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The challenges of being an Irish footballer and a teacher during the pandemic

Ireland international Nicola Sinnott balances elite sport with teaching in Enniscorthy.

Nicola Sinnott pictured playing in the FAI Cup final in 2015.
Nicola Sinnott pictured playing in the FAI Cup final in 2015.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Updated Jan 31st 2021, 12:00 PM

THE PANDEMIC HAS been difficult for everyone, but some people have undoubtedly been more impacted than others.

Teachers and footballers certainly haven’t had it easy. Both have been expected to perform in difficult, unfamiliar circumstances, and often away from the relative safety of their home.

As fate would have it, Nicola Sinnott belongs to both these groups. When she is not representing one of the leading sides in the country, Wexford Youths, she is teaching at Coláiste Bríde in Enniscorthy.

Both occupations have required considerable patience and been mired in uncertainty of late.

In terms of the football, prior to the coronavirus crisis, Sinnott and her Wexford Youths team-mates began their pre-season in December 2019 and finished the same month a year later, after a 12-month campaign unlike anything the full-back had experienced in 10-plus years playing senior football.

“Obviously it’s important to have that break physically and mentally as well, you need to switch off at times,” she tells The42. “But there is a feeling amongst us, we’re eager to get back into it as well, because we were disappointed with how last season went. The last few weeks, we’ve been sort of getting back ourselves. We’re hoping to come back with a bang this year. It’s obviously difficult in the sense that you’re training by yourself and you have individual programmes to follow with regards strength and conditioning, with gyms being closed and things like that, so you’re just trying to cope the best you can with what equipment you have at home. 

“We’re pencilled in to start the league on 27 March this year, it’s been pushed back three weeks. We train in Carlow IT, so we’re hoping to get back in there mid-February as a group and put in a good 6-7 weeks on the pitch and hopefully our first game will go ahead. Last year, the lockdown happened the week before our first game.”

At 33, Sinnott knows she is closer to the end of her career than the beginning and is determined to make most of her remaining time as a player. She is one of a trio of highly experienced footballers at Wexford Youths, along with Kylie Murphy and Edel Kennedy. They have helped the club become hugely successful during that time. Since Sinnott signed from Shamrock Rovers in 2013, she has helped them win four titles (more than any other team in the Women National League’s 10-season history) and three FAI Cups. Disappointingly though, last year was a rare trophyless campaign, as the team had to be content with a third-place finish in the table, 11 points behind champions Peamount.

The experienced defender puts this underwhelming season down to inconsistency and felt they were not clinical enough in front of goal, which perhaps is somewhat explained by loss of star player Rianna Jarrett, the league’s top scorer in 2019, who joined Brighton at the beginning of 2020.

“Maybe, we started to rely on her a bit too much for scoring goals in important games,” she says.

“We’ve won leagues and things without Rianna as well, and I suppose back then, we were scoring goals from a few different positions across the pitch. Obviously, Rianna got back fit from her injuries and had two good long seasons with us. 

“I think we have to adjust how we play and try to get goals from other positions and change in that sense. She’s definitely a big loss and it’s hard to replace a player of that calibre, but I feel like we have a squad that are good enough and well capable of going on and winning competitions.”

As she prepares for another season in the WNL, having played in it consistently since its inception in 2011, Sinnott also discusses the different challenges she has had to navigate with age.

“One of the big things as I get older, the commitment side gets tough and the sacrifices you have to make with your family, and even my partner, Serena, there are times where we’re trying to plan things, go away for a few days, and I’m always like: ‘I have to see what the soccer calendar is like and when I’m training.’ Sometimes you feel that side of it is tough when you get older.

“I definitely also think as I’m getting older, my body is feeling it a bit more. I have to focus a bit more on recovery and maintaining my body 100% coming into games.”

As well as her many domestic accolades, Sinnott has also represented Ireland at various underage levels, in addition to winning one senior cap. While proud at having achieved this feat, she is disappointed not to have had more opportunities for her country. That ship appears to have sailed now, but along with fellow Wexford Youths stalwarts, Murphy and Kennedy, given her WNL achievements, there is certainly an argument to be made for Sinnott having been unfairly overlooked all too often by the international set-up.

“Kylie is a player who definitely should have got more opportunities,” she adds. “Even the likes of Edel Kennedy, the three of us are a similar age. If you were to look over the past 10 seasons, Edel and Kylie have been in midfield for us and there are very few teams that can overturn those girls and I wouldn’t change the two of them for anyone else. 

“Obviously, I’m proud of the one cap I got, but feel disappointed for the two girls who didn’t get an opportunity and didn’t even get into squads to show their capabilities. Both of them have different qualities but I definitely think they could have brought something to the senior set-up. And I think at times a lot of girls do get overlooked. And with social media, it’s always the same girls on certain teams that are highlighted and sometimes there are girls there who are playing consistently week in week out and are just as important as anyone else on the team, but never get the recognition.”

nicola-sinnott-gets-tackled-by-karin-stevens Sinnott pictured playing for Ireland U19s in 2006. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

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Sinnott’s achievements in football are all the more impressive when you consider the fact that she has to balance it with life in the classroom, which can be stressful at times.

She is currently teaching geography to girls, ranging from first-year to sixth-year students.

“I suppose, like anyone, you have days where you’ve had a long day and you have to travel an hour to go training, but I’m lucky in the sense that teaching is 9-4 and I probably finish a bit earlier than most people. It gives me an opportunity to wind down for an hour or two. 

“A lot of girls are working 9-6 jobs. There are girls in full-time college, and a lot of girls travel long distances to get to training. It’s tough to manage. I don’t think a lot of people see the commitment that women’s sides put in, working full-time jobs, travelling to make training and not getting back until 10 or 11 o’clock. Even now, I see girls in fifth or sixth year in schools. They’re getting back at 10.30 and have to get homework done for the next day.”

The benefits of sport, however, make it all worthwhile.

“I always come out feeling better from training and it’s a chance to switch off from everything else.

“We’re very lucky as well. A lot of sports weren’t able to play during the pandemic and different lockdowns. Obviously, we’re considered as an elite level and I think that chance to go and train and play matches, when a lot of the country couldn’t, was a great release.”

Operating a remote learning system has been difficult, though it’s become easier with time, as pupils and teachers alike have grown accustomed to the new normal.

“The lockdown happened very suddenly last March — we didn’t know how to go about an online class. But luckily enough, we have a very supportive school and they have a digital team, who have put in a huge amount of work over the past few months. So when this lockdown happened, we felt fully prepared. We started our remote learning there [once again recently]. We were straight into online classes, live classes with students, in comparison to last March, when we only had one or two a week.”

Sinnott, meanwhile, takes a broadly sympathetic view of the government’s predicament, as they attempt to offer instructions and guidance to schools in these unprecedented times.

“I definitely think this time around, it was the right decision to close down schools,” she says. “We were lucky enough to get into school from September until Christmas and our school coped very well, implementing the new procedures and regulations.”

But did Sinnott ever feel unsafe in these taxing conditions when pupils and staff were required to attend schools in person in the middle of a pandemic?

“Initially, the first time we had to go back in September, and numbers were starting to increase again, you obviously feel a bit anxious in your own head. But our school have implemented everything really well and they’re strict as well in terms of following rules.

“It’s been strange, having to stay at the top of the classroom, wear a mask 24-7 and have all the windows and doors open. It’s difficult teaching in that sense. When we first came back in September, not being able to see the student’s reactions or expressions was tough. 

“It was big changes for [the kids] as well, being spaced out in classrooms, wearing masks. You have to be encouraged to go outside as much as you can, and obviously get fresh air with the ventilation in the school. Not being allowed doing any group work and staying in their bubbles in the pod has been very tough for them, but I think they’ve adjusted very well and even now, the remote learning, the attendance online and how they have motivated themselves is a credit to them. Obviously, a lot of students have tough situations and different things going on at home, but they’re still managing to be there for class and getting the work done behind the scenes as well.”

On more general level, like most people, Sinnott has found it hard too.

“It’s just the changes I suppose and coping with not being able to go out and do different things with family and friends and your partner. 

“I was allowed to go into work, but then I wasn’t allowed to call into a family member next door. You try to make sense of the rules they put in place, but little things like that are sometimes tough.”

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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