Ladies Football

A call for amalgamation with the GAA, worrying physicality and the lure of Down Under

Cork ladies football manager Ephie Fitzgerald discusses a wide range of topical aspects of the game.

THERE HAVE BEEN many calls for amalgamation through the years, but perhaps they heightened last night as ladies football and camogie stars from across the country appeared on our TV screens during GAA Eile.

Ephie Fitzgerald Cork manager Ephie Fitzgerald. Bryan Keane / INPHO Bryan Keane / INPHO / INPHO

The third episode of the RTÉ series focused on the female Gaelic games codes, and how they don’t fall under the GAA banner like men’s Gaelic football, hurling, handball and rounders do.

2018 Cork camogie captain and goalkeeper Aoife Murray and legendary dual star Rena Buckley were among those to share their opinions, frowning while doing so as they called for the GAA to take the women’s games under its wing.

Cork ladies football manager Ephie Fitzgerald is another advocate for amalgamation.

His side lifted the Lidl Ladies National League Division 1 title after beating Galway last weekend and while much of his pre-match captains’ day interviews revolved around the game itself, he also used the platform to voice his thoughts on many other things associated with the ladies’ game. 

Attendances, double-headers, support (or lack thereof), standards, physicality, dual clashes and the lure of the AFLW were all touched on in a wide-ranging interview with The42. Once you start him, you can’t stop him.

A question on double-headers through the league was what set it off and with every word, Fitzgerald delved deeper and deeper into the issues that go hand-in-hand with ladies football today.

“The girls… playing before the men, I’m not sure,” he ponders. “But they like playing in front of crowds and in the nice stadiums. And that’s the one thing: I do wish that women would support the women’s game more than they do.

“Last week, they said there was a thousand at our game [semi-final against Dublin]. I don’t know, I doubt that there was. At our game there might have been five or six hundred. It was a quality game but it’s just not supported well enough.

“I think the only way forward probably because of the gates — obviously you need finance if you’re going to be paying the players in terms of their expenses and that — is an affiliation with the GAA. I don’t think there’s any other option but to go down that route.

“I do feel very aggrieved that the girls… we have Melissa Duggan as an example, comes from Dublin to training on the train. That’s at her own expense. We have girls coming from Castletownbere. Cork is a huge county so there’s massive travel and commitment involved. Only for their parents and themselves…

“I don’t think they should be out of pocket for doing it… okay, they love it, you could argue that. But at the same time, they’re representing their county and it’s disappointing.

Libbby Coppinger and Ephie Fitzgerald celebrate after the game Libby Coppinger and Ephie Fitzgerald. Bryan Keane / INPHO Bryan Keane / INPHO / INPHO

“We’re one of the lucky ones because our county board are very good to us. We wouldn’t want for anything. But I would like to see the girls receive expenses, what the men get.”

Another player on his panel who he mentions travels crazy distances is dual star Libby Coppinger.

A Bantry native, she’s been at the centre of several high-profile clashes through the years with inter-county ladies football and camogie championship matches fixed for the same day.

As Rebels ladies football selector James Masters asked The42 in August 2017: “Would it happen in the men’s game? Not a hope. It’s actually embarrassing.”

An affiliation with the GAA may see those avoided.

Ye’ve had your fair share of them in the past, Ephie….

And he’s off again.

“Oh, we have,” he begins. “And that’s grossly unfair on the players. Now, we have a great relationship with the camogie below. Myself and [camogie boss Paudie] Murray, we get on grand. There’d be no issue.

“Our thing is not to flog the girls in terms of them doing too much training. We just have two this year — Hannah Looney and Libby Coppinger. We have a good relationship there so there’s no issue.

“It’s just having fixtures on the same day. Even a day between them is something but having them on the same day is disappointing. You can’t expect any athlete to play two games at that intensity in the one day. Hopefully that will all improve.

“As I say, if there is an affiliation, then those things can be worked out I’m sure.

“The ladies game, there’s so much room for improvement there and so much potential. It’s a great product. It’s a fabulous game to look at. These girls are every bit as skilful, our girls are every bit as skilful as any fella I’ve ever worked with. Lots of them are. It’s just the wheel turns slowly in Ireland, I suppose and it takes time to get things going. I think we’re moving in the right direction.

“From the LGFA’s point of view it’s not as easy as just saying, ‘We’ll affiliate with the GAA’ because there’s employment issues and a whole range of other stuff. There’s pride as well, but there comes a time in everything I suppose when the product outgrows what you can provide for it. I think we’re at that stage now with the ladies, and we want to grow it.

Orla Finn and and Megan Glynn Orla Finn tackles Megan Glynn. Bryan Keane / INPHO Bryan Keane / INPHO / INPHO

The Nemo Rangers clubman adds: “I think ladies football is probably growing way faster than the men’s side of it. It’s just the catch that the bus doesn’t leave the station and there’s nowhere for it to go. That’s the biggest problem.

“Probably not in my time, but I would hope that that affiliation will take place and that they’ll be treated as equals. I do think that ladies need to get out more and support.

“And to be fair, the players themselves, they don’t do enough themselves in terms of pushing themselves. Girls are very accepting — ‘Ah, sure it’s grand… we’ll get on with it’. Whereas fellas would be pushy, pushy, pushy. I kill my girls for that. I’d say, ‘Come on, girls. Ye deserve better than that’. Because they do like.”

In Monday night’s episode of GAA Eile, Dara Ó Cinnéide visited — and spent a fair chunk of time with — the Mayo and Donegal ladies football camps.

We got a taste of the amount of time, effort and sacrifice players put in, and just how much the game has evolved and standards have risen through the years.

With Fitzgerald’s 11-time All-Ireland champions to the forefront of that along with Mick Bohan’s Dublin, Fitzgerald takes a look back at the main things he’s seen change since taking the reins in 2016.

“I suppose the big changes are probably strength and conditioning, nutrition, psychology, individual training — goalkeeper-specialised training, backs training, forwards training; we do an awful lot of that.

“Our girls, I’d safely say are training six times a week. Four times with us and twice doing sessions on their own. There’s an awful lot of time and effort being put into it.  The game has got so fast and so physical. 

“I would hope that the game doesn’t get too physical though. That’s one worry I might have — that the game gets a little too physical. The beauty of it is the free-flowing stuff.

“Girls are crashing into one another now and it’s becoming a more physical game. You don’t want that with ladies going forward in terms of their future, maybe having children in the future and that. It’s alright for us. We get crashed and we get crocked and that, but I think it’s a little bit different for ladies.”

Strength and conditioning training has gone through the roof, he adds. But after all, like the men’s game, inter-county football has turned into a lifestyle of sorts.

“You’re gone from the days now that you can kind of go out, play your game and have a load of sweets on the way home,” he grins. “We’ve moved on big time from that.

“Senior ladies inter-county football is a lifestyle choice now really, as much as anything else. The easy bit in a sense is the playing. It’s the nutrition and strength and conditioning and your sleep and managing your time and what not..”

As it’s been said before, it’s almost like living professional lifestyle while still an amateur sport. 

Over the past few years, many players have opted to fully follow the professional dream to the AFLW however. As it stands now, inter-county players can head out for pre-season in October if the opportunity arises, the league starts in January and finishes up at the end of March — just in time for the business end of the league and championship season at home.

While Cavan’s Laura Corrigan Duryea was the first to play professionally Down Under, she had been living there already, but Cora Staunton showed the potential to do both in the 2018 season.

Her fellow Mayo native Sarah Rowe was one of four others to follow suit in 2019, along with CrossCoders graduates Ailish Considine, Aisling McCarthy and Yvonne Bonner.

Mayo sisters Niamh and Grace Kelly, and Tipperary’s Orla O’Dwyer have all signed deals for next season, with an Irish duo also on their way to Fremantle and more to go elsewhere over the coming weeks. 

There are once-in-a-lifetime opportunities there, and that can’t be ignored.

Saoirse Noonan scores a goal Saoirse Noonan scoring a goal against Galway. Bryan Keane / INPHO Bryan Keane / INPHO / INPHO

While none of Fitzgerald’s panel have approached him about it yet, he fully understands the lure, and feels it comes down to the choice of the individual.

“When you compare Australia — beautiful country, big country, freedom for girls, gorgeous weather, sights are second to none, you’re training as a professional; I suppose it’s a choice really,” he says.

“I wouldn’t discourage anybody from going. The only thing I would say is that it has to be a short-term thing because from a financial point of view, it’s not viable for people to go and make a living out of it I would assume now.

“That’s in the very early stages of development as well. If it’s an adventure for somebody for four or five months… now, I haven’t heard of any of our girls that want to go on their adventure, but you never know. I would never stop anybody going to be honest or ask them to stay if they want to go.”

“We’re lucky enough that most of our girls would want to stay and play,” he concludes. “I’d say it will become more of a problem as the years go by. Already, there’s been what? Five, and two more now [our conversation was shortly after the Kellys signed].

“They’re starting up new teams and the obvious place to come is Ireland, isn’t it?”

It seems to be, yes.

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