Niamh Kelly at the 2019 John West Féile launch. Sam Barnes/SPORTSFILE

'When we first came in, there was a rota for bringing food. We used to pay to come to training'

Mayo captain Niamh Kelly on how far ladies football has come, and her side’s resurgence in 2019.

LAST UPDATE | 22 Apr 2019

2019, THUS FAR, has been a year of resurgence for Mayo.

While they were in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons last year, Peter Leahy’s charges are happy to focus on football this year, using their energy on playing the game at hand and enjoying it in doing so.

“It was difficult and emotional but we have to put everything to bed and focus on the year ahead,” as captain Niamh Kelly told The42 before the league kicked off.

They seem to have done that so far anyway, picking up some decent results and blooding some exciting new talent en route to retaining their top-flight status for 2020: their number one aim from the off in Division 1 of the Lidl Ladies National Football League.

Perhaps a highlight of it all was running back-to-back All-Ireland champions Dublin close at HQ. A thrilling match from end-to-end, Mick Bohan’s kingpins were given a major scare — but they eventually came from behind to win.

“When you come to Croke Park, there’s always going to be big hype about it,” Kelly smiles a few months on, looking out on the very turf at the 2019 John West National Féile launch.

“You want to go out and perform as best as you can. We prepared well for that game. A lot of girls got games. We were winning in the first half but we ran short in the second half — they had super subs that came on.

“Look, it was great to be here and to play another game in Croke Park.”

Back once again after their 2017 All-Ireland final loss to the same opposition. That soon comes up in conversation as we chat about the changes 23-year-old Kelly has seen across the board in ladies football since joining the Westerners’ senior panel.

Everything is on the up. The sport has come on leaps and bounds over the past few years. The profile, standard and interest have all risen tenfold.

“Huge, yeah,” she smiles as she thinks of the vast improvements. “ Lidl and TG4, and 20×20 the new campaign, all the work that they’ve done behind the scenes… they’ve just constantly been at it. It’s shown.

Niamh Kelly Facing Dublin last year. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

“Even this year, I find that we’ve the most exposure to ladies football that we’ve ever had. It’s brilliant.

“You could see it in the All-Ireland final last year like, Cork and Dublin, there was a huge crowd — 51,000 nearly. Even the year before when we were playing Dublin — nearly 47,000. That was unreal.

“Running onto Croke Park and so many people screaming and shouting, you couldn’t even hear your team-mates beside you. That’s the dream. That’s a motivating factor for us to try and get back there again.”

While the Moy Davitts star and her sister, Grace, have been spearheading the Mayo resurgence, they’re also two of the many who have been at the forefront of this movement of sorts in ladies football over the past few years.

They’re flying the flag, and absolutely honoured to be.

“It’s brilliant. Even five years ago, there wasn’t half as much done. It’s exciting to be part of that movement and to see the change from when we came in first to now.

“I remember when we first came in, we were put on a rota for bringing food to training. Each week someone would have to bring sandwiches, I remember bringing Capri Suns and jellies and all that.

“We used to pay to come to training. We’d have this little kitty where we’d put €2 in for every training session. Students would put in a euro and then workers would put in €2 or something. That just shows…

“That would go towards our gear, any team bonding or anything like that.”

It’s great now, she grins, listing the many improvements. Elverys and the new Mayo ladies gym get specific mentions, which all bodes well for the future in the West.

A teacher by trade, Kelly is living and working in Dublin. She teaches in an all-boys school and they’re all mad for football, so it works out brilliantly. Grace lives nearby, and is also teaching in the capital.

They meet up to train during the week along with fellow star forward Sinead Cafferky, while another pod do so on the southside. Then it’s home to Mayo at the weekend, and the entire squad also convene in Moate mid-week.

Grace Kelly Niamh's sister, Grace. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

With many sisters fighting on the field of play, Niamh and Grace seem to get on like a house on fire, expertly linking up and causing havoc for defences across the length and breadth of the country.

Likewise, they’re best friends and as close as ever off the pitch. No rowing, no bitching so.

“That’s behind closed doors!” she giggles, but then picks up as expected. “Me and Grace, yeah, we’d get on very well. We’re both in Dublin and we’re travelling up and down to Dublin all the time so it would be awful if we didn’t get on!

“Ah yeah, Grace is doing well. She’s flying in the forwards there with Rachie [Kearns] beside her. There’ll be competition now with Sarah [Rowe] trying to get her position back as well. It’s great, there’s a lot of opportunities there up for grabs.”

That there are, and captain Kelly’s keen to grab them with both hands.

With a 10-week training block until the Connacht final against Galway ahead, the focus switches back to the club scene to get more minutes of league football under the belt.

“It’s nice to go back to your club as well,” she concludes. “That’s what you need now.

“Especially when you’ve a break of 10 weeks. Everyone needs game time. As well as the hard [county] training, everyone needs actual game time. That’s what you’re playing at the end of the day.”

And why. Loving every minute of it, she is.

Gavan Casey and Murray Kinsella are joined by Andy Dunne to preview the Champions Cup semi-finals and all the week’s news on the latest episode of The42 Rugby Weekly:

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