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'It's been a bumpy road back. The last six months particularly have been really, really tough'

Dublin star Nicole Owens marked her long-awaited championship return with an early goal as the four-in-a-row bid roars on.

TWO VERY CONTRASTING All-Ireland semi-final outings.

nicole-owens-suffers-an-early-injury Nicole Owens is helped off the pitch during last year's All-Ireland semi-final. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

In August 2019, Nicole Owens was helped off the Croke Park turf and towards the Hogan Stand bench after just four minutes. The Dublin star forward had been carrying a knee ligament injury but after colossal work in the lead-up to that last-four battle with Cork, was deemed fit to start against the odds.

But wearing the 29 jersey along with some heavy strapping on her right knee, Owen’s year came crashing down as it appeared to buckle on the run in the early minutes.

“It was completely torn, ruptured, gone,” as she told The42 in an in-depth interview a few weeks afterwards. “But I would have regretted it if I hadn’t tried it.”

Under the knife she went, and she watched from the stand and celebrated on crutches as the Sky Blues tasted All-Ireland success for the third consecutive year.

Now, with the four-in-a-row bid well and truly on, Owens played a pivotal part in Saturday’s five-point semi-final win over Armagh. Again, the St Sylvester’s forward was a late addition to the starting fifteen but her first championship match in 14 months was one to remember — for all the right reasons.

Owens set the tone at Kingspan Breffni Park, raising a green flag with just two minutes on the clock after she palmed the ball home to put the finishing touches to an excellent team move involving Lyndsey Davey and Noelle Healy.

“To be fair, Noelle put it on a plate for me so I was delighted about that,” she grinned afterwards.

“It’s been a bit of a bumpy road back; obviously the Covid situation and the delay worked out quite well in terms of me being able to play some football this year, but really I’m just delighted to be back on the pitch in whatever guise.”

Delving deeper into the past few months and exactly how much it meant to be on the pitch today with a smile on her face, Owens found it hard to sum it all up at first.

“It’s been eh… ACLs are… it’s usually not the knee that’s causing any problems,” she began. “My knee hasn’t been causing me any problems since March. I just picked up a load of little injuries, I had to have another surgery on my knee.

“I think it was just constantly hitting bumps that weren’t anything to do with the knee, that was the most frustrating for me because I wanted to really push myself obviously to get back competing for a spot.

“It’s been tough… the last six months particularly have been really, really tough. Being around the girls has been great but obviously you want to be out training. Watching everyone going out to train, and going down to the gym by yourself is pretty soul-sucking, especially when you thought you were back and your knee is in a good place and you spent ages rebuilding your quad.

“But listen, thankfully the stars aligned finally and hopefully I can stay fit and healthy and keep contributing to the team.”

It was a case of job done as the final whistle sounded and Dublin celebrated reaching their seventh All-Ireland final on the bounce — one which Owens will certainly hope to play a leading role in.

But they were certainly pushed all the way to get there, this rising Armagh outfit asking hard questions of the champions with the sensational Aimee Mackin leading from the front.

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“Especially the second half, I think we really ground that one out,” Owens nodded, agreeing that their big-match experience really shone through in the end.

“I think we probably let them back into it a bit in the first half, but they’re a quality team. Their movement is beautiful, they play beautiful football. We’re happy we got there in the end and just controlled it a bit more.

“I mean we’ve been in a similar position where we’re down and the other team are keeping the ball, and it sucks the life out of you because the team that don’t have the ball have to work harder. Just even keeping the ball and working a point and keeping the scoreboard ticking over [was important], because we knew how dangerous they were, they could go the other end and score a goal.

“We knew we had to really just keep that gap between us.”

Understandably, Mick Bohan singled herself and fellow long-term injury victim Siobhan Killeen out for praise amidst the jubilant scenes on a crisp night in Cavan, his clubmate Killeen also featuring — and excelling — after tearing her hamstring off the bone and also undergoing surgery last year.

nicole-owens-and-mick-bohan-celebrate-after-the-final-whistle Owens with Mick Bohan after the game. Source: Lorraine O’Sullivan/INPHO

He had a few kind words for Carla Rowe, scorer of 2-4, too, and Owens was quick to echo her manager’s sentiments.

“She’s been brilliant. I think in previous matches maybe she hasn’t got on the ball enough. Obviously she’s trying to hold out wide but I think like she’s turned into one of the leaders of this team.

“My own shooting wasn’t as good today, and I think having a quality shooter like that… especially when we saw Nerd [Sinéad Aherne] go off early, who would also be one of our sharpshooters, Carla just calmed the ship and kept ticking the ball over and obviously taking the goals, it was the way to go.”

And the only way now is towards Christmas in Croker, where four-in-a-row would be the ideal present as Dublin face either arch-rivals Cork or last year’s finalists Galway on 20 December.

“I can’t wait,” Owens concluded. “Listen, it’s a tough time for everyone — even with the restrictions, there’s not a lot we can do.

“Getting to go to training and be with the girls, even if it’s socially distant and us all wearing masks, just getting to get back in to that really positive group environment for another three weeks and to work towards another All-Ireland final [is great].

“Regardless of who it is, we’ll back ourselves.”

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