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Dublin: 8°C Wednesday 24 February 2021

'It'd be a lovely Christmas present this year to be playing in Croke Park on the Sunday before it'

The All-Ireland ladies football senior championship is off the mark – and it’s shaping up to be one to remember.

AFTER ALL THE talk of Covid, Level 5 restrictions and restructured championships, the race for the Brendan Martin Cup got underway last night.

sinead-aherne-lifts-the-brendan-martin-cup Dublin's three-in-a-row captain Sinéad Aherne lifting the silver in Croke Park last year. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

The TG4 cameras pitched up in Kingspan Breffni Park to open the broadcasters’ 20th year of stellar ladies football coverage on a high, and Armagh came out on top in a high-scoring All-Ireland senior championship opener against Ulster rivals Tyrone.

As the curtain is raised on a mouthwatering opening weekend of top-tier action, the meeting of 2019 finalists Galway and last year’s intermediate champions Tipperary also gets the live TV treatment from the Gaelic Grounds this afternoon. Then, all eyes return to Cavan later as Dublin open their title defence — and four-in-a-row bid — against an ever-threatening Donegal outfit.

And that’s before it even hits Sunday, when Cavan and Kerry will do battle in Birr. 11-time champions Cork, Peter Leahy’s Mayo, Waterford and Monaghan will all be watching from afar this weekend before entering the arena for Round 2, with each and every clash do-or-die as just the group winners progress to semi-finals.

That winner-takes-all element certainly adds to the excitement surrounding this weird, but hopefully wonderful, championship through the pandemic with each game set to come right down to the wire — or the now-famous hooter in an eerily empty venue.

Most across the country consider Mick Bohan’s all-conquering Dublin the team to beat again. The depth of their panel is admirable, and as Cork legend Juliet Murphy said earlier this week, their physicality and fitness levels are nothing short of amazing.

“They’ve raised the bar another notch,” but the nine-time champion believes the flagbearers certainly are beatable.

The chasing pack is hot on their heels between the ever-present Rebels, last year’s runners-up Galway, this resurgent Mayo side and of course, their opponents this evening, Dongeal, to name but a few contenders.

And Dublin captain Sinéad Aherne is well aware of how easily everything could come crashing down in the click of a finger after a 237-day layoff from competitive action.

Back then, they were facing into an early league exit and concerned about the long wait until championship action in July. Oh, how things changed so fast. The same could easily happen this evening, Aherne stresses.

2019-tg4-ladies-football-championship-launch Tracey Leonard, Carla Rowe, Geraldine McLaughlin and Doireann O'Sullivan at last year's championship launch. Source: Brendan Moran/SPORTSFILE

“It could be a very short championship for us and we’re well aware of that. We’re in a pretty tough group this year so by all means, if we get caught by Donegal on the first day that’s it, it’s a six-week championship and that’s the end of it.

“We’d like to be playing as long as we can, that’s the way you want to win it. But to be able to keep training and keep advancing in the championship would be a nice distraction for people.”

Should they fail to overcome Donegal under the bright lights — which happened on the opening night of the league in Croke Park last year — it will be very hard to get out of a group which also contains Waterford. 

“We’re well aware of the huge threat they can pose,” Aherne adds of their opening day assignment, with Aussie Rules duo Yvonne Bonner returning to the Tír Chonaill outfit to link up with deadly inside forward Geraldine McLaughlin.

“I always would have thought Donegal were well capable of challenging for All-Irelands and maybe of all years, this suits them.

“They probably have a lot of challenges every year in terms of player availability and travel, so maybe with more players being home-based, they have more players together consistently over a good period of time.

I’m sure they’ll absolutely fancy a crack at taking down the All-Ireland champions in the first game and that’s something that we have to be ready for.”

Aherne’s 17th season is like none she’s experienced before, but she’s “reasonably happy” to play on through the Level 5 conflict with strict protocols in place. That said, she hasn’t given the whole thing “too much overarching consideration” with the goalposts moving so often.

Every time she laces up the boots is a bonus in the current climate. She’s just rolling with the punches and enjoying the privilege of representing her county. The same applies for Cork sharpshooter Orla Finn.

While the star forward recently spoke at length about how pleased she is to have inter-county football back in her life, she’ll have to wait another week before feeling the white-hot heat of championship.

dublin-v-cork-lidl-ladies-national-football-league-division-1-round-3 Finn facing Niamh Collins and Martha Byrne in the league earlier this year. Source: Stephen McCarthy/SPORTSFILE

Ephie Fitzgerald’s Leesiders open their tilt with an all-Munster battle against Kerry, and with everything taking place in the depths of winter before culminating in the All-Ireland final on Sunday, 20 December, Finn can’t hide her excitement.

“It’ll be strange alright but I suppose it’ll be one to remember too in years to come, looking back on this winter championship that went ahead,” the Kinsale player says.

“I’ve been lucky enough with club, we got to a junior and intermediate All-Ireland final in 2016 and 2017 so I’ve actually played big championship games in the winter and as far as I can remember, the weather wasn’t too bad back then.

“I think we got a lot of our worst weather in January and February some years so we might get some mild days and things might be okay. But it’s something to look forward to, and as I say, it’s something different.

It’d be a lovely Christmas present this year to be playing in Croke Park on the Sunday before it!”

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Though it would be quite different without the 56,114 screaming fans in the stands of HQ, like last September.

She too is relishing the effective knockout nature of games, with performing on the day paramount. Like we’ve seen through the GAA’s inter-county return, Covid could wreak havoc with a team’s preparations too, so that’s another challenge.

“You don’t know what’s going to happen,” Finn nods. “You could be down a good few number of players, through close contacts or maybe positive cases. You could be lucky or unlucky, and it’s going to be the same for every county.

“It is the mental state that will drag you over the line on the day. You can’t really panic as a team if you are down a few of your starting players coming up to game. That’s a thing that we’ll have to teach ourselves to get through.

“We just have to be more mentally strong really.”

That, too, is the view from the outside looking in. Gráinne McElwain, previously the face of TG4′s ladies football coverage before landing a job with Sky Sports this year, certainly feels so.

cork-v-cavan-tg4-all-ireland-ladies-football-senior-championship-group-2-round-2 McElwain interviewing Orla Finn last summer. Source: Piaras Ó Mídheach/SPORTSFILE

A Monaghan native and Farney fan through and through, though a keen follower of her adopted county in Galway, McElwain is predicting a different — but somewhat similar, too — ladies football championship.

“This year for all the codes, the depth of the panel is going to have a huge bearing because, I mean, we are going to see Covid cases from now on, we’re seeing it already,” she told The42 some weeks back.

“I think the depth of the panel is going to be huge asset. You’re nearly looking at Dublin already in ladies football anyway, they have a strong panel, Cork as well and Galway are going good.

“You’re nearly looking at the big guns that have been there over the past few years in ladies football, that you think are going to be there again.” 

Indeed, those are the thoughts of many. But anything could happen over the next few weeks in this winter wonderland.

This weekend’s remaining TG4 All-Ireland senior championship fixtures

Saturday October 30  

Group 2 Round 1: Tipperary v Galway – LIT Gaelic Grounds, 3pm – live on TG4 

Group 3 Round 1: Dublin v Donegal – Kingspan Breffni, 5pm – live on TG4 

Sunday November 1 

Group 1 Round 1: Cavan v Kerry – St Brendan’s Park, Birr, 1pm – live on LGFA Facebook page.

The groups in full

Group 1: Kerry, Cavan, Cork

Group 2: Tipperary, Galway, Monaghan

Group 3: Dublin, Donegal, Waterford

Group 4: Tyrone, Armagh, Mayo.

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Emma Duffy

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