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'I just thought, 'Look, it's not for me'' - from nearly giving it all up to the dream breakthrough year

Éabha Rutledge finished 2019 with an All-Ireland medal, an All-Star nomination and the Dublin Footballer of the Year award after a significant positional switch.

A YEAR THAT started with serious considerations about packing inter-county football in ended in a breakthrough one in the Dublin jersey.

Éabha Rutledge finished 2019 with another All-Ireland medal, an All-Star nomination and the Dublin ladies senior Footballer of the Year award.

eabha-rutledge Éabha Rutledge. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

A switch from attack to defence proved pivotal as the Kilmacud Crokes star moved from the bench to the heart of the action on the field of play.

Deflated after 2018, however, Rutledge contemplated calling it a day. The Sky Blues had won their second All-Ireland crown on the bounce, but she was frustrated she didn’t break through to contribute on the pitch in her third year on the panel. She was yet to play a minute of championship football.

“I just thought, ‘Look, it’s not for me,’” Rutledge reflects. “People my age had been breaking through and I hadn’t. I did nearly drop the head and my confidence levels just really got very low.”

She decided to tell the manager how she was feeling, and ultimately throw in the towel.

“At the beginning of 2019, I called Mick Bohan and I just said that I was going to take a break and a bit of time off the county scene, just because I wasn’t breaking through.”

2018 was her first year with Bohan as her manager, after missing the previous season as she went to America on a J1 for the summer. The Clontarf man spoke sense into her on the phone that day.

“He was like, ‘It won’t take one year just to break into the team, you’re going to have to give it two,’” Rutledge recalls the conversation. “That was a positive though.

“He said, ‘I’ll give you a week, call me back in a week and let me know.’ I took the week to think and it kept playing on my mind that he had said after a year, you won’t just break through with a new management team. You kind of do have to build on it.

I thought I’d be silly just to let it go. Something that I love, why would I give up on it so easily? I rang Mick back and I said that that was just a thought in my head but I definitely would love to play in 2019. I’m thankful that I did now.

That wasn’t the only bump in the road — or hard conversation with Bohan — she had through the year, however. She struggled through the league, trying but failing to nail down a position in the forward line, and as the curtain came down on Dublin’s campaign, another chat with the boss beckoned.

He didn’t think my head was in it. He said, ‘You know, we have to make a cut after the league and currently you’re one of the names on the list.’ He said, ‘Give yourself a week, show us why you want to be here and train hard.’

“I had spoken to him about maybe changing my position. I wasn’t getting on too well where I was playing or breaking through over the past three years. So I changed to a back and just loved it.

“From there then, by chance, I just managed to get in the Leinster championship team and every week, trained hard to keep my jersey. I was working on my footwork with the defence coaches, extra bits of training just to break in and thankfully I did. It was a big change in the year.

kate-fitzgibbon-celebrates-after-the-game-with-aoife-kane-lauren-magee-and-eabha-rutledge Rutledge (right) celebrating the 2018 All-Ireland win with Aoife Kane, Lauren Magee and Kate Fitzgibbon. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“I made my league debut back in 2015 against Monaghan and l only made my championship debut last year. At the start of 2019, I was on the bench for the league and then making my first championship start in the summer was brilliant.”

While still playing as a forward for Kilmacud, Rutledge made the corner back position her own after Dublin suffered several blows in defence due to injury losses and travelling absentees.

She certainly did her talking on the pitch with her ferocious work-rate and harrying key to Dublin’s success, but Rutledge well and truly believed in herself when it came to transitioning to a defender and claiming the number two jersey.

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“I think it was nearly like when he [Bohan] nearly took something away from me… he wanted me to work harder in training than I ever had before, putting in extra hours as well,” she continues.

And just my mentality changed completely when I was in the backs. It just suited me more, playing with Dublin, just to be in the backs.

“There was a lot of learning. What helped me was that when we’re training, a lot of forwards would do defensive work as well in trying to stop the opposition backs coming out, so we have worked on stuff before like that.

“But my footwork and blocking was the main thing, just trying to get that near-hand tackle in. Tackling, as a forward, if you give away a free at the other end of the pitch, it’s fine, but when you’re giving away frees to such good free-takers now, 20 or 30 yards out, they’re just going to stick it over the bar.

So just trying to be disciplined with my tackling and footwork as well, they were definitely the things I had to work on.”

She laughs when she looks back at the amount of scoreable free-kicks she conceded in her first match there, but she likes to think she’s improved in that aspect over time.

The JP Morgan fund accountant — she’s not required to do exams but says she couldn’t juggle them with work and football at the minute anyway — was certainly one of the Jackies’ leading lights in the latter stages of the championship, and was instrumental through their wet and windy All-Ireland final win over Galway as they sealed three-in-a-row.

Having won her first Celtic cross without playing a single minute of championship football, this one was most definitely deserved. From there, Rutledge was nominated for an All-Star and was later crowned Dublin ladies senior Footballer of the Year.

Quite the feat, and surely made all the sweeter considering she watched on from the bench for so long.

Screenshot 2020-05-13 at 16.21.45 Éabha Rutledge launching the AIG 20x20 ‘Show Your Skills’ competition for May. Source: SPORTSFILE.

“Oh, absolutely,” she nods. “But even at the start of the year if you told me I’d be starting the All-Ireland final… that was a dream of mine; just to get on in the All-Ireland final, and to start itself was just amazing.

And the way it all went from there. I just really enjoyed it, my confidence levels really helped towards the end of the summer with all the matches. It was brilliant.” 

Having picked up where she left off, remaining as a starter for Bohan’s side through their 2020 league campaign, this enforced lay-off due to the Covid-19 pandemic surely came at a bad time.

“Ah, I suppose it’s bad timing for everybody, the current situation,” she concludes. “I was really looking forward to this championship to try and break through again and hopefully get my name down on the team-sheet again for this year.

“It is a bit of a setback but it has given us that bit of time, and trying to look at it positively it does let me improve skills that maybe I wouldn’t have had the same amount of time to do if the championship was going ahead.

“I’m just trying to focus on different things I can improve and keep my fitness up so when we do get back playing, that I’m ready to go again.”

***

Dublin ladies footballer and All-Ireland winner, Éabha Rutledge, was speaking to the media to support the AIG 20×20 ‘Show Your Skills’ Competition.

The competition is open to women and girls of all ages, all abilities and all sports, the monthly winner will be awarded €1,000 prize. Visit aig.ie/skills to showcase your talent.

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Emma Duffy

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