At the Greater Western Sydney Giants, the women share the same facilities as the men. The only difference is that we are semi-professional, so only contracted to fourteen hours a week, but we have equal access to the club. I’ve a swipe card to come and go as I please, could be 11 o’clock at night or seven in the morning. No problem.
The men don’t have extra facilities or staff because they are men. It is because their sport is fully professional and fully established.
”We are treated as equals. We crossover all the time, so we all know each other.
Mayo GAA are a long way off this sort of male/female interaction. The money and facilities make it easier in Australia. We don’t have that at home. Certainly, there could be more crossover in McHale Park and the men’s gym. On the evenings the lads aren’t using it, we should be in there.
The only way I can describe the GWS Giants facility is to compare it to the new Munster rugby set-up at the University of Limerick, except it is more advanced. Everything is in the one building. The pitches are a lot better (the weather helps). We have our own changing rooms, so do the men. There are physio rooms, ice baths, there’s a meeting room for forwards, for the midfielders, another for backs, as well as a full team room, a canteen and an education room.
There is also a massive indoor area called The Cage because, believe you me, in Sydney it does rain. We’ve had thunder storms. For a light session we can go into The Cage and do skills.
These past three months I’ve spent as much time as I can in there working with Nick, Al or any coach who was willing.
I needed all the help I could get.
The season is over now. We made huge strides. One victory off making the Grand Final.
How did this happen?
How, after 23 years kicking football for Mayo, did I turn my hand to Aussie Rules?
How did I go from playing two All-Ireland finals (for club and county) to, literally overnight, becoming a full-time athlete on the other side of the world?
I blame Nicholas Walsh. The former Cavan footballer also played for Melbourne Demons in the Australian Football League (AFL). These days he’s working with the GWS Giants – my new team.
Nick told me about the AFLW when we met at the Asian games in October 2016; a semi-professional women’s competition with long term investment from the AFL. I was interested. The first season began in February 2017 but I was far too busy playing for Carnacon and Mayo to be concerned about it.
Then, in April last year, Nick called.
“Can I give your number to Al McConnell?”
Support The Sports Chronicle
with a contribution of any size to help us deliver 'direct to fan' human stories from the world of sport, all by the athletes themselves.
Support The Sports Chronicle
“Who’s Al McConnell?”
Me and Al know each other now. I’m forever onto him, can’t speak highly enough of Al.
I’ve had numerous coaches down through the decades but Al is just brilliant. No other way to describe him. I absolutely love him. He is so passionate about the game but also about knowing you as a person. If you are happy then your football is going well, he says.
You don’t come across too many of those good people, but a few coaches have had a huge impact on my life. Jimmy Corbett and Beatrice Casey have been around a very long time, since I was nine or ten, and they are still there (I’ll be home soon).
Jimmy and Beatrice are the first to say they don’t know everything about football but they just have a knack of keeping a team together, of keeping girls interested.
And there’s Finbar Egan, coach of Mayo when we were winning All Irelands. I came across Finbar at an impressionable age, from about 16 to 23, and he just knew how to get the best out of every individual. Finbar flogged us! Killed us! It was the hardest years of training I ever did but we were ahead of the curve.
Jimmy, Beatrice and Finbar shaped how I think about football so for Al to come along – at my age, and alter that perspective…
I instantly connected with Al McConnell. He has forced me to think differently as a footballer, which helps as I am playing a new game and hope to keep doing so.
”I haven't made my decision about playing football this year for Mayo but I hope the Giants want me back next season.
Al is director of coaching for the entire club. One of his jobs is to analyse the coaches of the men’s team – he will sit in the box, watching them, then listen to their audio and watch the match again to see if each coach made the right decision at the right time.
If only I could bring him home and get him a job coaching Mayo!
But seriously, the stars just about managed to align.
After the first phone call last year we arranged for Al’s son, Ben, to come over from London to watch the championship match against Kildare. Ben flew into Knock. I kicked 1-11. He stayed in Castlebar that night and I met him the next morning in McHale Park. He had an AFL ball so we had a kick about that he videoed on his GoPro.
Al called that night offering me a contract.
Logistics proved a major hurdle. I didn’t know when I could get out to Sydney as we still had championship and then there was the club. It just kept going and going, deeper and deeper into the winter.
They were keen for me to fly over between the Cork game and the All-Ireland final because there was a three week break but I couldn’t risk it. Al was fine with that. The deadline was October 18th (draft day). Obviously everyone at the GWS Giants needed to see me kick an oval ball, in the flesh, before signing me up.
We managed to get the Connacht club semi-final shifted to a Friday night so I could fly on the Sunday morning. The flight was delayed and I had visa problems so I only arrived in Australia the Tuesday morning. Al was there to pick me up at 6.30am. We went straight to the club, did two kicking sessions with himself and Nick.
They still wanted to sign me. We drew up contracts, with Nick working on my behalf, and an offer was put on the table – it wasn’t about making money but I took a leave of absence from the HSE and I’ve a mortgage to pay. We agreed terms on the Tuesday evening. On Wednesday morning we flew to Melbourne for the draft (it was prearranged but the 45th pick out of 46 players was Cora Staunton). Back to Sydney Thursday morning for extra sessions with Al at the club and again on Friday morning and then off to lunch with Michael D, who happened to be over. RTE were there as well so they arranged an interview. Flew home Saturday afternoon. Back Sunday morning and down to Carnacon for training in the afternoon. I was jet lagged all week and trying to recover for the Connacht final the following Sunday. I couldn’t have a bad game, not after being away, and while we ended up drawing I scored 4-13.
So it was alright.
The next few weeks were non-stop (it always is). I was meant to be in Australia by November 10th but the agreement was that I wouldn’t leave until the club championship was done. Of course we made an All-Ireland final for the first time in four years. We won up in Parnell Park on December 3rd. I flew on the 5th. Got to Sydney on the 6th….
The women’s AFL is here to stay. The men’s AFL are pumping a lot of money into it. There’s still only eight teams so the season is short. Next year it goes to 10 teams, with plans to keep it growing to 14 and eventually 18 teams.
They don’t have the talent pool (yet) to be picking 14 panels but athletes are coming in from netball, cricket and other games.
They will get there. It’s so impressive to see the work behind the scenes and promotion of the AFLW in mainstream Australian media.
Each team is affiliated with a men’s AFL club and, eventually, local clubs and schools will feed into the franchises.
”Sport in Australia is not fully equal but that's mainly due to historical reasons. It is clearly heading in that direction.
I have learned so much these past three months. Every single day I see something I could bring home to Mayo.
The best thing is what I’ve also found the hardest to adapt to – their training methods. So much is focused on recovery, looking after your body, not over training.
I want to be out on the pitch. I’d have them driven demented: “Why are we not training on the pitch tonight? Why are we doing another recovery session?”
They want me to sit down and relax but kicking football is relaxing to me. It’s my mental health time!
Training on-pitch is never more than 80 minutes. Never. The gym session, an hour, never a minute more, follows each pitch session. Everything is monitored, videoed, so there is no hiding, no slacking.
Take an average week – Match on the Saturday. Fly home Sunday (more often than not). In Monday afternoon for recovery – bike 15 minutes, ice bath, stretching – review the match which takes an hour, we eat together, everyone gets a massage and then home. Tuesday and Thursday pitch sessions are very light. You won’t be killed in any way. I find that very hard.
They have kind of come around to my way of thinking (in that they let me do more than the others) but they try to hold me back. I went in early today and did a kicking session by myself but that had to be passed by the physios and the coaches. I am constantly negotiating times with them. We agreed on 30 minutes but I stayed out there for 50 minutes. Sure no one was watching, I think.
That’s the biggest thing – you train hard in preseason but once the matches begin it’s about maintaining and training focuses on skills.
No flogging in Sydney.
”I've not only had to re-train my brain to kick a different shaped ball but a whole new philosophy.
The ball? I have come up with a technique when I am shooting that will always stay with me now. I’m improving my kick passing too. That worried me at the start. Not anymore.
Lots of work in The Cage.
It is not just the ball and training, I’m allowed tackle and I’m allowed knock someone to the ground if the ball is coming in, knowing I won’t get a yellow or red card, which is fine until I get home!
After a full season I am beginning to learn this game. As a forward, it is all about leading patterns; how you run and where you run to. We play with a system of five backs, six midfielders and five forwards. It is all about creating space. It’s similar to the way you might run in GAA. In other ways it is very different. The game is based on about 12 structures. The pitch is divided into three fifties. Up the middle is known as the corridor and then there is a boundary on each side. There is a huge amount of stoppages where they throw up the ball, tap it down and ruck. There are different game plans for what you should be doing depending on where the stoppages are on the pitch.
I’d be completely confused. Now, I’ve an idea what to be doing after three months but I’ve no idea about anyone else on the pitch.
That is very difficult for me after all these years. At home I am in control of my own position, but also what everyone else should be doing. Over here, I am not in control of anything. I’m barely in control of myself. If I was playing GAA I know exactly who the corner back is marking and what they should be doing and would be wondering why they aren’t doing it.
Over here, I can’t influence the game the same way. When things are going wrong in a match I have no idea why. It’s been humbling, but that’s good.
Al sees my frustration. He knows I want to be knowing everything. Al tells me I will be a coach some day. Don’t know about that but I am hungry to learn everything about this game. So much so that I haven’t missed what I have done for as long as I can remember.
”I don't miss Gaelic football. Can't believe I'm saying that but I don't. This has given me a new lease of life. I'm loving the challenge.
I’m basically learning a new language. The terminology – even the way the Aussies speak, I find that very difficult. Of course my Mayo accent has me at the centre of all the jokes. They don’t understand half of what I’m saying. But that’s ok too, most of them are very young and they would be wondering “Who is this one coming over from Ireland?” They had me well googled by the time I landed but we have developed a special relationship – the girls love having me around for their entertainment!
You try and guide the younger ones along. I don’t know a lot about the game but I do know if these girls are guided properly they will turn out to be very good players.
”I've seen it back home. Girls fall away from the game at 13, 14 when all they needed was a little encouragement.
Life becomes more interesting at a certain age, there are more things on and people don’t see the benefit of fully committing to sport. At 16, 17 there’s pressures on girls from everywhere, so sport tends to suffer. They tend to stop playing if they are not in a good club or county team. When things don’t go right for you it can be very hard to continue.
It is easier to give up.
I was lucky growing up as we were successful early on with both club and Mayo. But I was helped by the older players. I was fanatical about football, so I was never going to give up, but you do need guidance.
So I love doing that now. It’s part of the game to me. I’ve played and coached girls I’d meet four, five years later – they might be 19 or 20 – and they are wondering “Why did I ever leave?”
I certainly wouldn’t like being a teenager now. There is an awful amount of peer pressure to be someone that maybe you don’t want to be. That’s life. It can get to you. If you don’t have a good coach and teammates all moving in the same direction you won’t stay with it.
It is always easier to give up.
I know Irish girls will see me over here and be tempted to give it a go but Ladies Football have nothing to worry about. There’ll be no mass exodus. It’s only really “key tall forwards” that can learn the game quick enough to survive. I am physically strong enough in my legs to drive out of a tackle, I’m able to look after myself and my footwork is a huge benefit.
It still took 12 weeks of constant practice not to look foolish.
I have to think about what I’ll do next. Could be a second season with the Giants. It’s the longest I’ve ever been away but my brother and his family are out here. There is 11 months between me and Brian so we played football together when we were younger. It’s great having him, Denise, Jack and Cian. I live with them, so Sydney is like a home away from home. That has made life very easy. I’m never lonely as I’ve two little nephews running around. That’s been lovely.
It’s also my longest time away from football. I had a four and half month break when I tore my cruciate in 2003 (didn’t get the operation until 2008). This was only the second league I’ve missed in 23 years.
Championship? I have to see how the body feels. It’s in good shape now. Except for the nose. I need an operation after the Sophie Casey tackle that made a stir in the media
”The medics thought I was crazy to be going back on but I've broken my jaw, and the nose three other times, so it was nothing new.
I am not sure she was targeting me, but it was a bad tackle. Things happen. I’m just glad I was able to keep playing as I was just getting the hang of my new game.
The season is over now. We made huge strides. One victory off making the Grand Final.
Major differences between Sydney and Mayo?
The celebrating. They leave me alone, mostly. Training has such positive energy – no one coming to blows or giving out. You give at least 100 high fives. They laugh at me for struggling with that.
If we win a match, all our supporters and family and friends come into the dressing room. They really celebrate victory over here, any victory. We tend to do nothing until we have an All-Ireland title. It’s very different. I’m not saying either is right or wrong.
The club is all about family. They want my brother, his wife and children to be actively involved. They want to know everything about you.
The Giants is a young club, it’s also a business that wants to make money but it really is a club – more like playing for Carnacon than Mayo. Just bigger. I feel welcome every day. I don’t feel like an intruder. One of the men’s team always stops to ask how I am getting on. They know who I am.
In fairness, I stand out, what with the camera crew following me around…
The Sports Chronicle brings you stories from the world of sport by the players, the coaches and the unsung heroes, all in their own words.
This all began with a contribution from Jamie Heaslip, one of the greatest servants to Irish rugby, with “The End is Really The Beginning” Part 1 and Part 2. You can also check out our Podcast. Subscribe today for more.