Caoibhe Sloan believes Down ladies are heading in the right direction

By Kieran Lynch

“That Tuesday night really told us that there were a group of people
there who wanted to be there.

They were there for the right reasons
and it meant that we were building something that was about a wee bit
more than just winning. It’s for a love of the game. It’s about
everything that’s good about the game and that’s the kind of team I
want to be a part of.”

It wasn’t a particular match, or a particular result that affirmed
Down Ladies co-manager Caoibhe Sloan’s belief that she was building
something special with her team. It was a training session. A training
session coming off the back of a shock hammering received at the hands
of Sligo last year.

“After we got tanked by Sligo in the Championship, on the Tuesday
night when we went out to training I’ve never seen a bounce-back like
it from a team. The mental strength of all the players to say, ‘We can
fix this, we can put this right.’ The vibe was really good. The effort
was unbelievable, and we went on to win our next two Championship

For Sloan, results are not the only thing that matters to her and her
team. It’s about encouraging her players and getting the best that
they have to offer.

Thirty years old and female may not be the usual profile for an inter-
county football manager, but for Sloan, it’s not about age or gender,
it’s about being the right person for the job.

She is the only female manager at inter-county level in both Ladies’
and Men’s Gaelic football, but Sloan isn’t in her position as a token
gesture. With Club Championship titles won in Armagh and in Ulster,
she’s there on merit, and keen to prove it.

“I wouldn’t ever want to think that I’m in it because I’m a girl. I’d
want to think that I’m in it because I’m good enough.”

Such is the nature of inter-county management, which is such a male-
dominated field, and because she is so young, Sloan has often been
dismissed by fellow coaches. She is sometimes not seen to be on level
terms with her male counterparts.  Sloan says that sometimes, when
she’s on the sideline, “People look at me and say, ‘Where’s the

Despite such remarks, she doesn’t let it bother her; Sloan’s love of
the game and knowledge of it ensure that she has never been in doubt
about her own abilities.

“I was confident in what I was doing because I saw other people doing
it and thought, ‘Well I can do that.’”

Sloan grew up in a football-mad family in Newry. She said: “I was
introduced to Gaelic Football from when I was no age really,” and the
role models whose examples she has sought to follow come predominantly
from her family.

Both her dad and grandfather coached underage teams at her local club,
Newry Mitchel’s, and it was through following them and helping them in
their roles where she first experienced Gaelic Football.

“My initial role models would have been my own family, my dad and my

Sloan experienced her family’s fanaticism about the GAA from an early
age. When she was five, her family returned home from their holiday
early because her dad had team in the Under-12 South Down Final.
“My dad is probably one of the most positive people I have ever met.
He’s unbelievable, he’s always believed in encouraging people,” Sloan

As Newry Mitchel’s had no Ladies team for Sloan to play on, she played
her underage football with Iveagh Bosco, but fell out of love with the
game when that team disbanded in her late teens.

Once Sloan moved to England to complete a PGCE, she left Gaelic
football entirely, but upon her return home she sought to get back
into game.

“When I came home from England I was really, really keen to get back

She completed her PCGE, and is now a secondary school teacher in St.
Patrick’s Grammar School Armagh.

Teaching is often a natural stepping stone into coaching, but it tends
to be those who have hung up their boots that grab the whistle. When
Sloan started teaching she was still in her 20s and probably could
have returned to playing. She has hazy memories of why she chose the
coaching path.

“I don’t remember ever making a decision to say, ‘I’m going to become
a coach.”

However, a chance meeting with then-Shane O’Neill’s Ladies manager
Peter Lynch altered these plans and set her on the pathway to where
she is now.

“I was very lucky to meet Peter,” Sloan said, “And to realise that we
share a very similar philosophy on coaching.”
Sloan had taken some underage teams in the past but was still a
relative newcomer to the coaching side of the game. Despite this,
Lynch, who had been managing the Shane O’Neill’s Ladies team as the
sole manager since 2011, felt that she was the perfect candidate to
take up a role alongside him in a joint-management team.

Sloan said: “The opportunity then came up with Peter and I jumped at
the chance to give him a hand and it has kind of snowballed from there.”
Lynch and Sloan, who have been working together since 2016, are now
one of only two co-management team in Ladies inter-county football.

Joint management teams of a man and woman are uncommon, and this has
led to Sloan being mistaken for an assistant on occasion. Despite
this, she points to the fact that both managers are equals and bring
equal amounts of commitment to the role.

“We give as much as we can and we’re respectful of each other’s
position and what each of us brings to the role.”

Sloan spoke about how herself and Lynch see eye-to-eye and share the
similar philosophy of mol an óige agus tiocfaidh sí, that encouraging
players will bring out the best in them.

“We’re both so passionate about the game and it just works. Peter’s
able to get the best out of people by encouraging the good.”

Having first managed together at Shane O’Neill’s and now with Down,
there is a clear bond between the two. Alongside the respect the pair
have for each other, another reason they have found success together
is because they stay in constant communication.

“Sometimes we’re chatting to each other more than maybe we are to our
own partners!”

The Lynch-Sloan duo hit the ground running in their first year
together as they led Shane O’Neill’s Ladies on an incredible run which
saw them win Armagh and Ulster Intermediate titles, before coming up
just a point short in the All-Ireland final to Galway’s Annaghdown.

“I can’t ignore the 2016 year with Shane’s, which was unbelievable.
There’s so many memories to take from that.”

Following on from their success at club level, the time felt right
coming into the 2019 season for the duo to step up into inter-county
management level, when an opportunity arose in the form of a Down
Ladies management vacancy.

Having been successful with their pitch for the role, they set-out a
long term vision for what they wanted to achieve with Down, and for
them it was about getting the time to build a team in their own image.
“When we started, we were building, that’s the biggest thing that
we’re doing.”

Despite needing the time to build from the ground up, Sloan was
excited when taking the job because of the possibilities that it
presented for her to succeed.

“We were aware of the unbelievable structures at underage that were
already in place for Down Ladies because of the committed and
dedicated County Board.”

The jump from club football to county brings with it, additional
pressures and focus, and it didn’t take the 30-year-old long to
realise that.

“It’s the top standard and the highest possible level. You have the
very best club players who are expecting the highest standards all the
time and it’s that part of it that I absolutely love. It leaves you
with a sense of nervous excitement when you’re going to training.”

Whilst Sloan expects high standards from her team, the same can be
said of the converse: these are the best players in the county, and
they expect to be coached to a high standard too.

“You have to be on top of your game because the players expect
something special, and if not, why not? We’d expect the same from them
when they turn up, to give their best.”

And it was on that fateful Tuesday night training session, where the
standards were met by both players and managers. They realised not
only had they talented players, they had players who were excited to
play for the cause and represent their county.

“We now have a group of 32 girls all dying to get on to the field
every time we go out.”

For Sloan, having a committed and enthusiastic squad of players is one
thing, but it’s also imperative for her team to get results.

“It’s not a given that you’re going to be an inter-county manager, the
results need to be got as well.”

Since the defeat to Sligo, Down have been getting results. They
rebounded from that defeat with wins over Limerick and Kildare and
their 2019 campaign picked up a run of momentum, but due to point
differential, it wasn’t enough to see them through to the next round, and their season ended prematurely.

In 2020, the team have looked to continue that brief wave of momentum
and do better than last year, and progress is already being seen out
on the field. In 2019, Down collected four competitive wins in total,
a tally they had already matched in 2020 by the end of February.

But the Newry native isn’t in the business of making any long-term
predictions. What is most important to her is that the team stays
grounded and takes each match as it comes.

“We’re not looking any further than our next match, we’re asking the
girls to take it one game at a time, one training session at a time
and we’ll give it all we have.”

Despite this, there can be no doubt that the future is looking bright
for Sloan and Down Ladies Football.

“We’re looking forward to it, we’re excited, we’ve enjoyed it so far
and we’re just asking the girls to keep giving it your all and keep
enjoying it and the good days will come.”

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