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'You can get wrapped up in sport and think it's the be all and end all - but the people are more important'

Dublin and Melbourne star Niamh McEvoy on the AFLW through the Covid-19 crisis and her debut season there.

IN THIS CURRENT crazy world, we all know that everything is changing from day to day. Hour to hour, minute to minute, even. 

On Thursday, Melbourne FC confirmed that the decision had been made for Dublin duo Niamh McEvoy and Sinéad Goldrick to travel home amidst the evolving Covid-19 crisis.

3 Dublin and Melbourne star Niamh McEvoy. Source: Melbourne FC.

As a result, they would miss the AFL Women’s Finals Series and this weekend’s showdown against Greater Western Sydney Giants. A whirlwind few days followed as the pair reluctantly set off on a long, and rather strange, journey home.

McEvoy watched the Dees produce a massive win from her Dublin home in the early hours of Saturday morning, as she remained buckled in on this bittersweet rollercoaster of emotion.

With the jetlag well and truly taking hold 24 hours later, she read the breaking news early this morning — No premiership in 2020: AFLW season ends immediately.

The four-time All-Ireland winner wasn’t exactly shocked. She had been there through the recent talks between the league and AFL Players Association as the future of the season hung in the balance.

A three-week, six-team finals series was decided upon with the majority of the players in favour of that option, as they scrapped the last two rounds of the regular season. But despite all of that, everything remained up in the air as the coronavirus made its presence felt Down Under.

“That decision was made, but made knowing that as a result, the competition might not be fulfilled,” McEvoy explained to The42 this morning. “I think everyone was happy, just in terms of the integrity of the competition.

It will go down in history. There will be an asterisk beside Fremantle’s name, they were unbeaten in the competition, but I think to have gone ahead and just played a Grand Final this year wouldn’t have been great for the integrity of the competition.

“I think what they tried to do was admirable, but from a public health point of view, it just didn’t work out. They’re two weeks behind us in terms of their lockdown procedures and stuff so I’m not sure if they realised how serious the distancing measures needed to be taken.

“Obviously we’re very lucky, we were in a really good club. All the medical professionals were really far ahead of the curve and we were practicing good measures in the club for the last month or so.

As soon as it was looking like travel was being suspended, and borders were being closed, all the medical professionals in our club were very eager to get myself and Sinéad home.

While the Irish imports were reluctant about missing important games at first, in hindsight, McEvoy knows coming home was the right decision.

While others stayed put, more Irish followed, and now Australia is warning against non-essential travel as a nationwide lockdown approaches this week.

“The club came to us and they said, ‘Listen girls, we’re thinking about trying to get you home as quick as we can, we know the situation in Ireland; everybody’s in lockdown,’” 2019 All-Star forward McEvoy continued.

aflw-magpies-demons Facing Collingwood earlier in the season. Source: AAP/PA Images

“They had rang the Irish Consulate on our behalf, they had been in touch with the AFL and the AFL PA, and the medical team in the club felt it would be best for myself and Sinéad to get home when we did.

“Obviously, we put up a little bit of resistance to that, just because we’re competitive people and we would have liked to have played this weekend. But at the end of the day, when the experts in the area are telling you what they think, you can’t really ignore it.

“Melbourne’s a really special club, and they had our best interests at heart despite the fact that their list numbers were really, really low with injuries and stuff. I’ve always be grateful to the club for how they’ve treated me since day one. This is just another aspect of that.”

“I said when we were going to Melbourne at the very start that we wanted to go somewhere that reflects the culture and the values of where we’re coming from in Dublin over the last few years,” she added.

For as long as I have been involved, it’s always been the case that the person and the people are more important than sport. Sometimes you can get wrapped up in sport and think it’s the be all and end all, but I’m very lucky to have been involved in a place that’s like Dublin, in Melbourne, where their biggest concern was the individuals.

“Even thought it was to the detriment of the list going into that preliminary final, as it transpired, despite the fact that myself and Sinéad wanted to stay, it was obviously the right decision and we’re just really grateful. They’ve been very good to us from start to finish.”

Watching her side’s remarkable three-point comeback win in the early hours of Saturday morning, McEvoy could hardly contain her pride. One team-mate in particular was the hero, as Lily Mithen nailed a goal kick in the dying minutes to seal the victory.

After three years of trucking, the young forward scored her first AFLW goal earlier in the game so that all-important score with 25 seconds on the clock came as her second.

“She’s an incredible character so I knew we had the right person standing over that kick at the end. I was so proud of her in that moment, and I was just so happy for the girls, despite the fact that me and Sinéad weren’t involved.

No matter what happens next year, whether I’m involved or not, I’ll always want the best for that group and that club. They gave me such an amazing experience. Such a nice place, such an amazing culture. It was just a great place to be involved.

The win matters little in the grand scheme of things now, but you can nearly hear McEvoy — who worked as a primary school teacher before recently completing a Masters in Business and Entrepreneurship in DIT — smiling down the phone as she reflects on her a stellar debut season Down Under.

“Obviously, Melbourne held on to a huge amount of their list [ahead of the 2020 season] — more than any club. All the girls are very loyal to the club, so they had a very, very strong list coming into the season,” she said.

niamh-mcevoy In action in the 2018 All-Ireland final. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“They held on to all their starting team and then they held on to the majority of their interchanges as well. Myself and Sinéad were up against it to try and get into the matchday team.

“Everyone was so welcoming and so good to us… so patient with us as well. We made silly mistakes regarding the rules. Even girls who were crossing codes from basketball and stuff like that wouldn’t make the same rule mistakes as me and Sinéad.

“They would have grown up watching the sport, whereas myself and Sinéad hadn’t even watched it before. I think we were doing some silly things! They were all very patient with us, they were all very good.”

After missing round one through illness, the St Sylvester’s forward debuted in round two and established herself as a regular for the Dees from there.

Earlier this month, she kicked her first AFLW goal against West Coast Eagles. She and Goldrick combined brilliantly for the goal, as McEvoy enjoyed another brilliant showing.

I can’t really give a highlight, the experience as a whole was amazing. I loved making my debut, it was very special to have my parents there for that. It was just a great experience overall.

The 29-year-old also basked in the strong Dublin history at the club.

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Of course, Melbourne FC was the home of the late Jim Stynes. The Dubliner joined the club as a teenager before going on to make 264 appearances in a glittering career, and then spent time as assistant coach and club president after his playing days.

The beloved Irish-born AFL legend passed away in March 2012 after a long battle with cancer. His younger brother, Brian, also played for the club, and was on hand to present Goldrick with her debut jersey. That connection made it all the more special for McEvoy.

“Obviously I was very aware of the legacy Jim Stynes had made before I went over there. It was just amazing to go over and see first-hand the impact he’d made. He was an incredible man.

“While we were over there, Brian reached out to us. Myself and Sinéad would always have been aware that Brian had an incredible Dublin career — won an All-Ireland in 1995 and an All-Star. He was very, very good to us.

He invited us over for dinner a couple of times. He obviously has strong connections with Melbourne, being Jim’s brother and having togged out a few times for them himself. It was lovely to meet him.

“He was able to advise us on the mistakes we were making and why we were making them, he was coming from an Irish perspective and could understand how our mindset and thinking would be around the game. That was really helpful.

“It was lovely to have that connection. Myself and Sinéad are obviously very proud Dublin people and it was just extra special to go to a club that has strong Dublin connections.”

1 (3) McEvoy and Goldrick as they signed for Melbourne. Source: Melbourne FC.

And while Melbourne have left the door open for their potential return — “We know the girls are disappointed that it has ended like this for now, but we look forward to hopefully seeing them back next season” — and it’s something McEvoy won’t rule out, her full focus now switches to Mick Bohan’s Dublin set-up now.

McEvoy, like everyone else in the current climate, is taking things day by day, but she’s keen to get back into the thick of it with the Sky Blues as soon as possible.

“The focus is straight back to Dublin. I was on to Ken Robinson, our strength and conditioning coach, already, just to touch base with him and I’m really, really looking forward to getting to see the girls again.

“I’m talking about how much of a special group it is over in Melbourne and how they’ve held on to all their list and all the girls are so loyal, but I’m just so lucky that I have something equally as special here at home.

Dublin’s always going to be my first team and GAA’s always going to be my first sport, so I’m not going to rush into a decision on next year. I’m just really looking forward to getting going with the GAA side of things again.

“If we get going at all,” she adds, with a nervous giggle. “Obviously I’m grateful to have gotten home, to be locked down here in the comfort of my own home and close enough to my family.

“I was very surprised when I got home. I’m very proud of how everybody in Ireland has reacted to it and everybody’s taking it very seriously — and no doubt the Australians will be in the same boat in the next couple of days.”

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Emma Duffy

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