By Frank Craig
Aishling Sheridan was coming off the back of a superb AFLW season with Collingwood and looking forward to Cavan’s Ulster SFC push when Covid-19 took it’s initial grip.
The Breffni girl had to drop everything and a dash for home was made. It was a disappointing end to her stay in Australia but she is still hopeful that some kind of LGFA Championship season is played out on these shores.
She sat down recently with Gaelic Lives podcast host Frank Craig to look back at her season Down Under. She also talked about her hopes for the future of the ladies game here in Ireland.
FC: Aishling, how did the move to Australia first come about?
AS: It all started two years ago, September of that year. I got a message on Instagram from an organisation called Crosscoders. Basically they were looking for female athletes from a variety of sports to go out to Australia to have trials for AFLW. I applied, there was an interview process and I ended up going out to Melbourne for a week. That was great. I got to learn the basic skills and do some fitness tests. We met some clubs who came in to look at us. Teams did show interest. But the draft went ahead and I didn’t get picked up that time. I was back home going about my business, working and playing football. We’d just lost the league semi-final and our Championship wasn’t starting for another month and a half. In the space of five days I was on a plane and over to Darwin to play in the VFLW. It’s like the equivalent of our league. I trained for a month this time. I got to play two games and teams actually got to see me play the game. I didn’t really know what was going on – I just had to use my own smarts and thankfully a few sides got in contact. One of them happened to be Collingwood. My friend Sarah Rowe, who I lived with in college, was already there so it was a really good fit.
FC: It’s only into its fourth season but the AFLW has really captured the imagination out there…
AS: That was one thing that actually really shocked me. And I was trying to explain it all to my family. Crowds there are usually six or seven thousand, sometimes up to twelve for a ladies game. We’d something like over seven thousand at our first home game. It was fantastic. They do the food carts, there is music playing, the atmosphere is just amazing. It’s a huge family day out. The whole set up and how professional it is… once you’d get into the changing rooms you’d surrender your phone. Everyone is focused and tuned in. Even smart watches are gone as a text on that could be an interruption. It’s really cool. It’s next level.
FC: There is an uneasy relationship between the GAA and the AFL with some viewing their recruitment of Irish players as a threat to the game. The LGFA seem to have a more relaxed attitude to the link up between themselves and the AFLW…
AS: It’s a brilliant opportunity. We get the chance to play six or seven months out there and then come back home and we still can play Championship for our counties. The AFLW game is only into it’s fourth year and it’s expanding. Next year it’ll be an even longer season so I’d say as the thing continues to grow and the season increases; it might put a little more pressure on the Irish girls where a decision might have to be made. As of now, it’s fine. But it will come to a stage when you’ll have to stay out there longer. The way I look at it is that it’s a massive opportunity. I’m 23-years-of-age and never once thought I’d get the chance to live as a professional athlete. I’m still able to come back and play the sport I love. At the moment, it’s the perfect scenario for me.
FC: The ladies game is growing rapidly here but there still is a huge gap in terms of the perks available to the men…
AS: Explaining it to the Australians over there, they can’t understand that there is no pay and it’s an amateur sport. You explain that you’ve grown up loving Gaelic football. But there definitely is still a difference in Ireland between the men and the ladies games. There are more opportunities out there like the sponsored cars and so on. Maybe if there were more perks like that for the females then it might entice girls to stay about. The men probably can find things through the GAA that’ll keep them in Ireland. That’s just not there for the girls. Some people might disagree. Hopefully, in a few more years as the ladies game continues to grow it’ll increase the profiles of the girls.
FC: Living the life of a pro athlete, tell us what that’s like?
AS: It’s brilliant. At home, I’m lucky as I only have to travel an hour and a half down to training. But for the likes of Sarah, she had a trip of three hours to Mayo. But you’ve so much going on in your life with work or college and you try to balance your football commitments with all of that. In Australia, I was in the club every day. I’d train Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturdays. I’d do my gym work on a Tuesday and Thursday. I’d also have a skills session on those same days. Sunday really was my only real rest day. You thrive in that kind of environment. It was a new game so I just really wanted to make sure I was giving myself the best chance at succeeding. I was able to really concentrate on my nutrition and focus on the little things. There was so much learning. And a lot of that can be brought back and used in Gaelic. Just to have the time to better yourself and rest, it really does make a huge difference.
FC: The Irish girls are making the transition to the oval ball look easy. But it must be a shock to the system. It’s a completely different game…
AS: Being completely honest, I hadn’t really followed it beforehand. I was aware that Cora Staunton had gone out and done really well. People mightn’t notice looking in but it’s so technical. There is a specific way you have to kick that ball. If you connect wrong someone going to catch it could potentially break their fingers. Trying to learn the skills took time and patience. Living with Sarah, we’d the ball in the house the whole time. The running and the bounce, that’s the hardest thing. It’s not the easiest trick to get it back up into your hands!
FC: When the seriousness of coronavirus finally began to dawn, how hard was it to get out of Australia and home?
AS: When it all started really happening, our next game was against Brisbane. We were taken in for a talk in relation to what was permitted. Things like high fiving, which is massive out there was gone. We’d all to have our own water bottles. The game was behind closed doors. The Australian girls found that strange. But it wasn’t really anything new for us Irish girls. God, at a club game on a Sunday morning you might only see 10 people in the stand! It didn’t faze me but it was a really big deal for them. But we were realising that this was getting serious. And I was in constant contact with my family. My dad was due to come out. But that couldn’t happen then. I noticed through different facebook pages that a lot of the Irish were beginning to book flights home. Myself and Sarah were trying to book flights. She had a flight for the Tuesday and mine was the Wednesday. Hers got cancelled so she had to get a different one. That was then delayed by three hours as someone actually had the virus on the same plane the flight before. Come the Wednesday, I’d to fly up to Sydney. It was delayed seven hours. I then had a four and a half hour flight to Darwin. We had to wait on the plane for four hours before what was a sixteen hour flight to London. With all the delays I missed three flights in London and my bag didn’t arrive! To be honest, I actually felt I was one of the lucky ones because I was getting home. Some people didn’t. So I was just grateful.
FC: The coverage the ladies game now gets and the backing it’s received from the likes of Lidl, the trajectory continues to point upwards…
AS: Yeah, Lidl are into their fourth year backing it and the work they’ve done has been massive. They are promoting the game, they have their ambassadors and are pushing it as hard as they can. It’s getting bigger all the time. The coverage is so far ahead now of where it once was. There are brand ambassador roles now for the girls. I coach the little girls in Mullahoran and their dream now is to grow up and play for Cavan. It’s fantastic to see. We’re seeing record attendances at Croke Park for All-Ireland final day. I was there last year. We took two bus loads up from the club. A parent might see you on a poster in Lidl and say it’s great. And maybe it’ll make children think I want that to be me in 10 years time.
FC: The relationship between the GAA and the LGFA has really improved. But could it be even better?
AS: I think so but that is just from my own personal experience. I’d love to get the chance to play before a Cavan mens Championship game. We didn’t get that chance last year. It was supposed to happen but the weather put paid to those plans. But hopefully in the near future we will. It was brilliant to see the Dublin ladies play some of their league games at Croke Park. That’s amazing and credit there. But I do think there is room for improvement. It’s a talking point now but I’d love to get to a point in a few years where it’d just be the norm for the girls maybe to be the curtain raiser for the men on the one day. It’d be a great occasion.
FC: The ladies Ulster SFC is so competitive. So many sides have realistic ambitions there. The province is a real hotbed of talent at this moment…
AS: The majority of people will agree that Ulster is the toughest province or the most competitive. It’s never easy to pick a winner. Donegal are there now. But every team is now aiming for that title and feel they’ve a realistic chance. It’s hard to see an Ulster Championship this year now. If we get up and running it will most likely be straight to an All-Ireland Championship. We were supposed to have Monaghan in the first round and we were really looking forward to it. It’s a big one. But the competitiveness of it, it’s great. It sets you up perfectly for the All-Ireland series. We’re playing in Division 2 league so we need that challenge in Ulster to sharpen us.
FC: And how has the group been getting their work in?
AS: With circumstances as they are, we’re still all in contact remotely. We have our sessions to get through. We have our S&C and gym work as usual and we have group sessions online as a team to keep morale up. It hasn’t been the worst. You just have to make the best of the situation we find ourselves in. I’m lucky in a sense that two of my sisters are on the county squad as well. We have our own mini sessions. But we’re all still in contact. It’s certainly different but you just have to keep the head up and try to stay positive. Hopefully, we’ll all get the chance to pick up where we’d left off before all of this.