Dayna Finn goes from the court to Croker

Dayna Finn goes from the court to Croker
‘I know a lot of teams who played over the winter with basketball and it’s good for hand-eye coordination and all that. It’s so important,” says Mayo’s Dayna Finn. Picture: Bryan Keane

You are only minutes into a chat with Mayo midfielder Dayna Finn when you find yourself gripped by her tactical appreciation of how so many goals are created by this current Dublin senior football team.

“It’s so good, they are bringing stuff into the game that no football teams had brought in before,” she enthuses, “and one of them was the ‘backdoor cut’ where you loop out and your marker is coming out to defend you, but you take a step on your right foot, then go in behind them.

“It’s an over-the-head pass. It’s something we use in basketball all the time. Basically, if your marker is ‘over-playing’ you, defending you well, not letting you get the ball, it’s something you can do.”

The Kiltimagh woman will line out at Croke Park in tomorrow’s All-Ireland semi-final against Galway, but basketball is still in her system. A fortnight ago, she was a key figure in the Ireland U20 team that competed in the FIBA Women’s European Championships in Kosovo.

Under head coach Martin Conroy, they played Israel, Great Britain, Croatia, and when they fell to Bulgaria, ended up in a third-fourth play-off against Great Britain again. They won 60-57 to seal bronze but also promotion to Division A Basketball for this age group in 2020.

In the play-off, Finn was dominant. She scored 10 points, grabbed 10 rebounds, played five assists and made three steals. Her parents John and Bernie flew from there to Bulgaria, where their youngest daughter Hazel is captaining the U16 side in their European Championships.

Although Dayna can line out in the middle of the park in ladies’ football, it’s not unusual for her to play in the half-back line, where both her parents made their names in the green above the red.

You may recall the name of John Finn. Playing in the All-Ireland semi-final between Mayo and Dublin in 1985, he had his jaw broken with a punch from an opponent. It being the days before multiple cameras in the ground, nobody was punished for the indiscretion and Finn never publically named the culprit.

He played on for 10 years after — he had the encouragement, married to Bernie McGrath, who played in the half-back line herself for the ladies’ team.

“They often forget about her, they say, ‘Ah, that’s John Finn’s daughter,’ but it’s Bernie Finn’s daughter as well,” laughs Dayna.

John didn’t impose himself or muscle in on coaching Dayna’s underage teams, but at home, he was a driving force.

Individually he would have coached us and helped us get better. That was always there and he was such a motivator. As was mum. They are the two people I would have looked up to the most when I was younger. You just want to be good and succeed so they were an influence on where we wanted to go.

The basketball came as a surprise to herself. The school in Kiltimagh toyed about with it for wet winters and as her talent was identified by Basketball Ireland coaches, a bigger stage awaited. She hooked up with the Maree club in Oranmore and everything went from there.

“Maree, we were always underage and fell short. But this year we decided to put in a Division One team and got a good group of girls together we didn’t lose a game all year,” she explains. “We won every cup and league possible so that was an exceptional year for us in our first year in Division One. And we didn’t have an American, like every other team did!”

Kiltimagh might not be that far from Ballina, where the shockwaves of the ‘80s Irish basketball scene reached the Mayo town in time for them to claim the National Senior Basketball Cup in 1991, creating legends out of men such as the three McHale brothers and Deora Marsh. But that was another Ireland, another generation.

That buzz in Ballina came about almost a decade before she was born.

“I watch the Colleges,” she says of her moonlighting. “March Madness and all that. But not too much NBA. I’d watch sometimes but wouldn’t be really, really into it.”

She copes with the alterations to be made between the two disciplines.

“The fitness is a lot different. The fitness is basketball is sharp stuff, turning and sprinting. Whereas in football, it’s not all fast-paced and it is more about endurance. Switching from the pitch to the hard court is different, but I am used to it now so I don’t really have a problem.

“Coming back in now, the girls ask if I find it hard coming back in playing the football after having two weeks off, but I actually… That’s the way it’s been so you get used to it. It’s grand.”

While there are the obvious differences, there are also the huge similarities and benefits to playing both, evidenced by the amount of basketball played by Kerry footballers in their Golden Years era.

“I know a lot of teams who played over the winter with basketball and it’s good for hand-eye coordination and all that. It’s so important,” she says.

“Even though they are two totally different balls and skills, being there and catching the ball, one-handed catches and all that, being able to use two hands — it’s kind of like being able to use two feet.”

Time management is always an issue, but Finn follows the example of other trailblazers. For years now, the likes of Caroline O’Hanlon of Armagh and Tyrone’s Neamh Woods have combined their county careers with playing for Northern Ireland in netball and busy professional lives.

“People ask me how I do it and maybe it is the same answer as others. The other people who balance both, I suppose it is just what we do. Maybe down the line it might be a thing where it is something we have to pick, but at the moment I am not going to pick between them. If it comes to a stage where it is not possible I might have to pick, but I am just keeping myself happy.”

She has the backing of her basketball team mates, who recently showed up on the sidelines of a Mayo game to cheer her on.

Some might even be there on Sunday to see her take on Galway in the All-Ireland semi-final. Studying Spanish and Geography in NUIG, she is familiar with a good few of her opponents that she faces in Croke Park, a venue she played in against Dublin in the league.

“It’s incredible,” she says of the Ladies’ Gaelic Football Association securing the venue. “As I said to someone else, it’s not often someone gets that chance. So I am just happy to be playing and looking forward to it. I can’t wait.”

On September 4, she leaves to study a year in Valencia on the Erasmus Programme, where she will play semi-professionally in the Liga Femenina.

“Leaving Maree, given we got promoted this year to the Superleague, that will be hard, but I suppose playing in Spain is a once in a lifetime opportunity, so I’ll take it.”

If Mayo make the final, she’ll be back for that. John and Bernie wouldn’t have it any other way.

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