'It gave me a real appreciation when football was kind of taken away'

Shelbourne captain and Ireland U17 coach Pearl Slattery is raring to go in the new season.

FOOTBALL IS MORE than just a game, they say.

It’s everything to Pearl Slattery.

And never has she realised that more than over the past few weeks and months.

pearl-slattery Shelbourne captain Pearl Slattery. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Like everyone else across the world, the Shelbourne captain was stopped in her tracks through the Covid-19 crisis. Football took a back seat in the grand scheme of things but the significant void in her heart and in her life led to it taking a front seat in her mind.

No playing, no coaching; all she could do was miss it.

Having flirted with the idea of retirement at one stage last year as she made waves on the coaching scene, Slattery later committed to going again with her beloved Shels — who open their 2020 Women’s National League campaign against Cork City tomorrow [KO 2pm].

“I love playing, I love it,” she tells The42, her palpable love and appreciation for every aspect of the game shining through on the same day we chart her impressive journey as a coach.

“I suppose this whole period of Covid just makes you appreciate what the sport, the league and your team-mates do for you. It gave me a real appreciation when it was kind of taken away if you.

“This was a period where we had no choice, we just had to stop playing.”

Those lockdown days remain in the rear-view mirror for now anyway.

Having returned to training in the days before our phonecall, the Dubliner was understandably delighted to be back doing what she loves so very much.

“Look, it was a strange time and I suppose health came before anything, didn’t it really?

“It was so unknown, that period. I remember we had just finished like a 10-week pre-season and it was the Friday that lockdown came in. We were due to kick off the season that Saturday.

“Mental. For two weeks, I was just like ‘Oh my god, I can’t deal with this. This is not happening.’ But then over the weeks, you see people losing their lives and you’re like, ‘Hold on a minute, there’s more than football here.’”

Closer to home, the lay-off coupled with the loosening of lockdown restrictions allowed her plenty of family time. Time she wouldn’t get when she’s racing here, there and everywhere, balancing her own football, coaching and her job at the FAI.

“I was getting to do things with family that I probably wouldn’t normally do — going on walks with my mam and seeing all my nieces, whereas usually in my normal weeks, I’d be lucky to see them once a week.

“I kept in touch with the girls obviously during that time, we were all doing our own fitness but nothing really can replicate football and that football fitness. It’s just been brilliant to be back with the girls the last.

“We’re back now, we’ve done three sessions so I’m just buzzing to be back,” she added at the time, with much more football under her belt by now. “I’ve never seen so many smiles at a training session the last few weeks, so that will tell you.”

pearl-slattery-lifts-the-trophy Lifting the FAI Cup in 2016. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

The first one in particular, she adds. Although “odd,” it was a session she won’t forget any time soon. Between being reunited with team-mates after months apart and complying with the various different new guidelines and regulations, it was quite strange.

Briefings, using their own water bottles, being told when to get out of their cars, having their temperature taken and keeping a social distance back then in small-group sessions; it was all very different.

But warmly welcomed.

“We were all just absolutely buzzing to see each other, I’ve honestly never seen a happier group than that day,” she grins, “which is great because, as I said, when it’s taken away from you… you do — at times, you can take it for granted.

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“You know what I mean? It’s only when it’s taken away…”

The opportunity to pause and take breadth was welcomed for a period, but Slattery is only delighted to have the rushing and racing from A to B to C back once again.

She’s become accustomed to balancing playing and coaching since she took up the latter, and the supports around her allow her to drive on.

“It’s busy, it’s tough. Shels are brilliant with me. When I got the opportunity to go in with James [Scott, Ireland U17 boss], they told me to jump at it. The girls are brilliant.

“If I’m away or I miss a training session, they understand. If I’m away with the 17s, they know I’m away and they took it very well but for myself it’s busy. I like being kept busy. I’m busy with work anyway, so it’s just all football.

“It’s difficult at times to balance them but as I said, the club and my team-mates are very understanding when I am away.”

With the league kicking off this weekend, Shels face the Leesiders as they finally get their 2020 up and running. At the time of our conversation, Slattery was patiently waiting the “little lift” of a starting date, so with that all set in stone now, the excitement is surely through the roof.

The north Dublin side — and traditional title favourites — are looking strong this season having brought in new signings such as Donegal ladies football star and Ireland international Ciara Grant, ex-Bohemians youngster and Ireland U19 international Sophie Waters and returning goalkeeper Amanda McQuillan.

Young talent like Mia Dodd will also be key as Shels look to challenge for the silverware again after coming close last year. Peamount United eventually pipped themselves and FAI Cup champions Wexford Youths respectively last season, so this edition is shaping up to be another close one.

fai-womens-national-league-charity-partner-announcement WNL captains. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Slattery is hoping they have enough in the tank to get them over the line this time around.

“Ciara’s a massive signing, she played with us obviously at Raheny United as well,” Slattery nods of Grant.

“Look, the last two or three years we’ve won league cups but we’ve been one or two points off the league title — it’s not the worst but you want that one point to be now in our favour. We’ve been close.

“Some of the seasons even when you don’t win it, you enjoy the most really. It’s about the experience and stuff. Hopefully, this year now, we can be up there again and challenge.

“Every year we go into it, we feel like we can win everything we’re in really and that’s the way you have to be, isn’t it? What’s the point if you’re not thinking that mentally-wise.

“We have a great group, a lot of young girls who are very, very talented. Someone like Granty and, you know, Niamh McLaughlin will hopefully have a big season for us this season.

“Jamie Finn as well was massive for us so we’ll be okay. Look, we’ll take it game by game as always. Just get us back at this rate!”

A clear demand, just a year on from almost hanging up the boots. That’s put to her.

“Yeah,” Slattery giggles, raring to go. “And now I’m like, I’ll never stop playing!’”

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Emma Duffy

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