Echo Sport Replay: McGrath and the long road to the reign of the Jackies

By Stephen Leonard

SINCE the turn of the century, the fortunes of Dublin senior ladies football has ebbed and flowed as the county sought to break the growing dominance of Cork and establish a legacy of its own.

After reaching their very first All-Ireland decider in 2003, the Jackies had to wait a further seven years before finally securing their maiden title by way of an emphatic victory over Tyrone.

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Far from that signalling the arrival of a new power in the sport, Dublin would have to weather another six years of heartbreak, half of that time spent losing to Cork in three successive All-Ireland Finals between 2014 and 2016 before again landing the coveted Brendan Martin Cup for just a second time the following year.

Yet, under manager Mick Bohan, the team has managed to maintain their hold on that prize since then as the sport enjoys a massive surge in popularity.

Save for a stint in Australia between 2014 and ’17, Tallaght’s Siobhán McGrath has shared all those highs and lows with the Dublin team.

From making her senior inter-county debut back in 2004, she and her team mates endured terribly challenging times before finally creating history in 2010.

And, while the Thomas Davis star was on the other side of the world for two of the three years during which Dublin later hit the bar against Cork, she returned home in time to see them lift the 2017 crown in front of more than 46,000 spectators.

That moment sparked a hunger for a return to the fold and Bohan wasted no time in availing of her huge experience as the team continued on to make it three in a row, McGrath picking up the 2019 TG4 Senior Players’ Player of the Year Award to go with the nine Leinster and three All-Ireland medals she had previously bagged.

Undoubtedly one of the county’s most valuable footballers, McGrath recalled the early club success with Thomas Davis that helped in her drive to make it on the inter-county front.

“My abiding memory with Thomas Davis was winning the Junior All-Ireland [Football] Final.

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Tallaght’s Siobhán McGrath celebrates with her Thomas Davis and Dublin team mate Olwen Carey after beating Galway in the 2019 All-Ireland Senior Ladies Football Championship Final in Croke Park

“It was just a really good time for the club. It brought everyone together. And just to win it with the girls that I grew up with was brilliant. My role model in the club was Christina McGinty and just to win it with her was very special.”

Starting out in pursuit of an inter-county career, McGrath told The Echo “At underage I would have went out for the Under 14 trials. I would have got on the panel, but I wasn't making the team. Football wise, I had a lot of work to do.

“I didn't make the team throughout the two years at Under 14. First year at Under 16 I was getting closer, but still I wasn't getting there. My second year at Under 16 I broke into the team and, weirdly enough, at the end of that year I did quite well and I was brought up to the senior panel.

“My senior debut was a league game against Laois in 2004, but my abiding memory of that year was getting on in the All-Ireland Final [against Galway] even though we lost. That was the more memorable, being in Croke Park and the nerves of that. It was amazing.

“But we had a lot of tough years after that. 2006 and '07 we barely had a panel. There was a core group of about 11 who were just trying to hold it together.

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Siobhán McGrath in action for Dublin

“Things started to change in 2008. Now we did get beaten by Tyrone in the All-Ireland quarter final and again there was a lot of soul searching that had to be done that day because they bullied us off the pitch. We just weren't able to stand up to it physically or emotionally.

“2009 it started to turn around, but again that final hurdle, we just couldn't get over it. We would have come out of that All-Ireland Final [defeat against Cork] really hurt. Just the fact that we really thought we should have won that, we should have been able to get over the line that day.

“So in 2010 there was just that feeling that we weren't going to be beaten, we had to go all the way that year.

“That day [All-Ireland Final against Tyrone] was quite bizarre. We weren't expecting to go out and win the way we did.

“But I suppose when we think back, there was a lot of drive, there was a lot of fire in the belly that day. It was just one of those days when absolutely everything clicked, everything went right. It was a performance we were waiting for.

“In the semi final we narrowly beat Laois, as in the last five minutes we pulled off a goal. For us on that day, we were composed, we were calm, we believed in ourselves, but when you listen to spectators, my family or other people's families, they said they just couldn't even watch the last five minutes.

“We had played Clare in the quarter final, and when you think about it, they probably should have beaten us. We didn't have a good game.

“It was just like we were building. We knew that this performance was in us, it just hasn't happened yet. Just on that day [of the final] absolutely everything clicked.

“Everything that day just fell into place, everyone probably had their best game all year that day.

“It was a bizarre feeling of how we won. I don't even know if we took it in fully that day. It was only after when you look back and realise what we did, creating history with all the players who you experienced the hardship with.

“When you think back, it was the friendships you made. You're still so close with them girls and you'll always have that bond with them. It was just an amazing feeling.

“2011 came and we had got a few injuries that year. We wanted to go out and go again, but it didn't happen for us that year.

“Then we got a few retirees after that year so it kind of dipped again. We should have been able to keep the momentum going, but we didn't. It dipped, so that was kind of hard.

“Then in 2014, at the start of that year I had decided that I was done, this was my last year. I was going to go off [to Australia].

“Things were looking up and we got to the final again and we lost [against Cork]. And I suppose, losing the final, I said right, I'm definitely going.

“The next few years were very tough for them girls. To lose three All-Ireland Finals especially against the same team was very tough, very hard to take.

“So for them to come back and have the resilience do what they've done, really just shows their character and the people that they are.

“I came back [from Australia] in 2017. I didn't go back on to the panel. I struggled with club football that year so I didn't want to go back to county. I had three years out and I didn't think I'd be up to getting back to that level.

“I was there on the day [of the 2017 All-Ireland Final victory over Mayo]. “Everyone needed them to win, we needed this for ladies football in the county and just to see them get over the line, I've never been so proud of them. It was just amazing.

And just watching them on the day, I was just like, 'oh I do, I do, I want to go back.'

In 2017 he [Mick Bohan] did approach me and I was like ' I won't go back. I'll see how the body goes for 2017 in club football.'

“After that I did put it out there that I'd be happy to come back and he approached me then.and I said ‘yeah’. It was a very easy conversation.

“I wasn't great when I got back, to be fair. It took to, I'd say July. I even remember the championship game against Cavan, God I wasn't at the races at all. I really, really struggled.

“We won the league that year and we played Mayo in the league final that year and it was very clear to me that I didn't have 60 minutes in me. I did not last a full game in the league campaign that year.

“To be honest, there was many a time that year when I said 'what have I done? I'm past this. I'll never get there.'

“The level of fitness, strength and everything in the last three years had shot up. I just thought there is no way I can get to this level.

“But it was the management, the girls themselves pushed me. They were saying 'cop on. Get over yourself, you'll be fine.'

“Yeah, I eventually got there with the drive from them. I'm very thankful to them that I managed to stick it out and my last two years have been some of my most memorable playing with Dublin.

“2017 was amazing, and then to get to the 2018 Final and beat the team [Cork] that had caused us so much hardship and hurt, that was a very special day.

“The feeling in the dressing room that day, it wasn't just elation, it was satisfaction. We had done it.

“We got to the All-Ireland Final again in 2019 against Galway. The conditions were tough and we knew the football was certainly not pretty, it wasn't attractive. We would obviously have rathered a better display for ladies football.

“It was a very different game to what we were used to with Galway. They usually have a very traditional style of football, it's usually flowing and definitely a lot more attractive than what it was, but on the day it didn't matter.

“You go out to win, whatever you have to do in whatever conditions, so we were just very happy to get over the line.”

There is little doubt that Dublin’s winning run over recent seasons has helped spark a massive surge of interest in ladies football, something McGrath has witnessed first hand as a player over the past 14 years.

“It's amazing just how much it's grown” she said. “Back in 2003, 2004 there was probably 18, 19, 20 thousand [spectators] and, at that stage, you thought it was amazing, unbelievable.

“And when I came back [from Australia] in 2017 I was sitting in the crowd and that was the first year that it really shot up. I think it was like 47,000 that year.

“I couldn't believe it. I was like, this is just amazing. And it's just grown every year.

“We've always had the young kids coming out and that's been unbelievable, but to see that you're getting support, not just from young girls, but young boys and adults.

“When you talk to people around the county, they know ladies football now, they watch the games.

“Before, people would have known that we'd played a game, but they would never have watched a game or been ever interested in it.

“But definitely the interest from everyone across different ages in society, it just seems to have grown so I think there is an onus on us to improve our football, to make ourselves better and make it a good spectacle for spectators.”

McGrath capped off a great 2019 by scooping the ‘TG4 Senior Players’ Player of the Year’ Award, something she admits surprised her.

“It was all a bit weird because I'm not your traditionally skillful footballer.

“For me, the fact that your peers, the people that you play against, choose it, that's the most satisfying part of it.

“It shows that if you work on the pitch, if you can bring your skills to the game and influence it in that way, it can be recognised. It shows young girls that, whatever you’re good at, work on it, and it can be recognised.”

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