working to build those standards within her club and in Donegal for years, so she just brought things she’s learnt over her career as well and showed the younger girls going forward how they can reach their potential.

“I think she was a great asset in the club this year.”

aflw-saints-bulldogs Katy Herron had a brilliant debut season. Source: AAP/PA Images

“When they understood her was the main thing,” McCarthy adds with a chuckle. “She used to get an awful slagging. They thought I was hard to understand! They all loved her as well so it was great to have her in the club with me.”

Speaking from self-isolation in her Cahir home earlier this week, the 2017 and 2019 All-Ireland intermediate champion was waiting for the nod from the HSÉ after signing up for the ‘On Call For Ireland’ initiative.

She’s a physiotherapist by trade with a degree from University of Limerick, but McCarthy couldn’t work in Australia because of her visa. She depended solely on her AFLW income.

For Irish women in 2019, there was a likely starting salary of €12,000 (for six months) with additional flights, car and rent bonuses, while men could earn up to €50,000 in their first season. The AFLW wage was due to increase this season. But still.

“I know some of the girls went out on different visas but my one was just to play football,” McCarthy explains. “I couldn’t get any income from any other source.

“I was just completely concentrating on football. I guess that’s the advantage of the experience over all, you can spend all your time on sport. You have all day to get ready for training, or recover, being able to eat well and having that time to make meals and that. That was really important.

“I guess when you’re at home playing Gaelic football, you do all those things and want to do all those things but you probably don’t have enough time in your diary. You’re working until an hour before training, trying to eat and get there.

“Having that time to spend and invest in sport is the main thing. Going out to Australia, it’s not to make money — people might think it is. They hear whatever the boys are making.

“But all of us, from Gaelic football that are gone out playing AFLW, it’s definitely more to live as a professional athlete — not probably get paid as much as what people think — and having that lifestyle to live like one.

“Then we get to come back to real life, and play the sport we love at home and work alongside it.”

She’s well and truly back to reality now, and adjusting to the new normal amid this pandemic. The focus turns to Tipperary now, and her side have serious ambitions in this summer’s All-Ireland and Munster senior championships. Should all go ahead.

Cork in the provincial semi-final is the big one at the minute, but McCarthy will take things day by day as she readjusts to the round ball and hones her skills in quarantine.

“Our last training with the Bulldogs was last Tuesday so I haven’t done too much since… nearly a week now.

maire-oshaughnessy-and-aisling-mccarthy McCarthy starred in September's All-Ireland intermediate final. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“But I’ll get back onto the pitch doing a few running sessions by myself, a few strength and conditioning things at home while I can, getting used to holding the ball and things and then hopefully, this will all pass soon and we’ll be back training.”

Back into the thick of it, bidding to win her place back.

But what about season three in Australia, is it something she’s thought about?

“It’s a tough one,” McCarthy concedes. “Over the coming weeks there’s what they call exit interviews within your club, just getting feedback from everyone as a whole and what they want to do going forward. I guess other clubs as well can intervene if they’re interested.

“I’ll have to weigh everything up over the next few weeks and decide what I do want to do. As a player, I feel I have more to develop and I can achieve more and get better and help out my team more. Just the logistics of it as well, obviously, living two different lives in two different parts of the world.

“At the same time, it’s the best of both worlds at the moment and I don’t know whether it will be for too long… it might be now that I can do it, that I will. I’ll consider it.

“I’ve made no decisions yet, and I’m not ruling out either anyway.”

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Emma Duffy

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