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Dublin: 9 °C Wednesday 16 October, 2019
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'I remember just watching and thinking, 'That could be me next year if I put my mind to it''

Cuala 19-year-old Jennifer Dunne is hoping to put the icing on her incredible Dublin breakthrough.

ENJOYING A REAL breakthrough season in the Dublin set-up this year, Jennifer Dunne is happy to take a short trip down memory lane. 

jennifer-dunne Dublin star Jennifer Dunne. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

19 now and in her second year on the panel with the three in-a-row hype unavoidable at this stage, the Cuala star is brought back to the 2017 All-Ireland final.

That day, the Sky Blues beat Mayo in Croke Park to get their hands on the Brendan Martin Cup for the first time since 2010, and the second time ever. The scenes at the final whistle said it all as Mick Bohan steered his charges to the Holy Grail after three decider defeats in-a-row, but 17-year-old Dunne could just watch on from the stands as a fan with her clubmates.

“We got a huge group of us, and got loads of premium level tickets,” she recalls, with the cohort supporting Cuala’s own Martha Byrne.

“I remember sitting up and watching her. I think Martha went off because she had a cramp in her leg or something for the last few minutes and we were all worried because we actually had a club championship match the following week.

“We were all panicking and like, ‘Oh my God, will she be okay?’ I remember just watching and I kind of was like, ‘That could be me next year if I put my mind to it’. It was, and it was just unbelievable, so great.”

Just a few short months later, she found herself catapulted from minor into an All-Ireland winning set-up.

“I never won an All-Ireland or anything underage with minor or U16, so coming into this was obviously a big step up,” the second year primary school teaching student at DCU St Pat’s says.

“The girls are all great and the older ones are so welcoming. I was always at ease with the older girls. You just adapt. Obviously at the beginning, it was quite nerve-wracking because you’re a little young girl coming in, but like that everyone’s so nice and there’s people you can go to and talk to, and it’s not even an issue.”

Dunne points out the younger group of 18 and 19-year-olds; semi-final goal hero Caoimhe O’Connor, Niamh Hetherton and Kate Sullivan among others, assuring that everyone on the panel wants one another to achieve, and everyone looks out for each other. Key ingredients to success, of course.

The absence of trophies at underage level led to lessened expectations at senior level, but it all came as a baptism of fire in the end. The rising teen well and truly caught Bohan’s eye; her sheer hard work, athleticism and impressive ball-carrying ability soon earning her a few substitute cameos. 

A taste here and there, but then came the big one: her crucial part in an All-Ireland final 12 months after being that fan in the stands.

dublin-celebrate-after-the-game-with-the-trophy Celebrations in full flow last year. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“Like I said, I never won anything underage so I didn’t really have any expectations,” she stresses. “Coming in, it was just great the year we had. I was still so young but you learn so much from the older girls. Just even little things…

“I gained so much confidence in myself as well, everyone helped each other, and then coming on, you do your part for the team at the end of the day. Everyone on the panel, there’s so much strength on the panel that if you’re called upon you know you have to do a job.

“I think it was only a few minutes that I got but and even like that, if you’re only getting a few minutes….”

Specifics enhance the story, however. What about her abiding memory of it all, her arrival coming in the 52nd minute for Nicole Owens at HQ?

Like many others when you ask, there’s more than one.

“It was just… I had never actually played in Croke Park before that as well, ever,” Dunne smiles. “We went out just before the game to watch a little bit of the intermediate game. I kind of was glad of that because you come out of the tunnel and it’s just a wave of sound.

“In that sense that was good because probably only coming out in the warm up would have been very overwhelming. The crowds as well and the support was just great.

“You’re sitting and watching, hoping for the best, and Mick just turns around and it’s like, ‘Right okay, get yourself together and go out and do the simple things right.’”

Out onto the sideline. A few sprints up and down to the get the heart racing and the fire in the belly. The heart was already going 90, she laughs. A record-breaking crowd of 50,141, no biggie.

Just go and do the simple things right.

“It’s such a high intensity game as well, as long as you’re getting your basic hand-passing and kick-passing right, you’re not going to make too many mistakes. I went on and did the simple things.

“It was just unbelievable, it was just so much joy. I think I cried of happiness.”

So that final whistle feeling was a sweet one?

dublin-during-the-national-anthem During the National Anthem last year. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“It’s just elation,” she nods, her smile growing bigger by the second. “It’s just pure joy. Obviously, everyone’s wanting to get over to their parents and family and loved ones as quick as possible. 

“I remember I went up to Mum and Dad and they were in bits as well. We were hugging and everything with the team and then after the whole trophy thing, it’s finding your parents in the crowd somewhere.

“A few of my friends were there too, it was just great. Unbelievable.”

That special moment brings her right back to where it all began. To her beloved Cuala.

She couldn’t miss it with her Dad, and her grandparents — the late Peader, and Mary Dunne — too; the red and white rooted in the family.

“They’re both actually originally from Kildare, they moved up to Dublin and then Cuala was just like their home,” she explains. “They got my Dad and his brother in and literally it was just like, ‘Once you’re born, GAA.’

“I started there at four or five and just loved it ever since. I wouldn’t really want it any other way, to be honest. I’s just so rooted in our family.

“My Mam never even knew anything about GAA before she met my Dad and now she’s involved in teams, my sisters, my brothers, it just brings everyone together in the community.”

She’s the eldest of four, a 17-year-old brother and twin sisters (15) come after, with a joke soon made that Dunne is setting an extremely high standard.

“That’s what my Dad keeps joking, they’re all like, ‘Shut up!’ They don’t want to hear it,” she laughs, before going back to her roots. 

“Cuala’s so important to us as a family, and to everyone in Cuala. It’s like any club. It’s different to Dublin in a sense. The club’s just in the village. Even I just live in Dalkey so whenever I go down it’s such a sense of this is your home and where you come from.”

As she speaks of the hurlers’ All-Ireland two in-a-row in 2017 and 2018 and the atmosphere in her home town of Dalkey, it’s crazy to think that there was no Gaelic games in her secondary school of Loreto, Dalkey: “I went through six years of school, not one Gaelic team was even set up.”

jennifer-dunne-with-dayna-finn Facing Mayo in this year's league. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

5 ft 10 or 11, she reckons, Dunne loved basketball in school, but that had to go. She plays a bit of camogie here and there, but football always has, and always will, be the priority.

“When you’re around 14 or 15, so many girls drop out with the Junior Cert and there’s other things that are priorities; going out with your friends, sometimes you have to play a match on the other side of the country at half five on a Saturday evening, you don’t want to do that.

“But advice to give young girls; just really stick it out because you get through those few years there and keep it going.”

It’s worth it, she beams.

A team of role models now, it must be quite weird for Dunne. Still only 19 herself, appearing at presentations and the likes across the length and breadth of the country. 

She looks to Sinéad Aherne, Niamh McEvoy and Siobhan McGrath as some of the big names in ladies football on the Dublin panel. “And then I come in,” she laughs.

“Little girls come up to me and I’m like, ‘How do you even know who I am?’ You know that kind of way. It’s just I wouldn’t even compare myself to them. They are just so high up.

“But look, it’s great, at the end of the day, the team — it’s all a unison and whether you’re 18 or 30-odd the girls are going to see you the same way. Little girls don’t see a number, they just see, ‘This girl is playing for Dublin.’”

Looking back to when she was that little girl, one photo and one former captain springs to mind.

“I think in 2009 at our Cuala presentation for awards, Denise Masterson was presenting the medals to us. I found the photo the other day and I’m like a little baby, then it’s Denise Masterson and I was like, ‘What the hell?’

“It’s mad how you come a long way. Then in 2010 when they won, I vaguely remember being in Croke Park with my family and like that, looking up to the girls like, ‘Wow’. Like anyone, that could be you one day.”

Just a few short years later, and she started her first game in the Sky Blue jersey this February after making serious impact from the bench in 2018. Dunne lined out from the get-go for the first time in Dublin’s Division 1 league opener against Donegal. 

katy-herron-with-jennifer-dunne Facing Donegal's Katy Herron that day. Source: Tommy Grealy/INPHO

With injuries and departures from the panel, she’s seen a lot more game time this year which is obviously pleasing.

“Everyone’s pushing and the strength of the panel is immense,” she adds. “If you train well, they’re going to give you a shot definitely. Especially in the league, Mick played over 30 [players], late 30s. Everyone got game time which is great in a sense because the league is where you’re finding your feet.

“Some girls, like Caoimhe [O'Connor] and all of them, it was their first time senior playing up. Obviously we had a few games in Croke Park which was really good to get experience under your belt as well.

“At the end of the day, 15 will play and more than likely five will come on. If you’re not going to be in the 15 you’re pushing for that five.”

Dunne is named to start tomorrow as they prepare to welcome Galway to the capital.

More than familiar with Áine McDonagh from her Cuala connections anyway, she knows just how impressive this rising Tribe team are.

“Galway are a great team,” she says ahead of the Connacht county’s first All-Ireland final since 2005. “People are saying they’re inexperienced but they played in Croke Park in the semi which probably is going to be an advantage to them because obviously they got that out of the way.

“Like that, they’ve had a lot of success underage. They beat us when I was playing minor in 2017, they beat us in the semi-final, they have so much talent coming up as well.

“It’s really shaping up to be a great day and we’re just really looking forward to it. It’s obviously going to be different to the last few years because it’s always kind of been Cork.”

With three in-a-row well and truly on, it can’t be ignored. Looking forward to a “unique weekend” and a “festival of football” which saw the Dublin and Kerry men kick things off at HQ last night, Dunne says that they pass no remarks of the hype.

“And it’s the same with the lads,” she nods. “Everyone’s like, ‘Drive for Five’ but at the end of the day, it’s an All-Ireland final whether it’s three in-a-row or 10 in-a-row.

“All you want is to win, come out on the positive side and be victorious. Regardless of whether its three in-a-row or not, we’re just focused on the game and getting over the line really.

“You kind of forget about the three in-a-row. It’s just about the game and that day on the 15th and hopefully getting the result.”

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Emma Duffy

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