Over the course of the summer, it is impossible to live in Dublin without noticing the hustle and bustle generated by the final stages of the All Ireland competitions. Drumcondra residents dare not move their cars as the masses descend on the capital from all corners of the country. Fans of all ages wear their county colours with pride, creating a veritable rainbow of jerseys, as they hope to see their county pave the way to an All Ireland final. Croke Park is the place you want to be when September rolls around.
The All Ireland Ladies’ Football final is the last event of the GAA season and this year saw Dublin take on Galway in the battle for glory. Traditionally, there is a fortnight between the men’s final and the women’s final, giving each fixture time to embrace the hype that surrounds these epic clashes. This year, however, the Ladies’ final was the day after the replay of the Men’s final. To some, it may have felt like all the hype around Dublin’s “Drive for Five” campaign may have overshadowed any chance of the Ladies’ final feeling like its own affair. But that was simply not the case.
Everyone was excited for the match to kick off but none more so than Trinity’s own Rachael Fleming. She lined out as the replacement goalkeeper for the Dublin team during their quest to retain the Brendan Martin Cup. Speaking to Trinity News, Fleming told us her story of how she found herself in a packed Croke Park on a rainy Sunday afternoon, one match away from glory.
This year’s Ladies’ final had the largest crowd yet with over 56,000 people in Croke Park to watch the match.
Fleming was always interested in sports in her youth. “All round, I loved sports as a kid. I swam competitively for a few years and played basketball through school as well.” But her career in Gaelic games started at a young age with her local club, Kilmacud Crokes, but it wasn’t football that first caught her attention. “I was four years old slapping tires with a hurl in a sports hall,” she says, recounting her early days as a camogie player. “I only started playing football at around 11, so I was late to the game.” Coming late to football never hindered Fleming’s progress or her ambitions, as she progressed over the next couple of years. “I ended up quitting camogie and focusing on football when I was 16 as I was playing with the underage Dublin teams at the time.”
Coming into Trinity is a daunting prospect at the best of times but it is made even more stressful when you have a full time sporting commitment. Fleming is a third year Physiotherapy student and admits that it can be difficult to find the balance between training, studying and relaxing. “It’s a massive commitment. Three times a week I would either have to go straight from college to training or rush home to get my gear and get back across town.” The struggles that Fleming goes through every week are certainly tough but she manages to always see the bright side. “It’s all about finding the balance and being organised so you can make training and keep on top of college.”
While she had been playing with the youth teams for a couple years, Fleming saw the senior squad as an end goal. “It was always a long term goal that would be in the back of my mind,” she said, “When I got the call it was such a shock. I had watched them win two All Ireland titles in a row, so it was so exciting to be considered.”
This year was the first time that the All Ireland Ladies’ semi-final was held in Croke Park. Fleming felt that the semi-final was the perfect dry run for the mixture of nerves and excitement of the final. “We had done the same routine for the match three weeks previously so there was nothing we didn’t have prepared.” Being a part of the Ladies’ team is an incredible achievement, but more than that, Fleming said that it was a truly sensational feeling. “Running through the tunnel onto the pitch will always be one of the most exhilarating moments of my life.” Dublin managed to overcome Galway in a nail-biting encounter that went down to the wire, with a final score of 2-03 to 0-04. The five point margin was enough to secure Dublin’s third consecutive All Ireland. “After the final whistle there was nothing but overwhelming relief. The past 10 months had been building to get to this one day and just so thankful it all worked out.”
This year’s Ladies’ final had the largest crowd yet with over 56,000 people in Croke Park to watch the match. That’s more than double the 27,000 that attended in 2014 and only a handful less than the Women’s World Cup final this summer. Fleming said that the atmosphere of the crowd played a huge part in the performance. “It was amazing to see 56,000 people, especially given the conditions on the day. It’s a massive credit to the Ladies’ Gaelic Football Association (LGFA) and Lidl and all the campaigns that have worked so hard to get that turnout. The place was buzzing, running through the tunnel before the game, it just sounded electric. Having the support like that makes such a difference to the players when playing such a tough match.”
“Lots of underage football teams came out to support us and when they see days like those it can be nothing but encouraging for them”
Seeing an attendance like that is a clear indicator that women’s sport is in a much better place with regard to support and resources. Fleming believes that the many campaigns on social media are definitely a factor that has helped this growth. “All the campaigns and the amazing sponsorship have put in so much work to promote women’s sport and when looking around after the match, the turnout was mostly young kids.” The future seems bright for all the young people who want to get involved in sports. There has often been a lack of representation of women in sport and the current push to increase participation can only have positive outcomes. “Lots of underage football teams came out to support us and when they see days like those it can be nothing but encouraging for them to either become involved or stay involved. 20×20 have put in lots of work promoting ‘If she can’t see it, she can’t be it’ and their presence in the men’s and women’s matches in many different sports has really made the difference for the growth in women’s sports.”
Fleming’s career has had such an incredible beginning and she is sure to have many more amazing achievements in the future. With the Ladies’ football team going through a period of success, it won’t be long until Rachael Fleming is a household name. And all the more important than the individual success of a person or team is the continued promotion and support of women’s sport going forward.