Old guard

'15 years later, we are still here. We're certainly glad we didn't hang up the boots!'

Dublin had three survivors from their 2004 final meeting with Galway leading the way in yesterday’s All-Ireland three-in-a-row win.

A QUICK LOOK through the programme from All-Ireland final day yesterday shows that just four Dublin players are currently over the age of 30.

dubs ladies1 Inpho Sports. Siobhan McGrath, Sinead Aherne and Lyndsey Davey. Inpho Sports.

Captain Sinéad Aherne, who again climbed the steps of the Hogan Stand to lift the Brendan Martin Cup and seal three-in-a-row for Mick Bohan’s charges, is the eldest at 33. Siobhán McGrath and Rachel Ruddy — who came on as a second-half substitute — are both 31, while Player of the Match Lyndsey Davey is 30.

In a dogged battle against Galway in front of a record-breaking attendance of 56,114 at Croke Park, experience of the biggest stage shone through as the old guard ultimately pulled the Sky Blues over the line.

A repeat of the 2004 decider meeting with the Tribe, just Aherne, Davey and McGrath were the survivors on the field yesterday. And pivotal parts, they all played.

This morning, a brilliant photograph circulated of 15-year-old Davey with her hands on her head after that loss 15 years ago, alongside one of the Skerries Harps star all smiles receiving her Player of the Match award yesterday. 

dubladies DublinLGFA / Twitter. DublinLGFA / Twitter. / Twitter.

Often an unsung hero of this side, the four-time All-Star is consistently brilliant and there’s no sign of her slowing down any time soon. The Dublin Airport firefighter has been there through the ups and downs, the highs and lows, the four All-Ireland final victories (2010, 2017, 2018, 2019) and five defeats (2004, 2009, 2014, 2015, 2016; not ’03, though)

Herself and Thomas Davis warrior McGrath, who is enjoying her second coming in the blue jersey after re-joining the Dublin set-up ahead of last season, joined Bohan in yesterday’s post-match media briefing; the two stalwarts’ smiles at the top table of the auditorium deep in the bowels of the Hogan Stand said it all.

Conditions were tougher than they looked, they stressed to begin, but one word which was mentioned over and over again throughout was character. Both in the second half of that showdown, but in times gone by, too.

“I think a lot has to be said for the character and resilience of the team over six years,” Davey rightly points out. 

To go from losing three All-Irelands to when Mick came in [in 2017]. What Mick has done these past three years, to bounce back and to win three in-a-row is just phenomenal work. I think it really is a team effort. The backroom team have just been amazing, the girls on the pitch… he’s really given us all the tools we need to go out and perform.

As the 56,114 crowd comes up, it allows for a period of reflection for the players. Davey came in in 2004, McGrath made her inter-county debut that same year. Credit to all involved for just how much ladies football has grown, they say.

The changes have been seismic. 

When I was younger, you come into Croke Park watching the men and you see a full stadium,” Davey remembers. “You are just like, I would love that to be us one day.

“You don’t know whether you will be playing by the time that happens. But 15 years later, we are still here. Even going around that pitch, the full stadium, bar the Hill, for the us to see where we have come from, it was a very special moment for us. It’s brilliant to be a part of that history.”

“Better and better every year,” McGrath grins. 

olwen-carey-and-siobhan-mcgrath-celebrate-at-the-final-whistle Bryan Keane / INPHO McGrath (centre) celebrating with clubmate Olwen Carey, Lauren Magee and Noelle Heaky at the final whistle. Bryan Keane / INPHO / INPHO

There was some doubt ahead of this season whether Davey, now after completing her 16th campaign, would return to the set-up.

There was a conversation with Bohan, who Davey said at the time is “a very persuasive man” and there’s a laugh when that is mentioned. 

“We’re certainly glad we didn’t hang up the boots last year anyway, that’s for sure!” she grins, with a nod to the man on her immediate left. 

“It’s one of those things. It’s very unpredictable, sport. To give another year is a massive commitment. There’s no guarantee that we were going to get back here and have the chance to go for three-in-a-row.

“So many people were saying to me, ‘Keep playing while you can because those days, you look back and they’re gone forever.’ It is a massive decision every year. I’ve been saying ‘one more year’ for a lot of years now.

But I tell you, when I found out Mick was coming on board three years ago, I was definitely back in. Who would have thought three years later we’d be sitting here after winning our third All-Ireland, it’s just unbelievable.

Then Bohan interjects, with a mention for Davey, McGrath and Aherne, who were in very different places upon the Clontarf man’s — manager in 2003, too — return to the set-up in 2017. 

Time for an anecdote first, though, to depict the intensity of life in the camp.

“One of our members of our management team, Redzer, Elaine Kelly, is a psychologist during the day,” Bohan explains. “She does an awful lot of work with our girls, trying to help them through all the different challenges that are put in front of them.

After about three months last year I was asking her how she was getting on. ‘Getting on great,’ she said. ‘You spend about 12 hours a week breaking them, and I spend about 20 hours a week fixing them.’

“The reality being if you look back three years ago when we came in, Sinéad Aherne was on the brink of packing it in. There’s trauma involved in those defeats, as you can imagine. Lyndsey was undecided, McGrath was in Australia.”

lyndsey-davey-and-siobhan-woods-celebrate-the-brendan-martin-cup-after-the-game Oisin Keniry / INPHO Davey celebrating with Niamh Hetherton. Oisin Keniry / INPHO / INPHO

“We got her back,” Davey pipes up.

In September 2017, McGrath was one of the 46,286 watching on as Dublin made it fourth time lucky and lifted the All-Ireland title for the first time since 2010. That January, she had returned to home soil after two-and-a-half years in Australia.

McGrath had left shortly after the 2014 All-Ireland final loss; the first of three back-to-back heartbreaking defeats to Cork. “I just needed a break from everything – I needed to go and be different for a while,” as she told The42 last September.

The accountant thought she had done her time for Dublin, but that persuasive man soon came knocking upon her return to these shores in early 2017.

We had heard she was coming back and we approached her,” Bohan explains. “True to form she said to us, ‘Look, I haven’t got the work done to come in at this stage of the year. I wouldn’t make a difference.’ We felt she could have.

The following year, she felt so herself, and she came back swinging. A key figure in their Brendan Martin Cup lift last September, McGrath was the same again this year and was incredibly influential around the middle yesterday.

I think we both benefited from that, she’s been an incredible player,” Bohan added on the eventual acceptance of his invitation. “She’s as tough as nails and in that engine room, you need that.

“Obviously then the likes of Lyndsey and Sinéad have just been so, so important for us. It’s incredible, not just what they do out there but what younger kids pick up off them. It’s those messages… no matter how many times we say it, you have to see it. You have to watch it, you have to follow someone else’s lead and that’s what they get off this group.”

She’s asked about her shift around the middle as the last question of the day, and while slightly less vocal than the others up to that point, McGrath took the opportunity to open up from her perspective and echo some of the previous sentiments Davey had shared. 

Tough playing midfield, she begins, but on a day like that and in those conditions, you’re playing everywhere. 

deirdre-murphy-siobhan-mcgrath-and-lyndsey-davey-celebrate-after-the-game Tommy Dickson / INPHO McGrath (centre) and Davey celebrate with Deirdre Murphy after last September's win. Tommy Dickson / INPHO / INPHO

“Sinéad Aherne came back and got a great tackle in the half-back line,” she adds. “If everyone around you is working hard, which is the motto of this team, then everyone is doing the same job. It’s tough.

“To add the point of being older players etc etc, just the progression of the ladies game and the likes of what Mick brought in and his management team… it’s been very easy for the likes of me and Lyndsey to get ourselves into the conditioning that we need to.

“What Mick has brought to the game and the management team he brought in has given us the tools to push us to be there. I don’t feel my age, to be honest with you, when I’m out there.

“I think this is good for the ladies game going forward because you can see all the other teams are the same. Strength and conditioning is just so much better than what it used to be.

It’s what makes me not have to think about whether or not I’ll play for Dublin. I want to play, I’m loving every minute of being back. Credit to management team and the girls that are there, they’ve made it such a joy to be part of.

The best day yet?

“Yes,” she smiles, without a second thought.

Most definitely deserved for these admirable stalwarts who have soldiered together year after year.

Former Ireland performance analyst and current coaching wizard of OZ Eoin Toolan joins Murray Kinsella and Gavan Casey to predict Ireland’s World Cup, break down every pool, and call the overall winners.

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