AMY CONNOLLY SMILES as she looks back through the years.
It’s been a long road, one of many ups and downs, but here she is.
Through it all, there’s been one constant for the most part; Gaelic football. But it wasn’t until one significant point in her life that she realised how much it meant to her.
She laughs as she remembers how it first came about. As a child, she did lots of Irish dancing. It wasn’t until one day when coach came into her school and noticed something special in Connolly that she even thought about playing.
“I had a big kick on me,” she tells The42, laughing as she explains how she followed his orders and went down to her local club Foxrock shortly after — now Foxrock-Cabinteely — to get involved.
From there, she never really looked back. The dancing fell by the wayside, and while she played bits and pieces of basketball in school, there was only one sport she wanted to pursue.
Before she picked up an O’Neill’s herself though, football wasn’t a huge part of life in the Connolly household. Her Mam had little or no interest — she has plenty now though, she assures me — while her Dad on the other hand never would have expected what would follow.
“He was delighted,” she continues.
“But he never thought he’d have a daughter that was playing football. He would have played football himself and his family, his brothers. They never thought I would, let’s just say!”
As she climbed the ranks at the local club, an opportunity arose through an U12 blitz to link up with the Dublin underage squads. No time had passed before Connolly was pin-pointed as a huge prospect in the Sky Blue, rocketing through the age levels.
There was something about her, perhaps something that that primary school coach had noticed; natural ability, unerring skill and accuracy, pace and work-rate and a burning desire to win; she had it all.
At the age of 18 in 2009, she made the leap from minor to senior but never fully settled in the panel through the years which followed. She was in and out. She featured in 2009, took the year out and missed the Jackies’ first-ever All-Ireland senior title win in 2010, returned for 2011 but that would be her last stint with the fold until 2015.
“I gave up for a few years. Well, didn’t give up football but county I did. I went abroad on a J1. I had a baby as well in between,” she says. You can almost hear her beaming from ear-to-ear through the phone as she speaks of her four-year-old son Ciabhan.
That significant point in her life when she realised just how much football meant to her.
“After the shock of discovering I was pregnant, one of the first things I thought of was football. I remember actually crying and being like, ‘I’m never going to play for Dublin again’.
“That’s when it hit me. I’d decided not to play for Dublin for a few years, and then to find out I was pregnant, I was like, ‘I actually can’t now’.
“Especially not playing club football, it hit me how much it means to me.”
Those familiar feelings of football being taken away from her have since returned as she recovers from a nasty cruciate ligament injury sustained last July. She’s fought those demons and frustrations in the past and is well on her way to conquering them once again. It’s just another obstacle along the long road that is life. She’ll clear the hurdle.
Connolly, who continues to ply her trade on the club scene with Dublin and Leinster kingpins Foxrock-Cabinteely — wasn’t quite as confident of her return after the birth of her son however.
“I knew I’d get back to football but I didn’t know whether I’d be able to get back to the same level I was at,” she continues.
“To even make it back to club was an achievement and then when I was given the opportunity to go back to Dublin, it was surreal at first. I never thought I’d do it again.
“I wouldn’t have been able to come back without help. My family were amazing. They were the ones who encouraged me to go back. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without them, and still wouldn’t be able to do it.
“They’re sacrificing a lot as well but they know how important it is to me.”
One day in particular stands out as she rolls back the years; the All-Ireland ladies football finals day in September 2014. It was Dublin’s first senior decider appearance since their Brendan Martin glory in 2010, and Cork stood in their way of a reunion.
Connolly was there as a spectator, Ciabhan cuddled into her lap as she hoped and prayed that her close friends could get their hands back on the coveted title. Her hopes and prayers went unanswered though, it wasn’t to be.
But little did she think that exactly 12 months later she’d be togging out and taking to the turf as a starter at GAA HQ rather than sitting in the stands as a supporter.
“It was very surreal and it probably wasn’t until after the match that I was like, ‘Woah, I actually did play in Croke Park’.”
The entire situation of balancing raising a child, football and life in general took some time to adjust to. Like any one or two-year-old would, he cried and kicked up a fuss as his mother left him to go training: ‘He would pull on my heartstrings let’s say!’
As time went on though, it became the norm. It’s all part of the routine. She shows her gratitude for the supports around her once again, telling stories of how her mother makes sure her biggest fan is present on the sidelines during matches.
And how now, he’s well aware of what’s going on.
“I remember coming home from training right before I got injured and had my Dublin jersey on and he was like, ‘Mammy, I want to play for Dublin when I’m older. I want to be like you’.
“Now, he appreciates it a bit more. He mightn’t appreciate it completely but as time went on, he kind of now understands that it’s a huge part of my life.
“Some people are like, ‘How do you do it?’ and this or that and it is a sacrifice I suppose but at the end of the day, I think it’s a positive in relation to him. Between being at the side of the pitch for my club matches, whether it’s winning or losing, he’s involved with it all.
“He mightn’t have much interest in football itself now but I don’t see how it would be a negative in his life. Being around the football environment, the family and community it is; it is a bonus to him as well.”
She grins, adding tales of how close the pair are: “I was only joking with my friends the other day; I’m still uncool to him if you get me.
“Even though I’m a young Mam and I play football and stuff, you’d think he’d see that but no I’m still the uncool mother, the one that has to give out to him!”
After lining out at centre-half forward in that 2015 All-Ireland decider defeat to Cork yet again, Connolly linked back up with Gregory McGonigle’s charges in 2016 but they fell in similar circumstances that September.
Having studied science in University College Dublin (UCD) previously, she decided to change her career path and that same month, started a postgraduate course in accounting in Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT).
With Mick Bohan appointed manager for the campaign which lay ahead — the 2017 All-Ireland-winning one — he was keen to have the now 26-year-old involved in the side. They agreed that she should focus on her studies and link up with the panel when she finished up that May. Before she knew it, she was back.
But disaster struck in early July. A week before the Leinster final with just one game under her belt, she did the dreaded cruciate. The dream parked once again, and those all too familiar feelings came flooding back.
“I had a conversation with Mick and I did want to stay around. I needed it for my own head as well even though it was tough to watch training or to be around at certain times. It was tough.
“But overall I think I needed to be around the team to feel like I was still involved. I did my prehab in the gym while they were out of the pitch. I still kitted out in my Dublin gear, I was still part of the team, I was still there for all the matches.
“I was included in every shape and form and that was down to the managers. Whether it was the smallest of jobs or anything, they tried to make me feel like I was still as important as the next girl beside me who was fully fit. It was brilliant.”
D-Day for the operation in Santry Sports Clinic (SSC) came the Tuesday before the All-Ireland decider against Mayo. As her teammates prepared for battle, she was nursing her own wounds but managed to be right in the middle of everything on Gaelic games’ biggest stage. That final whistle?
“It was unreal,” she grins, the excitement evident in her voice as she recalls that fateful day. “I was hobbling around with crutches.
“I just remember seeing one of my clubmates, I ran… well, hobbled onto the pitch and just threw my crutches on the ground. Just that feeling, especially club girls as well, you’ve been through so much.
“It’s just that relief that finally you’ve achieved what you’ve been after for so long. It is a really special feeling.”
The club holds a truly special place in her heart. From Junior E in Dublin to contesting the All-Ireland series at senior level year in, year out of late, it’s been a meteoric rise for Fox-Cab. Connolly finds it hard to believe herself, acknowledging that it’s only now, looking back, that she can fully appreciate what the southside outfit have achieved over the past 10 years or so.
Watching on from the sidelines with that bandaged up knee in October as they ran to their third county championship title on the bounce was another difficult task.
“Club is where I was brought up basically and developed so much as a player,” she says, sharing her frustration at missing out. “They’ve been your friends since you were little.
“It was tougher to watch the Dublin final against Ballyboden, definitely tougher. I was very emotional. Obviously it’s tough to watch Dublin matches as well but in particular just that final. I was like an antichrist that morning. No one could say anything to me, I was about to break down into tears every time someone said something.”
The curtain is well and truly coming down on those frustrations and gut-wrenching emotions though, and the puzzle is coming together nicely for 2018.
She radiates this impression of profound maturity and sensibility, this sense of appreciation for how things are playing out, both the ups and the downs. Kept on her toes with Masters studies at the minute, she speaks of how the injury perhaps couldn’t have come at a better time.
Shortly after the operation in September, she started the course and her planned return comes just after it finishes up. She’s back running again and has a clear agenda in her head.
“At least now I kind of have a target. I’ll miss all of the league but it is possible to get back for championship so between that and club, that’s my aim.”
Throughout the Lidl Ladies National League Division 1 she’ll obviously be absent on the field for Dublin’s three double-header clashes — two of which will be played in Croke Park and all three will be televised by eir sport, as announced yesterday.
She shares her excitement for her teammates though, and touches on the many positives these developments draw for the game in general.
Her excitement shines through as she speaks of the collective gym sessions with Dublin and her involvement with the team, but she’s aware the hard yards have to be put in behind the lines of the pitch before she’s back where she wants to be.
The negatives in life are often turned into positives, and that’s exactly what Connolly is a acting on. She’s focusing on that anticipated comeback, that return to the big stage and truly showing how much football means to her.
“You get a new kind of love for it I suppose,” she concludes.
“I probably played better football when I came back after having my kid than I played for years. I just had more drive. It gives you a new lease of life. Football is a part of me and without playing, it doesn’t feel normal.
“It just gives you a new passion for it. When something like that occurs, it’s an obstacle but it does give you a new drive.”
And that drive and desire is burning deep within.
Cork’s Melissa Duggan, Dublin’s Amy Connolly, Mayo’s Niamh Kelly and Kerry’s Aislinn Desmond were in Dublin to announce details of eir sport’s LIVE coverage of the forthcoming Lidl Ladies National Football League Division 1 fixtures
Mayo take on Dublin on Saturday 24 February, Dublin face Kerry on 3 March while the action gets underway on Saturday, 10 February, as Dublin come up against Cork in a repeat of the All-Ireland ladies football finals of 2014, 2015 and 2016. All fixtures will be shown on eir sport 1 at 5pm.
- Originally published at 07.00
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