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Long Read - Cavan and Collingwood AFL star Aishling Sheridan: 'We tried to explain to the girls in Oz that we don't play for money - they almost can't see the point'

Mon, May 18 2020

Sheridan was named Collingwood's best first year player following an outstanding debut season. Credit:

Cavan footballer Aishling Sheridan capped off a memorable first season in the AFLW this week as she was voted Best First Year Player by her club Collingwood.

The 23-year-old first tasted what life as a professional athlete would be like when she accepted an invite out to Australia to take part in a week long Crosscoders training camp in September 2018.

The taste was sweet and Sheridan was hungry for more. She returned again eight months later, this time for three weeks in May 2019.

She featured in two VFLW [Victorian Football League Women's] matches in Darwin. Her ambition to earn herself her first professional AFLW contract edging ever closer it seemed.

"It was just absolutely brilliant to get it - I wasn't expecting it at all,” Sheridan told extratime.ie shortly after receiving the good news from the central Melbourne club.

"Although I gave it absolutely everything when I was on the field, after most games I never really knew exactly how I was doing or getting on especially with it being my first year at it full time. 

"I am just so grateful to so many people for the year I've had, I've loved every minute of it and this recognition has now motivated me to work even harder and achieve even more."

Last November, Sheridan’s impressive and lofty ambition became a reality for the talented footballer from Mullahoran when Melbourne club Collingwood came calling with a contract.

A reunion with friend, DCU housemate and fellow footballer Sarah Rowe beckoned as Sheridan prepared to move across the world late of last year and the start of life as a full time athlete.

A close friendship between the pair began a few years back in DCU where they lived together for three years while studying at the Dublin university and lined out for the college's football team.

Fast forward a few years and their sporting paths crossed again when Sheridan penned a deal with the Melbourne based club in late 2019.

The pair began living, training and playing football together again, only this time their surroundings, training and way of life had intensified quite significantly.

They were both now qualified from their respective college courses, enjoying everything that Australia had to offer and most importantly enjoying the full-time athlete lifestyle.

Naturally, it took a few weeks to acclimatise but with a combination of hard work, belief and support both within the club and from her family afar Sheridan began to take it all in her stride.

"You are picking up a new sport, walking into a new changing room, meeting people you've never met before. You are learning completely new drills and a completely new way of playing, 

“Even the way they talk and the game phrases they use takes time to learn but it was all a fun challenge and one which I enjoyed every single day. 

"Collingwood were amazing though. They picked us up from the airport on day one and any problems we had they were the first there on our doorstep to help us and really made sure to look after us.

"As much of a challenge that it was, all of the girls were lovely and the management team as well helped me with extra skill sessions too to enable me to catch up with the rest of the girls. 

"A lot of small things like this but they were major things for me towards helping me to adapt and familiarise myself with my new surroundings.

"Making my debut was amazing. It was really nice because Sarah's dad was there so he was able to keep in touch with my family, sending them pictures during the game, which was lovely for them.

"They have a presentation that they make to you when you are about to make your debut and they organised for Sarah to present my first jersey to me so that was a very special moment for myself and my whole family. 

“There were a few tears after putting in so much work and it was just incredible. My family were over the moon and it was a very funny moment. 

“Every game I played they were up watching it no matter what time it was and knowing that support is there behind you makes such a difference.”

A new code

One of the most difficult transitions for any gaelic footballer making the move to the professional set-up in Australia is getting to grips with an entirely new code with different rules and objectives.

"One of the more difficult aspects to get a handle on was that it is a completely new sport to gaelic football. 

“You are not guaranteed at all to get on the ball in every game as opposed to football here at home where you know you should at least get a few touches over the course of the game.

"Absolutely everything is recorded in terms of stats, how many times you touched the ball, handpassed the ball, kicked the ball, how many blocks you made so there's little things like that. 

“When there is such a heavy focus on this part of the game sometimes you can find yourself dwelling too much on your individual stats after a game, where you might feel you played well but the stats will show you different which can be difficult. 

"At the same time though it was brilliant as an athlete to have access to all of your numbers as you can use these as perfect motivation to help yourself improve. 

“[Watching] plays in different camera angles and being able to watch back and focus in on whatever part of the game you want to identify your areas to improve is so helpful.

"It's something that we haven't had much of yet in ladies football and it is something that helps every player better themselves and improve the overall team.

"By the end of the season my confidence was quite high. Obviously now that I'm back home and not playing it consistently my skill set will probably drop a small bit. 

“I'm focusing on gaelic football now for the moment. Whether or not we get a chance to play is another story but hopefully we do.”

Covid-19 shutdown

With confidence sky high and Sheridan's individual skillset improving rapidly game after game, the AFLW league season was brought to an abrupt and sudden halt. 

It has been one of the many sporting seasons decimated over the course of the past few months as Coronavirus has severely impacted spectator sport.

It was a disappointing conclusion to a memorable debut season in Melbourne but she feels the decision taken to cancel the remainder of the season was the correct thing to do.

"I think it was the best decision for the season to be cancelled. We were very fortunate to get a chance to actually play in some finals and even at that we knew ourselves that it could potentially be our last game for a very long time. 

"I remember at one of the training sessions before our last game and some of the girls were saying 'this is probably going to be our last time all together and in a group training for quite some time and it actually was. 

"You look back now and think about all of the times you may not have been feeling 100% up for training or having to do run after run and I actually really miss these small things now!

"This current situation makes us appreciate everything we have and normally see as routine so much more now. 

“Had the season continued on for even a few more weeks it would have put people's health at risk and nobody wants that so the right decision was definitely made. 

"As sad and disappointing as it is that we didn't get a winner for the season, health wins out every single time.

"I've seen and read all of the different suggestions coming out about getting sport in general and particular sports back in some form and there are so many opinions from so many different people. 

“Personally, I would have no problem playing behind closed doors if the required safety and health precautions were in place to the standard that they needed to be to minimise risk.

"As much as I want sport to return from a playing and watching perspective, unfortunately I do think it is going to be extremely difficult without some form of vaccine to get sport in a team environment back up and running.”

Back to Cavan

For the moment, like so many others across the world, she will have to accept walks within 5km and DIY training programmes.

Sheridan has been back on familiar Irish soil since the end of March with her training focus now turning back to gaelic football for the summer. 

“She had been gearing herself up for a swift return with her Mullahoran and inter county team-mates ahead of another action packed summer but home gym workouts and skill challenges are the new norm for the foreseeable future at least.”

Aishling and her siblings had an identical upbringing to almost every kid in Ireland with summer Sunday's in Croke Park and a garden full of hurleys and gaelic footballs. 

It wasn't just the kids that needed driving half way across the country each week for matches in the Sheridan household, however.

Both of Aishling's parents represented Cavan at inter-county level themselves, and her mother Monica still lines out at club level for Mullahoran when time allows.

Her three sisters, Mona, Geraldine and Louise, have each pulled on the inter county jersey for Cavan in recent years with two of her sisters currently on the senior intercounty team with her too.

Her dad Gerry lined out for Mullahoran and Cavan at senior level and managed his daughters and the Cavan Ladies to the Intermediate All-Ireland title in 2013 with victory over Tipperary.

"Everything is actually going well now at the moment. I've been home a good few weeks so I've settled back into a routine quite nicely. 

“I'm quite lucky in terms of that I've three older sisters and two of them are on the county team with me but we all play some sort of football. 

“We have a nice bit of a garden and grass around the house too so getting out for some bit of training each day isn't a problem.  

"We have our own little home gym set up now as well which enables us to do our running sessions together and workouts both individual and together as well. 

"In that sense I am very lucky that, although we can't train together as a club or county team, our individual training hasn't been disrupted too much.

"It's very hard to know what the future or what the next few months is going to bring in all aspects of life in such uncertain times.

"We have no idea when we are going to get back playing at all so it's hard to set specific goals or targets for certain dates in terms of training or fitness too. 

"Like for everyone there are times when the motivation can be quite low when times are so uncertain but when I've experienced this I've quickly tried to turn things around and just focus on what I can do and that gets me back on track again.

"I've been back home eight weeks now and self-isolated for two weeks when I got home and I'm home now with family, three sisters and my parents too.

"We are lucky that we live in the country and so we can get out for walks and that and easy enough to social distance for things like that. 

"One of the most difficult things for me is not being able to see people at all. I've been home eight or nine weeks now from Oz and still haven't seen my boyfriend or my friends. 

“I don't get to see this circle of people too often anyway living in Australia but to be home now that length of time and still not to have seen any of them is definitely tough.

"I keep reminding myself though that it could be a lot worse and everyone around me is healthy which is the most important thing.”

Future

Aishling has now been lucky enough to experience football both as an amateur with club and county and more recently as a full-time athlete with Collingwood. 

A return to the AFLW may be on the cards in the coming months but, like so many across the country, being immersed in the GAA community is something she holds very close to her heart with gaelic football her first love from a very young age.

"I'm not going to lie, I really missed Gaelic Football when I was in Oz. 

“Don't get me wrong, I absolutely loved every minute of my time in Australia and I put everything I had into it but when the time came I was so excited to get home and get stuck straight back into my football training here. 

"As the time was coming closer to when we reckoned we'd be coming home myself and Sarah were out kicking a bit and practising our gaelic football drills a bit more with each other. 

"It was great that we had each other for that and could pick it up again so easily with each other. We spoke a bit about trying not to worry too much about getting home and not being as up to speed with things as we would be expected to be but we'll get there.

"I was reminiscing the other day about my first training session back on the GAA pitch and the chats would be flying with all of the girls.

“You've a game on a Sunday and the team is being named but it's going to be a while before that becomes a reality again.

"Thank god I've never had a serious injury so I've never been forced off with this amount of time away from football or sport in general. 

“I was expecting to come back and get stuck straight back into it, it's tough but myself, my sisters and the rest of our team mates are slowly adapting.

"I am enjoying having a little bit of time to myself but needless to say as soon as football is back I'll be the first person onto a pitch and probably the last person off it too. It's just such a love of mine!

"There'es something different about GAA and from talking to all of my club mates and county team mates they would all agree. 

“I loved AFLW but I was explaining to my family when I came home that you are brought up with GAA, when you play and you win a match or taste a small bit of success there's no better feeling. 

"A lot of people probably think, jesus, she loves football a little bit too much but it will always be my number one. 

“It's amazing how much it knits local communities together and how you can establish lifelong friendships from a game where at the end of the day you are chasing a football. When comparing the two as much as you can you do miss that sense of community and identity too.

"One of the things we tried hard to explain to the Aussies was that back home you'd be driving along in the car and you'd see someone on the road.

“You wouldn't even know them but you'd still give them a nod or a big wave and that was something they found very different but in a good way. We've really done ourselves proud as a country in the last few weeks.

"I just feel like the GAA is almost like a religion in this country, it's funny we tried to explain it to the girls in Australia that we don't play it for money at all, we just play it for the pure love of it. 

“They almost can't see the point and say why would you train so much and not get paid but when you grow up with it and are going to games and hearing games on the telly from the time you are born it doesn't need explaining here, everyone just gets it. 

"You meet so many people over the years, both teammates and opponents. I've been lucky enough to meet some of my best friends now, playing football in DCU. 

“Win or lose, it gives people something to talk about and look forward to. When it comes to the summer months and the Championship season there's nothing better than lying back with your family after dinner and watching the Sunday Game from start to finish or making the journey to Croke Park.”

Growth of the game

Despite spending quite a bit of her time on the other side of the world recently, Sheridan believes ladies football is in a great place at the moment and is excited at the thoughts of where it can go to next.

"I really feel like ladies’ football is in as good a place as it has ever has been with the support of so many organisations and individuals in recent years. 

“Just seeing and hearing about the number of people in Croke Park on All - Ireland final day was an incredible feeling and one of pride, spirit and joint success.

"The 20x20 campaign has been a huge boost for ladies football as well as LIDL coming on board. You go into your local LIDL store and you'll always see a picture of the four ambassadors everywhere. 

"I've often had younger kids in Cavan come up to me and say it's amazing to see you up there so its brilliant to see that there are younger girls who can see all of that now. 

“[They can] see exactly what they can achieve if they work hard and put as much as they can into GAA, it really pushes them on to do the best they can do.

"All you have to do is look at the attendances on All-Ireland final day in the past few years and that tells its own story.

"Unfortunately we don't know what way this year will pan out but the past few years have been incredible in terms of support, hard work and everybody working together to keep raising the profile of the game in this country. 

"For ambassadors and county players around the country it's so important for them to share these skill challenges on social media.

“Talk to young girls anytime you see them, do your best to help them in whatever way they need it or whatever way you can and we will continue to see it achieve the recognition it deserves. 

“We need to help light that fire in young girls to instill the belief in them that they too can get to the top and achieve in sport if they really want to.”