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'The standard's gone through the roof. It's become one of the most attractive games to watch'

Mayo manager Peter Leahy on ladies football, learning from Joe Schmidt and his side’s league semi-final against Cork.

REWIND TO JANUARY. The first day of the Lidl Ladies National Football League was a weird one for Peter Leahy.

Mayo v Dublin - Lidl Ladies Football National League Division 1 Round 4 Peter Leahy. Source: Stephen McCarthy/SPORTSFILE

It was his first match in charge of the Mayo senior ladies football team. He had been involved with the set-up as a coach in 2017 under Frank Browne, but now Leahy was in full command.

That was fine though, that wasn’t the weird part. It was the fact that he was preparing his troops for battle with his native Westmeath. He had managed the Lake county to All-Ireland glory before, steering them to the intermediate title in Croke Park in 2011.

That year was one to remember. A Leinster crown and then the path to reaching the Holy Grail, which they did after a replay against Cavan. But here he was, on the opposing sideline seven years later, wearing the green and red of Mayo.

“That was a real heartstrings one,” he told The42 this week. “Even going through the motions I found it hard to look at the Westmeath girls.

“Listen, we were in the trenches together and when you’ve been in the trenches together working with someone, it’s very hard to switch off all of a sudden. It was awkward moments.

“That was my hardest day, I have to say. Got out with a win and to be honest with you, there was no celebrating involved obviously. I’ve a job to do and I’m Mayo now full stop.

“But you have to respect where you come from and what you do. I’m Westmeath true and true as well.”

He speaks glowingly of the Westmeath team, sharing his delight at how the 2017 Division 2 champions retained their top-flight status this year after a rocky start to life up a level.

Peter Leahy celebrates at the final whistle Celebrating in 2011. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“I personally wouldn’t like to get them again in a championship situation,” he adds, noting that it’s not just because of his personal background but because they’re a top-quality outfit.

Sport has always been a huge part of Leahy’s life. He played rugby at a high level in his younger years before making the transition into coaching, completing a degree in strength and conditioning and working in sports science.

From head coach at Mullingar RFC to working with the Westmeath hurlers, managing the county’s minor footballers, UCD’s O’Connor Cup side and various club outfits at different levels, he has no shortage of experience.

His passion and love for ladies football shines through though. His honesty is refreshing as he speaks about making the transition from coach to manager at Mayo.

“It’s a completely different thing to come in as manager,” he says, explaining how he’s found it challenging to get up to speed with the rules but is learning more and more.

“At the end of the day it’s about learning as we go along and our girls are learning. I have to say, they’re possibly the best — I’ve been involved in the men’s game a long time — they’re definitely the best group of people I’ve ever seen for learning each week.

“I don’t think I’ve come away from a session going, ‘Oh God, that wasn’t great’. They’re always learning, they’re always improving. Everybody knows what everybody has to do and everybody is equal.”

He adds: “I’d be quite friendly with Joe Schmidt, we’d discuss things and one thing I’ve learned from him and from what he’s done with Ireland is it’s not about the name of the person.

Joe Schmidt Joe Schmidt. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“It’s about what everybody can do for their country, or club or county. Whoever comes in does the equal job or the fresh legs. Joe Schmidt for example, taking Johnny Sexton off and Carbery comes on and does the job, that’s just the way it is.

“Everybody has to do a job.”

It’s no secret that ladies football has come on leaps and bounds over the past few years. The profile of the game has been raised massively through media coverage, sponsorship deals and the likes, and with that, interest has increased.

“It’s been huge what’s happened in the ladies game,” Leahy continues.

“I was involved with Tullamore senior football team last year and I remember coming back after the Cork game and all the lads (were saying), ‘Brilliant game, brilliant game, brilliant game’ at training the next day. Everybody had watched the game. The men are watching the game.

“It’s no coincidence that four of the top five county’s managers in the league this year are all male-orientated — Mick Bohan, myself, Ephie (Fitzgerald), Maxi Curran; all involved with the men’s.

“Is it hard to transfer over? Yeah, it is. The biggest thing is adapting to the rules.”

Every day is a learning day though, he insists. And one of his biggest to date was Mayo’s loss to Dublin in the All-Ireland senior final last September.

As the final whistle sounded, the scoreline read 4-11 to 0-11, with late goals breaking the Westerner’s hearts on the biggest stage in Gaelic games. So close but yet so far.

Unsure of what lay ahead in the months that followed, Leahy was in the running for a men’s senior football job but ultimately decoded to take the reins as Mayo ladies manager.

“I decided to go back to the ladies, number one because they’re the most adaptable people I’ve ever seen and number two I just felt I, personally as a coach, left a lot behind me and I didn’t do us justice last year.”


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Sarah Rowe dejected Dejection: After the 2017 All-Ireland final. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

The standard of the game is another thing he’s witnessed improve drastically.

“It’s phenomenal,” he smiles, recalling when he first linked up with the Mayo team as a coach in 2017 and then the All-Ireland decider itself. “I was just blown away.

“I was blown away by the speed of the game. The intensity of the game itself (All-Ireland final) was huge. I was on the sideline and I couldn’t catch my breath.

“The girls themselves, let’s be honest about it, they put the exact same effort in as the men. they put the exact same amount of time, exact same amount of training.

“It’s a very, very, very fast-paced game. Don’t forget, as ladies we have to carry the ball further because we can’t kick it as far as the men. Ultimately our fitness has to be higher than the men’s.

“Do I think the standard has improved? I think it’s gone through the roof. It’s become one of the most attractive games to watch.

“Not just because I’m involved in it… I’d sit and watch a high-end ladies game. I was at the O’Connor Cup final and what a game of football, what a game of football. It was just end-to-end stuff, super game of football.

“I was at college men’s games as well and they wouldn’t have been a fraction of what the girls did. That’s not trying to compare all the time. I’m just saying the game has changed substantially — a lot to do with the promotion of the game but a lot to do with better coaching getting involved as well.”

He’s overseen a mixed league campaign from Mayo to date — four wins, two losses and a draw — while guiding them to a top four spot.

Source: The42.ie/YouTube

They face six in-a-row chasing Cork in the semi-final tomorrow, but Leahy makes no secret of the fact that the league and championship are very different and that he’s used the former for experimenting with players and learning more about his charges.

“To be honest with you this is a bonus game for us,” he concludes

“Listen, we’re up against it. Cork the benchmark that we go against definitely for league. We have no qualms about the fact that we’re up against a top team.

“We’re out just to play football, we’ll have a shoot-out with Cork and see how it goes. I’m in no panic. The only thing that a league final will do for us is another two weeks of intense football, to get another game in.

“That’s not being disrespectful, that’s where we’re at. We know Cork and Dublin are the benchmarks. For us, all we want to do is match ourselves up against them and see how we go.

“Summer’s what it’s all about.”

Source: The42 Podcasts/SoundCloud

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Emma Duffy

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