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'We never went after the female tag at all, we actually went after the game'

A fascinating in-depth chat with Dublin three-in-a-row All-Ireland winning manager Mick Bohan.

RIGHT FROM THE start of it, we said to our group: did they want to be treated like footballers or did they want to be treated like female footballers?

We never went after the female tag at all, we actually went after the game.

– Mick Bohan.

mick-bohan Dublin manager Mick Bohan. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

When Mick Bohan first took over his three-in-a-row All-Ireland winning Dublin side, he made one simple change fairly quickly. 

It didn’t hit him right away, but once it did, he knew something needed to be done.

“On the bus was, ‘Dublin senior ladies football team,’” Bohan explains at 20X20’s Chapter 3 launch. “I said to the county board, ‘In my 16 years involved with lads football, never once has it been on the bus that they’re men.’

“That was one of the first things that we did — got rid of the ladies. So we’re now the Dublin senior football team, they just happen to be females. 

We never went after the gender issue, we never went after equality. In fact we don’t even talk about equality, we talk about fairness.

“I think back to when we started off and girls weren’t getting fed after training; doing the exact same training sessions as their male counterparts, that didn’t make sense.” 

He gives another example or two, and adds: “All those things have become part of the psyche of this group without ever talking about gender inequality, because we don’t.

“Nor have we looked or gone after looking for equality, so like, Croke Park… or people have thrown the team holiday:

‘Do ye not get a team holiday?’

‘No.’

‘Why not?’

‘Because we don’t fill Croke Park.’

And we’re very clear on that; that the onus and responsibility lies on us, not on anybody else, to provide a spectacle for people to come and watch, and if we play to a certain level then they will.

“It might take time but that’s part of the psyche that has to change around female sports. So it’s not just about going to support them because they’re females; go and support them because they’re worth watching — but give them the start.

mick-bohan-talks-too-siobhan-killeen-before-the-game Speaking to Siobhan Killeen. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“I would say that the girls haven’t got the same start as fellas, they haven’t been exposed to the same underage coaching.”

Bohan feels it’s time for people to stop comparing. 

And start appreciating sport for what it is, across both disciplines.

***

It’s always rather fascinating to sit and listen to the Clontarf club man in full flow. 

A top-level manager and coach who has worked across all levels in the men’s game and the women’s game, a PE teacher, a father; he’s well-versed to speak at this launch, and share his opinions from various different perspectives.

25 minutes of conversation, give or take. Six or seven questions asked by the three journalists surrounding him. Bohan is happy to steer the conversation, and share story after story as they come to mind. 

Some fairly straight-forward Dublin news first, before he gets stuck into discussing the 20×20 campaign. He mentions his young daughters, and he’s asked if that’s why he moved into ladies football. Well, he was first involved in the early 2000s, so, no. Not necessarily.

Bohan explains his path to where he is now: working with Dublin development squads and Na Fianna in 2002 before coming on board with the Dublin ladies under Willie Lillis. Taking full charge then for a year, before 14 years in the men’s game. Mostly Dublin and DCU, but then came a special calling to Clare in 2014 under Colm Collins. He planned on taking time out after the death of his father and a close friend, who lived in the Banner, but when Collins came knocking, he couldn’t say no: “It was a fabulous opportunity for me to mark two people who had been significant contributors in my life.”

After a successful year there, the Dublin ladies county board came calling again. In his own head, he was dead set on going back into the Sky Blues’ men’s set-up. 

mick-bohan-with-dublin-ladies-football-team-5102003 Bohan with his Dublin team in 2003. Source: INPHO

But, then again, unfinished business.

“2003 was still in my head, as tends to be the way in sport,” he nods. “I said, ‘You know, there’s an opportunity here to actually answer that.’”

Answer that, he most definitely has. His emphasis on fine-tuning skills has brought the game on leaps and bounds. Not only in Dublin, but all around the country. The Jackies have raised the bar, so everyone else must follow suit.

Bohan casts his mind back to those development squads, and how he coached. 

I used to take out footage from games, like the Owen Mulligan dummy, right? So we’d take that footage and show it to the kids, and we’d ask them to practice it. Now, we’ve done something similar with the girls but we’re picking out clips of fellas.

“Now, gradually we’re starting to get clips of girls…”

He stops in his tracks and opens his laptop to give those around him a quick insight into his set-up. Bohan plays a video, two minutes-long or so, with the heading: DSF 2019 – What is your why? 

One of those truly motivational speeches played over clip after clip of incredible team moves and scores from his players in championship action.

Goosebumps. 

It’s something he shows to his side over and over.

“Now, isn’t that footage as good as anything you’ve ever seen? Isn’t it?” he asks.

So, why do we do that? Because we have to keep repeating it for them to show them things that they can do well. So if you have that continuously, if you have that exposure continuously, that becomes part of what you do.

“You’re expected to make contact in the tackle, you’re expected to score when you shoot. You’re expected to catch a ball when it’s high. You’re expected to be able to kick a ball 40 metres.

Source: 20x20 Campaign/YouTube

“If you don’t have exposure to that or you’re watching footage of a fella, that’s not true. You can’t associate with that. So that’s why we use ‘Can’t Be Can’t See’ with the group.”

Then he contextualises it for young girls. Watching Dean Rock scoring a penalty isn’t comparable to Sinéad Aherne doing so.

I see it in the sports hall so often that a girl scores a basket and the reaction is, ‘Did she just score that?’ And the fella scores a basket: ‘But sure fellas score baskets,’” he adds. “The more often it happens, the more of the norm it is.

“Therefore, now it’s not okay to sit there and not participate, because look at the other girls:

We’re going to Croke Park?’ 

‘Why?’

‘Because the Dublin girls are playing today.’

‘Ok, grand.’

That sets more screws turning in his head.

While at this point in time it’s nearly one day a year, ‘Let’s go to Croke Park’. That’s nearly tokenism. It’s actually started to grate on me, this whole numbers for the final. I’d love it if it was six or seven times a year that kids were [going to Croke Park]. Six times of 20,000 would be a far greater achievement than one time of 56,000 in my opinion.

“That would be a far greater achievement and I would say to you this year, the All-Ireland semi-final was a bigger achievement than the final because that sense of exposure or recognition for supposedly an inferior game, I thought, was huge.”

Exposure is the key to success, Bohan says. And a cultural shift is needed.

Back to the school example again. Just look at kids picking teams in PE.

“90% of the girls would be left to the last, right? And they’d accept that that’s ok. Now, it’s the girls time to get picked.”

He’s taken steps in his own environment to help that change, and with repetition — like the aforementioned video for his players — has felt a shift in the kids’ attitudes over time.

Whether it’s playing sports with less of a focus on strength and speed, more on brainpower — like rounders — every little step helps.

sinead-aherne-and-sofia-mcdonnagh-with-the-brendan-martin-cup Captain Sinead Aherne and Sofia McDonnagh, aged 4, with the Brendan Martin Cup. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

Which reminds him.

I’ve been terribly lucky to have worked with Clucko, who’s an incredible leader, but I look at Sinead Aherne, and I haven’t met anything like her. From the point of view of the skillset of leadership, what she does for her team-mates and the way she looks out for them.

“Now, I can compare that because it’s nothing to do with strength or speed, being able to lead is a skill-set. I can clearly say from my time being involved in top-level Gaelic games that I’ve met two of the best leaders of all, one as good as the other.

“One is a male and one is a female.”

They’re both footballers, after all.

Not a male footballer. Not a female footballer.

Just a footballer.

Likewise, with coaching teams. Bohan manages the Dublin senior football team, not the Dublin senior ladies football team.

Where he’s joined by a certain 2011 Dublin All-Ireland winner as a selector.

“I would have felt Paul Casey getting involved with us last year was a massive step,” he notes. “It’s now okay for a fella who has played senior inter-county football to get involved with a female team in Gaelic games.

“I think that’s a brilliant statement right throughout the country. I guarantee you – because I know this myself, I would have seen it – there are fellas there who would get involved, but they might be afraid of what public perception is. 

‘You can’t be involved with the girls’ team, why wouldn’t you get involved with the fellas’ team? What are you wasting your time getting involved with the girls’ team for?’

“Because that exists. 

paul-casey-dejected-after-the-game Paul Casey in action for his club last year. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“If the Paul Caseys of this world get involved — and people would have given our group an awful lot of credit for the quality of their defending and tackling — and if he’s able to transfer that skill-set over to them as a former senior inter-county footballer, I think that’s a really positive thing for other males who might be contemplating getting involved in the female game:

‘You know what, this is actually okay… or more than okay, This is what we do: we get involved with a girls team or we get involved with a fellas’ team.’ 

Then all of a sudden, we’re not now taking about gender or equality, we’re just saying: we’re Gaels, it doesn’t really matter one way or the other. All those things start to break down barriers.

Back to school one last time before we wrap it up.

“You talk about your PE class,” he concludes, “the knock-on effect is parents start to raise their kids with the same expectancy for a girl as for a fella — which is not the case at this point in time. In most cases. There are exceptions.

“Look at Jack McCaffrey and Sarah McCaffrey, Fiona Hudson and Paul Flynn, or Dean Rock and Niamh McEvoy; those households, their parents, their siblings; they treat one the same as the other. They see them on a par.

“But it has to catch a wider net.”

That, it most certainly does.

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Emma Duffy

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