Wednesday, September 04, 2019

IN the early 1990s, when County Carlow FC were settling into their golden era which produced five rugby Provincial Towns Cups and a spell in Division 1 of the All-Ireland League, they travelled to play a match in Navan.

Around that time the ladies in the club had decided to form their own team. It was a step into the unknown and Clem Ryan, the well-known local radio presenter, interviewed some of the players and a number of club officers at peak listening time on a Sunday evening.

One of the first matches was in Navan which acted as a curtain raiser for a vital men’s Leinster League clash between Carlow and Navan. At the game, one senior officer of the visiting club suggested rugby for women wouldn’t catch on.

He may have had a point. The game was uninspiring. The players were not as well coached as they are now and the referee had the patience of Job. Both teams were learning from scratch. But as we all know now, these Carlow and Navan players were the pioneers of the women’s game which has grown from strength to strength since then.

Those were the days when there may have been a perception out there that sport for women should be confined to non-contact disciplines such as tennis, golf and athletics.

That day is well and truly over. Women’s rugby is an integral part of most clubs countrywide while other sports, particularly camogie, soccer and ladies football gets extensive coverage on TV and radio, although there is still some distance to go to match the wall-to-wall coverage given to the men’s games.

The success of the Irish hockey team in the World Cup last year raised the profiles of women’s sport higher than ever before. The women’s soccer World Cup showcased the game this summer.

That is at national and international level. None of this would happen if women’s sport wasn’t being nurtured at local level. Everyone has to start somewhere.

Take the county football final between Old Leighlin and Bennekerry-Tinryland last Thursday. It is not an exaggeration to say this was one of the best county finals at any level to be played at the county grounds for many years. In a few short years these two clubs have helped raise the standard of ladies football in Carlow to a new level.

In front of a large and vociferous crowd, the two clubs who know each other well produced a stunning and hugely entertaining final.

It wasn’t just the skill levels and competitiveness which caught the eye. There was a great attitude and a lot to admire about the way the two sides approached the game. They went at each other head to head, score for score, tackle for tackle.

The 3-16 to 3-8 scoreline told a tale of attacking football with a sense of adventure which has all-but disappeared from the men’s game. While players did drop deep at times there was little evidence of blanket defences and tactics designed only to destroy attacking football.

There was more to this game than just that. While players and referees had differences of opinion during a game, it never threatened to get out of hand. There was one moment of petulance early on and Jonathan Murphy, the match referee, stamped this out when he dramatically brought forward a free. That was the end of that. Players learned and knew where they stood with the match officials.

That applied to the sideline as well where managers and selectors got on with what they are supposed to do and didn’t bother wasting their energies mixing it with the match officials.

It never ceases to amaze when managers remonstrate with linesmen about the decision of a referee who might be at the other side of the field. What a waste of time and an increased waste of energy.

There was a different atmosphere up in the stand as well. The bilious and abusive comments directed by a not-so-small minority of supporters when something goes wrong was markedly absent. Sets of supporters cheered their teams on. Victory for one, defeat for the other with no recriminations.

While there were post-mortems, none of the conversation could be compared to the personal and hurtful comments which raise themselves from time to time in other games.

While the defeated sides won’t get the same enjoyment from the occasion, it was a hugely entertaining and uplifting evening at Netwatch Cullen Park. An event to remember.

Take the experience of a former Carlow intercounty footballer who went to the intermediate and junior finals at IT Carlow the previous night. That Wednesday he went to support a family member. He enjoyed the Rathvilly and Éire Óg final and the junior clash between Old Leighlin and St Anne’s so much he dropped in for the senior A and B finals the following night. He got value for money in both games as Mount Leinster Rangers caused a shock by scoring three goals to deny St Fortchern’s in the B final.

Of course all this is not to say everything is perfect in the ladies game. There was still a touch of the dark arts where a high tackle, a very high tackle and an off-the-ball incident saw three players receive black cards towards the end of the game. Bennekerry-Tinryland finished with 13 while Old Leighlin also had a player dismissed.

The Bennekerry-Tinryland players were distraught afterwards. Quite the opposite for the Old Leighlin players who can look forward to a Leinster championship first round game.

Time will move on for both. Yet on Thursday the two clubs created a template for ladies football in the county. Pure football. Long may these modern day pioneers continue to play and express themselves on the field as well as they did on Wednesday and Thursday.

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