A year ago, Muireann Ni Scanaill watched Dublin give up a 10-point lead with 20 minutes left on the clock to be pipped by Cork in the dying seconds of the All-Ireland final. She experienced the atmosphere - and the heartbreak - of a final loss, having been promoted to the senior panel three games from the end of the season A devastating experience, no doubt, but also one that is sure to leave a player wanting more: to play, to perform, to win.
That day, Ni Scanaill was the team water girl, with no real expectations of getting into the side. A year later, up against the same opponents at the same stage, she’s had a stunning season that’s seen her make the No 3 jersey her own, and can fully expect to get a shot at helping to make amends for the Girls in Blue come the 27th.
"Greg asked me into the panel a week or two before the quarter final last year," she recalls. "I’d always hoped to play for the seniors, but I didn’t expect to be moved up with the team playing so well. I didn’t think they would have room for extra players, but I got asked up along with two or three other girls, which was an absolute honour.”
At first, of course, there were challenges to be faced.
"It’s different to playing at minor level," Ni Scanaill explained to James Hendicott. "It’s so much faster, and more player driven, I felt. When you’re a minor, the managers kind of tell you what to do all the time, and hold your hand the whole way. At senior level it's the girls pushing you. The girls are bigger and it's more physical, as well. The intensity in training is high. It's girls pushing each other, and encouraging each other. There’s a lot more camaraderie, really, with girls saying 'well done, that was a good play', or 'if you do it this way it might work better'. That kind of thing.”
Ni Scanaill’s successes at minor level were substantial: "I got players’ player of the year last year. The manager picks a player, and the girls pick a player out of those on the panel. I got the one the girls pick, which was great to get, obviously. It was brilliant."
These are just the latest successes, though: Ni Scanaill has long had football at the heart of her life. Citing her four older brothers, she says she first picked up a football at the age of 5 or 6, developing an athletic style that also incorporated athletics and swimming. She first made the Dublin county panel at Under-14 level, and has been around the county set up fairly consistently since. She combines her athletic undertakings with studying and working at a fruit and vegetable company.
"It’s manageable, life wise," Ni Scanaill tells us. "It’s taught me a lot about time management. I’m lucky in a way, in that I don’t go back to college until after the All Ireland, so I'll really have time to focus on getting ready for the final and making sure I’m fully focused on the game."
The game, she expects, will offer new challenges.
"We did well in the first half against Monaghan, then they kind of came back at us with a lot of force. We were almost waiting for the horn to blow at the end. It was a tough game. Against Armagh we had a really strong team performance. But Cork are a different animal. We have to forget about the games that have passed and focus on the next sixty minutes."
"I’m just going to try and enjoy it. I don’t feel nervous yet. We’re just going to train the way we’ve been training and look forward to it. We don’t need to change anything. We’re training hard, and rest is just as important as training before a game like this."
The flowing approach the ladies sides have to the game is making waves. Attendances have risen consistently over the last few years, and feedback is strong, too:
"After watching the Armagh game, a lot of people told me they enjoyed it more than they enjoy the men's game, because the men's game is so physical," Ni Scanaill explained. "I play football because I love football but it’s always nice to see the women’s game doing well."
"Last year I was delighted to be on the panel and be training with the girls. This year I’m delighted to be part of it. There is a historic for the other girls with Cork. I lost to them at Under-14, Under-16 and other underage levels. They are such a good county, full of great players. You just want to do the best you can with the players you have at the time. It’s good that there’s youth there, but the experience through girls like Sinead Goldrick and Sinead Finnegan is vital, too. There’s a great mix. We’ve been playing so well together.”
Should she make the side - and she is expected to - it will be the first time Ni Scanaill’s kicked a ball in anger at HQ. Having taken home an All- Ireland title earlier this year with Dublin Ladies U-21 side, and experienced the noise of the season’s finale last time out, she tells us she feels ready. It’s all done bar the playing.
By James Hendicott