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Always striving for better on and off the pitch - from Tyrone All-Ireland winner to GPA chief

Gemma Begley reflects on her inter-county career and the overall development of ladies football.

Gemma Begley speaking at a recent GPA media briefing.
Gemma Begley speaking at a recent GPA media briefing.
Image: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

GEMMA BEGLEY LOOKS back on her inter-county career with fondness.

That’s certainly not the only emotion, but perhaps the overriding one.

The Tyrone All-Ireland intermediate champion and three-time All-Star is best known now for her role with the Gaelic Players’ Association, where she recently became the Association’s first Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Officer, but she’s had nothing short of a roller coaster journey on the field.

Still leading the charge with her club, Carrickmore, Begley announced her Red Hand retirement in January 2019. 15 years after first joining the county senior panel.

“Long, and ups and downs,” Begley grins, as she reflects on the road taken to this point.

“Now that I’m retired, all that stands out is just that I’m thankful for the experiences that I did have and the people I met along the way and shared it with. You get over the bad days, learn plenty from them. It was brilliant.

“I was very fortunate and very lucky with the club that I had.”

Where it all begins, and of course, where it sadly ends.

Rewind the clock to 2002. A fresh-faced 17-year-old at the time, Begley and Carrickmore reached the All-Ireland senior club final. Although they fell to Mayo heavyweights Carnacon, the teenager was adamant the good times would always roll.

“I probably thought we’d be there every year,” she admits now.

“We won six in-a-row club county titles when I started playing with the senior team, and probably thought that success was just gonna run and run. It probably dried up a little bit in later years but in some ways, you appreciate it all the more.”

louise-keegan-and-gemma-begley Facing Dublin in 2005. Source: INPHO

The first few years with Tyrone were fairly barren, but Begley still established herself as one of the top forwards in the country against the odds. In the 2007 All-Ireland quarter-final, she famously scored 3-6.

“We kind of got a bit more successful towards the end of the 2000s,” she nods.

2010 was one like no other.

A year in which they graced the biggest stage, after taking an even bigger scalp.

Tyrone gem Begley born to sparkle on big stage

The headline of an Irish Independent article ahead of that year’s All-Ireland final said it all. Labelled “the Johnny Doyle of the ladies game” and “Tyrone’s female equivalent of Brian Dooher” within for her stunning scoring exploits, Begley simply excelled.

She inspired Tyrone to one of the biggest shocks in the ladies game, as they dumped five-in-a-row champions Cork out in the All-Ireland quarter-final.

It was the Rebels’ only championship blip in their reign of terror from 2005 to 2016.

So 2010 understandably stands out in her memory.

“It was the year we beat Cork and then we got hammered by Dublin [in the final], so it was a bit of a roller coaster but it was honestly so memorable.

“We had 23 on the panel for the All-Ireland final that year, it was just the best bunch of girls. The bond between the girls was something else. It’s hard to say whether or not I’ve regrets from the final, we were that comprehensively beaten.

“Beating Cork will probably always stand out as a highlight — being the only team that was able to achieve that throughout their reign.

“Until my dying breath I would say that we were so confident going into that game, we probably always felt that we were gonna do it, there was never any question. Niall Colton and Colin Donnelly were over us that year, and they were something else, in terms of making you believe in yourself.” 

gemma-begley-and-linda-barret In action in that famous 2010 victory over Cork. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

A few less successful — or “lean,” as she puts it — years later, and Tyrone were down at intermediate level. In 2016, the decision was taken to regrade, akin to what Meath did the following year in a much more publicised story given their monumental 2021 success.

“We were in the senior doldrums, but I didn’t agree with the decision at the time,” Begley recalls. “I just fundamentally believed that they were fixing one of the symptoms of the problem rather than the core problem, which was the organisation of coaching and development within the county.

“Given the numbers that Tyrone has playing and the club facilities and the number of coaches and the set-up at Garvaghey and all the former players that are now coaching, it just felt to me like it was the wrong thing, that we should have started from scratch nearly and tackled all them things rather than just regrade from senior to intermediate level.

“The other problem was they didn’t appoint a manager until a week before the league basically had started, and I was probably fairly disillusioned at that point. So I actually took 2016 out.”

Having detailed personal frustration with the game in detail in a previous piece with The42 over Christmas 2021, that was clearly at an all-time high.

A niggling Achilles injury had also haunted her in the two years prior to that, so some time away would do her the world of good. That said, she still suffers with chronic pain.

With Gerry Moane in situ as manager by 2017, a good conversation was had between the pair and Begley reassessed the situation.

“I suppose at that point, I felt like I had a choice. I didn’t want that to be the way to retire either. And if Tyrone weren’t going to get back to senior any time before that, you had a choice: suck it up and go back, and enjoy it for a personal decision as much as wanting to go to my own terms as well…”

She returned. In 2017, they fell to Tipperary in the All-Ireland intermediate final in Croke Park, but it was a case of redemption 12 months on when they beat the Royals in the decider.

It was a different experience for Begley, but one she thoroughly enjoyed.

“I was just getting older and slower so by the time I went back in 2017, it nearly felt like I was giving as much in terms of being able to work with the younger girls and give something back to them, and whatever experience I could give to the team. It nearly felt like my role had changed at that point, if that makes sense.

gemma-begley-celebrates-grainne-rafferty-scoring Celebrating amidst that 2017 win. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“But it was absolutely enjoyable, I’m so glad I did [go back] now like. Them two years were brilliant; Gerry and the team were fantastic, there were so many good young girls coming through and it was a pleasure just to be able to see them develop and grow. It was nice.

“A few people would ask me why I didn’t play on back at senior level… I suppose I had put in an awful year with my Achilles in both legs at that point, and probably had given all I could. And then I suppose the fact that I’m still working at it too, it certainly is an element, the fact that you’re working all day with players and then you’re going home in the evening and training, you probably never really get to switch off.

“So I was probably just ready for it. And the club was coming good at that time. The club had massive success underage but unfortunately in 2019 we got relegated to intermediate for the first time. I’m sort of on the same curve now finishing up my years with the club. There’s a great bunch of talent coming through and it’s great to see them flourishing, and to be able to play a supporting role to help them develop.”

The enjoyment shines through as she speaks of recent times with Carrickmore; from winning the Tyrone intermediate championship in 2020, to re-establishing themselves in the senior ranks and the balance the split season allows for.

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She’s well aware that nothing lasts forever, and is content with how everything stands now.

The year out from Tyrone helped prepare her for inter-county retirement, as did the Jim Madden leadership programme and her injury struggles. Having been “completed tied up in sport,” self-reflection, perspective and a taste of life outside the bubble all helped.

She’s firmly outside it now, an onlooker from afar, though won’t rule out a return to the inside in a different capacity.

“When retirement came around, I was more than happy. At that point it felt like I was making my own decision and probably never looked back to be honest with you. I have no real regrets, just so thankful for all the good people that I worked with and helped me — I wouldn’t just say on the field, but helped me grow as a person as well through club and county.

“In the future you’d definitely still feel that love for the jersey and wanting to give back in some capacity. I don’t think I’ve watched a game yet where I feel jealous or feel like I’m missing out, as such. At the time of my life when I was there, you gave it everything you could and now, I’m very thankful for it.”

While Tyrone have since yo-yo’d back to intermediate, relegated by Tipperary in last year’s basement battle decider, Begley is hopeful they can push on once again.

For now, her main focus is on the GPA and the bigger picture.

gemma-begley-announced-as-gpa-equality-diversity-and-inclusion-manager Begley is the first GPA Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Manager. She's pictured here with Dublin camogie player and artist Aisling Maher, who produced charcoal portraits of the founding members of the GPA and WGPA. Source: Sam Barnes/SPORTSFILE

So as always, it’s interesting to hear her thoughts on the growth of ladies football.

From that 17-year-old in the 2002 All-Ireland club final to now, how far has the game come? And, of course, what’s next?

“I suppose there’s the obvious improvements and the growth and development, the media coverage, things like the All-Ireland final attendances. Then the players’ experience, in terms of the consistency of them being able to feel like they’re getting the most out of themselves as athletes, minimum standards and supports, has definitely progressed. I think that’s where maybe it’s most progressed, in terms of the playing experience, which is brilliant.

“The reality of the playing experiences can sometimes be different when you contrast it, especially with the men’s game. I know facilities is the hot topic at the minute: You’ve female inter-county senior teams probably paying about €5,000 a year for access and facilities… which is crazy when you think about it.

“I suppose the easiest way to summarise where I see things go next, and it is again topical, all the conversations I’m having at the minute seem to flow to the natural end point of integration solves an awful lot of the problems and challenges that the females face in terms of access and pitches.

“We can take it back to Tyrone, the girls have to pay €90, I think it is, a session to access the Centre of Excellence. When I have this conversation with people, it still shocks them and I’m like, ‘I’m sick telling people about this’. The fact that they have to pay €90 to access a GAA facility, it drives me mad because it’s so nonsensical. Everyone’s playing in the same jersey, you’re representing the same people, it’s so mixed through families, all the supporters club within Tyrone feel like they’re supporting all codes, and yet, the females still don’t have any of their own facilities.

“You’re basically at the whim of the men to decide who gets on the pitch, and you’re tenth in the pecking order behind all the men’s development teams and minors and that. I do just think that the three Associations being separate at this point is like a hangover of just the way things used to be, and it’s time to just move on.

“I’ll come back to challenging the status quo, I think it’s just not good enough anymore — say that money that the female teams are paying just to get on a pitch, if you were able to give that back to the players or to the development or whatever it is that you could feed back into the female game, sure that would be great on its own. It’s not really just about money though, it’s about recognition. I suppose we, as a players body now, see all players as equal. They should all be equally recognised as inter-county players by their collective Gaelic games administration.

“That’s where I’d like to see it going: that all players are recognised equally. And how you activate that in the future is things around facilities, charters and all that other stuff that the men are so far ahead on. Just keep on challenging and working together on it.

“I don’t know if that answers where ladies football is going or not, but that’s where I’d like to see it going. Just that more joined-up thinking and tackling areas like facilities, it’s something that’s so solvable and would give equal recognition to players. That’s probably a worthy aspiration.”

Tyrone v Wexford, All-Ireland intermediate championship quarter-final, throw-in 2.30pm, Donaghmore-Ashbourne, Co Meath.

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Emma Duffy

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