It was February 2002 and I hadn’t seen or kicked a football in nearly five years. The sudden and somewhat unexpected winding up of Carna LGFA at the end of our third and most successful year had brought the curtain down on my fledgling career and left me with many happy and proud memories. With the passage of time, I could have been forgiven for arriving at an assumption that there would be no sequel or second coming, but thankfully the fates were ultimately to decree otherwise. In many respects, I have my niece Emma Ridge to thank because she was the one that asked me for the lift to the Under 14 training session at the unlikely venue of Connemara Rugby Football Club. ‘’There’s a new team starting up called Gráinne Mhaols’’, she said excitedly, ‘’and you should bring your boots because there’s going to be older ones there as well’’. I was a bit intrigued at the prospect and suddenly felt that old familiar tinge of excitement and anticipation in the pit of my stomach. Once a footballer, always a footballer, I suppose. The passion might go a bit dormant through temporary disconnection but the embers never burn out. I was steeped in it anyway from the cradle because my father and my brothers all played for the local club and I was forever attending matches as a young and impressionable child. So, having acceded to Emma’s request, I duly resurrected the gear bag, rounded up the rest of the gang and hit the road for Clifden with a full carload.
My fitness levels were fairly good because of my involvement in outdoor education programmes around that time, and on arrival at the sand based facility, I was delighted to reacquaint myself with Georgina Flaherty who had been a participant with me on one of the above. There’s nothing like a familiar face to settle the nerves and put one’s mind at ease, but in any case I needn’t have worried, because the atmosphere was brilliant and the session suitably structured and intense. The Coach was quite enthusiastic and animated and we all responded accordingly. On a personal level, I hadn’t had so much fun in such a long time with such a lovely and lively bunch of girls. For their part, there wasn’t a hint of any animosity or antipathy towards the outsider in their midst, and by the end of the night I felt as if I had known them all my life. As we chatted amicably afterwards, they were very forthcoming and positive in their affirmation of my efforts, and while I was very appreciative of all the unexpected praise, I wasn’t in any way overly flattered, because there had been so many players on the Carna team (my sister Teresa included) who were far more adept in the finer points of the football than myself.
Paul Gannon convened a quick meeting for the purpose of electing a captain, and to my total disbelief I received the highest amount of votes. Not surprisingly, I felt a bit uncomfortable and embarrassed at being elevated to such a lofty position on my very first night. Somehow it didn’t seem fair in front of the other girls but when I articulated my feelings on the matter to one and all, they dismissed my protestations in the nicest possible manner and congratulated me on the promotion. I graciously accepted the position at that point, thanked them for the vote of confidence and assured them that I would give it my all. One month later, I proudly led our newly constructed gaelic football team onto the Tullycross pitch for a local derby with neighbouring club Na Piarsaigh, in the quarter final of the inaugural West Galway Tournament. Peil na mBan footballing legend Máire Cloherty, who would play a key role in our double winning exploits before the year was out, managed to procure a set of Carna jerseys for us that day as we had yet to purchase our own. So I made my Grainne Mhaols debut in a Carna jersey and it was a successful one. Some of the girls were struggling on a technical level but that was to be expected. We travelled to Clonbur on a high for the ensuing semi final against Killannin and it turned out to be a real baptism of fire for our rookie apprentices. I was well aware of the football talent that was in the East Connemara club because I had played against them in the past. Having said that however, I didn’t expect Gráinne Mhaols to be so outclassed on the day, and as I observed our sore and soaked players trudging off the greasy, sodden pitch in the aftermath of the ambush, I surmised that the journey might soon be over before it had ever really begun.
What I observed subsequently in the dressing room however, confirmed that such fears on my part were totally without foundation. The girls were full of banter as they laughed and joked inwardly at themselves re various mishaps and mistakes that had occurred during the match. It wasn’t the reaction I was expecting and I suddenly had a sense of having bought into something which had the potential to be very special. It seemed as if these Grainne Mhaols girls, almost unknownst to themselves, were already endowed with one of the most important qualities required to make a meaningful impact in competitive sport, namely, an ability to handle defeat in the right spirit. Management carried out an immediate post mortem there and then inside the dressing room, and as I sat in respectful silence with the rest of my comrades, I was struck by the constructive and positive nature of the analysis, the philosophy behind it and above all, the willingness of the players to accept and embrace the sentiments expressed. I left Clonbur that day with a greatly enhanced appreciation of my privileged position and a much more acute awareness of the challenges and responsibilities that went with it.
We had a huge amount of work to do in terms of improving both the fitness and skill levels of the players but they tore into it with renewed vigour and determination ahead of our opening Junior B League encounter against Loughrea. In terms of m own form, I was a long way off the finished product and had to work just as hard as anybody else in the squad. The club was extremely well organised at administrative level so I was able to focus completely on the football which was both refreshing and liberating. Relieved of all the responsibilities normally reserved for Executive Officers I was able to devote all my energies into building up a strong sense of camaderie, friendship and unity among the players, and if the truth be told, it was a role I really relished. I eased my way into it gently over the course of the first few league games (which we managed to win) before gradually asserting myself in a non-confrontational, positive but firm manner in time for the opening round of the championship. The acquisition of both Máire Cloherty and Lisa Coohill in the run up to the latter gave everyone a tremendous boost. They were born winners, very driven and ambitious and incredibly self motivated in terms of continually striving for higher standards within their own performance levels. The younger players in particular were very much in awe of this duo and hung on their every word, a state of affairs which suited my purposes perfectly. We now had a lovely blend of youth and experience and I was starting to feel increasingly optimistic about our championship credentials.
We succeeded in seeing off the challenges of both Salthill (quarter final) and Spiddal (semi final) to set up a final showdown against Milltown. The North Galway club were installed as firm favourites on the basis that they had contested the two previous finals but I knew that the mantle of underdog would suit us perfectly and that all the pressure and expectation was on our opponents. I also knew that this match was going to be a significant step up in class from the earlier tests and that my teammates would look to me to lead and inspire if and when the going got tough. I felt in some respects like the weight of the world was on my shoulders, yet at the same time, I was quite calm and confident because I had been through it all before at Junior A level in those two epic finals against St Marys, Killererin back in 1997. What eventually transpired on a cloudy and overcast day in October was a really tight and tense affair which could easily have gone either way. Milltown got a bit of a run at us in the third quarter and I remember Máire Cloherty pulling off a brilliant point blank save to prevent a certain goal from which there would have been no coming back. Her well timed intervention proved to be a turning point of sorts because we reasserted ourselves from that point on and finished with a flourish to eventually land our first piece of silverware on a final scoreline of 3-5 to 1-7.
I was presented with the Junior B Championship Cup by referee and Galway County Junior Manager Con Moynihan who had also been the man in the middle five years previously when Carna lost out in the Junior A Championship Final in Tuam. He had been somewhat surprised initially to greet me for the toss of the coin but in the next breath he expressed his delight at the fact that I was back playing football again with a relatively young and inexperienced group of players who were spreading the ladies football gospel to a new part of the county for the first time ever. ‘’They’ll keep you on your toes’’, he added , ‘’ but they’ll also benefit from your experience and I hope it all goes well for ye.’’ His recognition of where we represented and of my relative importance to the whole project, gave me a big lift because he was at that time and still is, the most successful club manager in the history of Galway Ladies Football. Three years later, he bestowed great honour upon me at inter county level, when he asked me to lead out his troops against Sligo in the opening round of the Connacht Junior Championship. That two year sojourn with Galway’s second string was something I enjoyed immensely but ultimately had to terminate because of the inordinate amount of time and travel involved. In terms of the club captaincy however, it was very beneficial because I became a much fitter and stronger player as a result.
Gráinne Mhaols came face to face with Milltown shortly after that historic October day in the semi final of the County Junior B League and I knew that the championship runners up would be on a revenge mission. They tore into us with a hunger and a tenacity that we simply couldn’t match and translated their superiority into scores. Gráinne Mhaols were in complete disarray at half time and lucky to be nine points adrift. As we all took a few quiet moments to reflect on our own contributions to the debacle, I knew that this was going to be the litmus test in terms of my own leadership and resolve. After management had had their say and made a few positional switches, they called upon me to say my piece and I didn’t hold back. ‘’We don’t deserve to play at Junior A level next year with a performance like that. Milltown and everyone else for that matter will think that our county final win was a fluke, beginners luck and no more. Is this how ye want the year to end, after all we’ve achieved and all we’ve been through. As far as I’m concerned, if we leave Killannin today a beaten team, then the good is gone out of that championship title and all the celebrations counted for nothing. Do ye not see that this is about pride and self respect. We’re a West Connemara team trying to make a name for ourselves and we won’t get the credit we deserve from the County Board or any of the North Galway clubs either, unless we do the double. Some of ye thought it was only a matter of turning up today to book yeer place in the final. Well, now ye know. Football is a fickle business at the best of times and no team has a divine right to win. You have to earn it. We have disrespected Milltown today and we’re paying the price, but it’s not too late to turn it around, so come on, let’s get our act together and play like the county champions that we are. Let’s show Milltown that this team never knows when it is beaten and that we will fight tooth and nail to the bitter end. I don’t want to hear one angry word uttered at the end of the match. We will leave everything on the field of play, every last drop, and when that final whistle sounds, we’ll walk back here with our heads held high whatever the outcome.’’
It was my first really passionate outburst but it was said from the heart and it seemed to resonate with the rest of them. I was looking for a reaction and a response and got both. Gráinne Mhaols improved out of all proportion after the resumption and by the time the final whistle sounded, the sides were inseparable on a final scoreline of 4-4 to 3-7. Milltown’s management team wanted extra time to resolve the issue but our mentors wouldn’t entertain this at all because they realised that we were out on our feet after putting in such a huge physical effort in that dramatic second half. The row went on for a while but in the end it came down to the official notification of the fixture which hadn’t made any provision for extra time. So we all headed home with plenty of food for thought and a week to recharge the batteries ahead of the replay. The following Sunday we went at it again, and second time around we applied ourselves to the task in a manner worthy of our newly acquired championship status and weren’t in any way flattered by the ten point winning margain at the finish. The 2002 County Junior B League Final wasn’t played until the end of December and for the second time that year, Headford proved to be a happy hunting ground for Gráinne Mhaols after we clinched a coveted double with a comprehensive victory over Glenamaddy.
When the new season recommenced in February 2003, I was asked to stay on as captain which was something that took me completely by surprise. I assumed that my term in office would be for one season and no more, but management assured me that their plan was much more long term so I respected their wishes in that regard and trusted in their judgement call. Thankfully, there wasn’t even a hint of an adverse reaction from any of the players so I took this as an unofficial vote of confidence and settled into the task in earnest. We were now up to the same divisional level that Carna had operated at for three years so I brought the best of that experience to the forefront of my captaincy. Players of the calibre of Gráinne Lydon, Siobhan Keaney, Máire Cloherty and Pauline Keaney had instilled in me a deep appreciation of the importance of hard work, doggedness, determination and self belief within the whole football equation. I was taught to play hard but fair, to never drop my head no matter how adversarial the circumstances and to maintain my concentration levels for the entire duration of the contest. These were the virtues that I endeavoured to pass on to my team mates over the following three years, and in the main they couldn’t have been more receptive and appreciative of my bona fides. In my football experience, players tend to be the worst judges of themselves. More often than not they are inclined to put themselves down, to undervalue their ability and to underestimate their potential to be a highly regarded member of a successful set up. I felt that there was an onus on me to counteract the above and that the key to achieving same was to be a good listener.
The mentoring of players is a difficult and complex phenomenon because of the diverse range of personalities involved and Gráinne Mhaols is no different to any other LGFA club in this regard. I found some players to be quite obstinate and stubborn in their adherence to certain types of approaches and attitudes which I felt were counterproductive to the team. I did my best in a diplomatic way to get them to address the issues involved, but in the event of not making any headway, I generally cut my losses at the risk of the whole thing becoming too personal, and left well enough alone. At the end of the day, if somebody was adamant that they wanted to do something a certain way and was unwilling to adapt or change for the better, then I didn’t see the point in having a big fallout which would only damage team morale, so any time I found myself in this situation, I took a complete step back and left it to the management who were in a better position than myself to take a more authoritative and forthright line on the problem. I always went with the philosophy of ‘’what happens on the pitch stays on the pitch’’ and that there would be no recrimination afterwards. Some players had a tendency to play the blame game which was something I could never see the point of and would never entertain. There were only two occasions that I can remember ever having to step in between two Gráinne Mhaols players who had become engaged in heated exchanges during the course of a match. Luckily enough, I was close to the players in question and we were able to get it sorted out quickly without either one of them losing face. I think it’s important to add also that I never got hassled socially over football. Gráinne Mhaols LGFA to the best of my knowledge has never aired its dirty linen in public in the past and I sincerely hope that they won’t in the future either.
Looking back now after all these years, I can honestly say that the vast majority of our players were very happy to take any advice and guidance that I was willing to throw their way. In some respects, I became a maternal figure who could sort out certain issues and problems without management ever having to know. Typical examples of this were girls being really down on themselves re their own form, girls not being happy with the position they were picked to play in, girls not getting on with other girls, girls feeling unappreciated or misunderstood by management and girls missing out on being selected on the first fifteen. The latter in particular, nearly always had a very detrimental effect on the self esteem of the affected players and they would often rely on me to give them a sympathetic ear or offer them some solace. While I was always happy to listen to player grievances and empathise to a certain extent, I never allowed myself to be lured into making negative assertions or derogatory comments re management decisions, because to do so would have seriously compromised the very thing I treasured the most about Gráinne Mhaols LGFA, namely, the ethos of the club, which its founders had created, nurtured and protected with great pride.
Management played a key role in our success on the playing fields in 2004 when I was the recipient of no less than five cups. They had an uncanny knack of getting us to raise our standards almost in spite of ourselves and this was something that meant the world to a captain who wasn’t in any way immune from experiencing serious dips in her own form from time to time. I put myself under too much pressure on occasion and suffered accordingly. I had a tendency early on in the experience, to overly consume myself with considerations about what I had to do to get everyone around me to play well, and invariably this had a detrimental effect on my own performance levels. Management copped on to what was happening before too long and carried out remedial action on my behalf. I was advised to concentrate on my own game and to focus my energies on negating the influence of my direct marker. They told me the one about the rising tide lifting all the boats and assured me that I could be that rising tide every time I went into battle with my team. It was sound advice which I was happy to take on board and which stood me in good stead thereafter.
The personal highlight of my four years at the helm was undoubtedly our Connacht Junior Championship Final victory over Sligo champions Geevagh up in the Yeats County. Management had that broken record quality about them all that season, going on continuously about Gráinne Mhaols having this glorious opportunity to become the first ever Galway club to win the All Ireland Junior Championship. If I’m being completely honest, I think a lot of it went over our heads initially, myself included. It was almost as if the players were in a different place entirely to their backroom team but that all changed dramatically after we captured the club’s first ever County Junior A Championship title with a hard earned four point victory over our old adversaries from Milltown. The ensuing Connacht Junior Championship draw saw us pitted against Leitrim representatives Bornacoola on their home patch, and as we headed off on the Saturday to do the overnight stay in nearby Lanesboro on the banks of the River Shannon, everybody was fully focussed on the job in hand. We didn’t register a single white flag until the twentieth minute of that semi final but our opponents were equally below par during that opening period. We eventually got into our stride however towards the end of the half and ran away with it in on the resumption. Everything about our first ever weekend away had been brilliant and we couldn’t wait for the next round in Sligo two weeks later.
Training intensified ahead of the provincial final and it was wonderful for me as club captain to observe the younger players in particular taking the whole experience to new and unprecedented levels of application and maturity. Management were quite meticulous in their preparations and everything was timetabled out with great precision from the moment we arrived at our hotel in Tubbercurry. We all prayed hard together at the Sunday morning mass and later that day our prayers were answered when we beat the hosts by two points in a real thriller. The match had been covered live on Connemara Community Radio so the people of West Connemara were well aware of our win and they gave us a great homecoming afterwards. Bonfires blazed across the region from Leenane to Cashel and the great reception we received that unforgettable night really made us realise and appreciate the enormity and historical significance of our achievement.
The last leg of the journey was into my native village, and as the bus wound its way past Glynsk House and down the final straight, Máire Cloherty put her arm reassuringly around me and said, ‘’Do you realise that you’re the first footballer ever to bring a Connacht Championship Cup back to Carna. Enjoy this bit Geraldine because you well deserve it.’’ Her kind and thoughtful words really struck an emotional chord and all I could think of was my father who was called from this life before myself or Teresa were old enough to become registered club footballers with the Carna adult team. I had always felt that his spirit was with me every time I ran out on the field of play and people often commented that my personality was quite similar to his. My biggest regret within the whole gaelic sporting experience is the fact that he never got to see me play and this was something that Máire Cloherty could appreciate more than most. I’ll always be grateful to her for making me see that the silverware I proudly presented to my former mentor Johnny Lydon at the crossroads bonfire that night was in many respects, my personal salute and tribute to Tommy McTavish (RIP), a wonderful father who had passed on the love of football to his daughter.
There was huge excitement and anticipation in the run up to our ensuing All-Ireland semi final against Munster champions, Abbeydorney, down in the Kingdom. We were delighted at the prospect of another weekend away and collectively believed that it was our destiny to create our own unique piece of history on behalf of Galway Ladies Football. Several sections of the business community of West Connemara made sponsorship donations to help alleviate the costs involved and we also had a very large and vocal travelling support. The match itself was tight and tense in the opening period and we were very happy to be going in level at half time. Then, in the third quarter we cut loose with a hat trick of goals and there appeared to be no way that we could be beaten. What ensued subsequently however over the course of those final fifteen minutes will haunt me for a lifetime and represents without doubt, my lowest point ever in football. In retrospect, the warning signs were there in the Connacht final, when having built up a commanding lead early in the second half, Gráinne Mhaols subsequently allowed Geevagh to come back strongly at them late on. We were hanging on desperately at the final whistle that day and hadn’t yet learnt the knack of closing out a game while well in the ascendancy. This is an art in itself which can only really be developed and fine tuned with the benefit of experience and ultimately we didn’t have enough of the latter to see off the Kerry challenge when it came down to it. In fairness to the Munster champions, we didn’t reckon on their character and fighting spirit, the very qualities that Gráinne Mhaols had prided ourselves on, and availed of on more than one occasion to get ourselves out of a few tight corners. Now it was our turn to be on the receiving end and it was a bitter pill to swallow.
On a personal level, I didn’t rise to the occasion the way I had intended or imagined. Everything felt a bit flat and disjointed and events seemed to pass me by to a certain extent. I just couldn’t impose myself on proceedings, and the younger players were under so much emotional pressure that my instructions and promptings didn’t register in the normal manner. I was also rattled by the referee, upon hearing him offering words of encouragement to an opposing player half way through the second half. I allowed this incident to unnerve and upset me, got angry as a result and lost my poise and composure just when it was needed the most. Abbeydorney’s Noreen Feeley, a member of the Kerry senior team was the talismatic influence on the pitch that day, and as we crumbled under the incessant pressure in those final frenetic minutes, she really came into her own. There was plenty of drama at the death when the referee appeared to have played too much additional time, during the course of which Abbeydorney scored their winning goal. Our supporters were adamant that we should have had a replay but the case they were presenting was a futile one. The opportunity had come and gone and we had to accept it with dignity. I made my way dejectedly into the Abbeydorney dressingroom to congratulate them on their achievement and it was the hardest thing I ever had to do in football.
2005 was my final year as team captain, and by that time my circumstances within the club had changed in the sense that I was an officer on the Executive Committee and was also involved in the coaching of juvenile players. In some respects, it felt as if I was being pulled in too many different directions and this definitely curbed both my energy and enthusiasm for the demands of the captaincy. After we lost to Killannin in the two intermediate finals at the end of that season, I knew that it was time to pass on the baton to my successor and I was more than happy to do this because it was in the best interests of the club going forward. I had given my all and had no more to give. A new impetus was required, somebody with a fresh approach who could lead the team on the last leg of the journey from intermediate to senior, in both league and championship. That person initially was Bríd McDonagh, who captained the Division 2 winning side of 2006 and later, her successor and present Galway senior, Mairéad Coyne, who lead us out in Clonbur four years later for our third and thankfully, final tilt at winning the County Intermediate Championship Final. The following year, I migrated from Connemara to Clondalkin with my daughter Ríona, who loves her football and recently made it into the Dublin Under 13 Development Squad. We joined the local LGFA club shortly after arrival and the only ambition I have left in ladies football at this stage is to line out alongside her some day in the Dublin Senior Championship.
Remembered by Geraldine McTavish and written by Paul Gannon.
Geraldine McTavish is a native of the village of Carna in West Connemara. In 2011, she was a playing member of the Round Towers team that won the Dublin Intermediate Football Championship.