On Sunday, however, I was in Ennis for the Ladies NFL Division One and Two finals and there I saw football as it should be played, and as it could be played, if the men’s game would adopt the rules and spirit of that game.
The four most telling differences between the two games are:
1) the straight pick-up off the ground in the ladies’ game;
2) the fact that if you are on the ground, you are allowed to play the ball away from you with the hand or the foot (as long as you’re not kicking the hand of an opponent who is in the act of picking the ball);
3) a player in possession cannot be tackled in any form while the ball is being held into the body, which means none of the holding or belting with the hand/fist that leaves an ugly impression on the men’s game;
4) the countdown game-clock, where everyone in the ground knows exactly how much time is left.
The result of all those different rules is a more open, exciting, flowing game than you get in Gaelic football, with the added drama of the game-clock counting down the final seconds. This we saw on Sunday in the Division Two final in which the home side, Clare, were hanging onto a one-point lead against a resurgent Donegal. As the ball headed into the Clare half for one more Donegal attack, everyone knew that this was it as less than a minute remained on the clock. If Clare could win possession one more time, the title was theirs, and win possession they did thanks to tigerish corner-forward Áine Kelly.
Which brings me to a number of points, and the real thrust of this piece today. In that first game Áine was one of a number of very talented footballers. As ever, in any sport, it’s the finishers who really catch the eye and Áine was joined by team-mates Eimear Considine, Marie Kelly, Una Downes and free-taker Majella Griffin as ball-players of high quality.
Twice in the hectic final quarter of that game Majella was faced with crucial frees for Clare, about 25m on the right side of the posts, the wrong angle for a right-footed kicker. Each time she nailed the score, kicking perfectly across the wind to split the posts. That kind of accuracy comes only with a huge amount of practice. On the Donegal side, Nadie Doherty, Bridget Gallagher, the flying Yvonne McMonagle and Treasa Doherty, along with sub Karen Guthrie, all showed superb skills in attack.
Then we came to the Division One game, and without question the skill levels went up another notch again. 6-13 to 2-10 it finished, in favour of Cork, but a bore this was not. 2-10 would win many a game, ladies football or Gaelic football, and in Aoife O’Sullivan, who battled illness to play, Mags O’Donoghue, Bernie Breen, Louise Ní Mhuircheartaigh, young Deborah Murphy and veteran Geraldine O’Shea, Kerry had a number of able performers. But Cork were simply mesmerising. Three-in-a-row All-Ireland senior champions, they showed a talent for goal-scoring that would have had any Champions League audience drooling. Amy O’Shea (2), Valerie Mulcahy, Deirdre O’Reilly, Laura McMahon, Rhona Buckley scored the six Cork goals and it could have been more but for a couple of wayward shots, and a couple of superb saves by Laoise O’Driscoll.
Which brings me to the final point. Why is that these girls are performing almost in a vacuum? Credit to TG4, who do a superb job for both ladies football and camogie, but why is it that the skills of these lassies, skills the match of the lads at any level, are seen by just the loyal few?
Go to any inter-county hurling or football game, go to a men’s rugby match, and you see mostly men, yes, but you also see a lot of women. Why is it that those same women don’t and won’t follow ladies football, camogie, or women’s rugby? As for the men, well, all I can say is that ye don’t know what ye’re missing. I’m telling ye now, all ye followers of the beautiful game, Valerie Mulcahy has a left foot to die for, Juliet Murphy has a stride that would put Tom Kenny under pressure, and Mary O’Connor is as powerful as any man who ever laced leather, in hurling or football. It’s a superb game, this ladies football, but this is a truly exceptional Cork team. Catch them while you can.