GAA

‘Each year I ask myself, am I enjoying this? You only have a short time in the jersey and I want to enjoy it all’

The female dual stars who are swimming against the tide to taste intercounty glory on both fronts

Hannah Looney

Na Fianna CLG from Meath lost the All-Ireland Intermediate Camogie Club final at the weekend. Only two weeks ago, nine starting dual players were involved in trying to create history by reaching an All-Ireland football and camogie club final but it wasn’t to be.

Both games were fixed on successive days and a request made by the Na Fianna club to the LGFA to push back the date of their football semi-final was refused.

They were told by the LGFA that this was impossible to do because the finals were fixed for December 16 and 17 in Croke Park and that teams needed two weeks to prepare. Na Fianna footballers did not make it through to the final day but club chairman Tom Curran speaking to RTÉ felt that it was “a pretty lame excuse”.

A spokesperson for the LGFA said it is not feasible to push the football fixture to a different week and that the split-season scheduling leaves them with “little to no wriggle room”

Na Fianna are not alone in this dilemma. Earlier this year, Cork dual players Hannah Looney, Libby Coppinger, Aoife Healy and Orlaith Cahalane (injured) faced this scenario when they were asked to play Down in the camógie championship in Páirc Uí Chaoimh while later that evening, a date with Galway in the All-Ireland football series was chalked down to be played in Salthill in Galway.

Libby Coppinger played against Down and then made the three-hour trip to Salthill to come on as a second half sub.

The issue arose again on the July 1 when Cork were scheduled to meet Clare in the camógie championship and Tipperary in the football championship.

A joint statement issued by the Cork players to the LGFA and the Camógie Association asking them to change one of the dates of the games to allow dual players to play proved unsuccessful

Hannah Looney and Orlaith Cahalane played for the footballers with Libby Coppinger and Aoife Healy playing with the camogs. Both sides would win their games convincingly.

Selection of what match to play is not a new phenomenon for dual players. It has been like this for some time though, and indeed I remember Rena Buckley and Briege Corkery from Cork having to play both codes on the same day on occasions.

Take 2015 as an example - they played Offaly in Páirc Uí Rinn in the camógie championship before heading to Mallow to meet Kerry in the Munster football final. Those of a positive disposition would say, at least the two games were in the same county but it has never been easy to be a dual player and it is only getting more difficult.

For those of us watching on from the sidelines, the inevitable question asked is why? Why do players want to play both codes at senior intercounty level?

Simon Sinek, the author and business leadership speaker has built a very successful career helping people find their ‘why’.

He asks the question - what is your purpose in doing what you do? It’s a useful question for all of us in all aspects of our lives but it’s particularly pertinent to those who play both codes at intercounty level.

“For those looking in, it certainly seems crazy” says Hannah Looney a dual All-Ireland winner with Cork who has committed to playing both codes fully since 2018.

“Personally for me, my role models growing up would have been Briege Corkery and Rena Buckley and I felt if they could do it, why can’t I?”

“When you are younger, you think you can do it,” said Eoin Cadogan, one of the last male players to try and combine both codes at intercounty level.

“In 2007, I was involved with eight teams between club, divisional side, colleges, U21 club, county and senior set ups. It’s a huge honour to be asked to play in a Cork jersey and I was asked to do this in both codes.

“I started playing over 14 years ago and the intercounty season is totally different now. The new structure means that you can be out three weeks in a row.

“In my time, back-to-back games rarely happened. It is not physically possible to meet the demands and the standards players themselves set, not only with one sport, but the amount of work that is involved outside of training.”

Limerick's Gearoid Hegarty comes under from Cork's Eoin Cadogan. There was no hiding place for Cadogan when he struggled, and that's hurling's way. You do your job, or you sit down. Picture by Seamus Loughran
Limerick's Gearoid Hegarty comes under from Cork's Eoin Cadogan. There was no hiding place for Cadogan when he struggled, and that's hurling's way. You do your job, or you sit down. Picture by Seamus Loughran Limerick's Gearoid Hegarty comes under from Cork's Eoin Cadogan. There was no hiding place for Cadogan when he struggled, and that's hurling's way. You do your job, or you sit down. Picture by Seamus Loughran
Cork's Eoin Cadogan had a nightmare  
Cork's Eoin Cadogan had a nightmare   Cork's Eoin Cadogan had a nightmare  

In 2018, the ESRI (Economic & Social Research Institute) published a report examining the realities of being a senior Intercounty player.

They found that GAA players can spend up to 31 hours per week on their senior intercounty commitments and compromise on other aspects of their lives to do so.

“There are huge commitments at stake,” says Hannah.

“I love doing what I do and I enjoy it. That is the key factor but the biggest downfall of playing both codes is what happens outside of training in terms of work, family, socialising and personal life”

A survey conducted by the GPA in their 2022 State of Player Report, showed that there are 27 female dual players among the 1,550 members that responded to the survey.

“I love being a dual player and representing my county to be the best that I can be” says Hannah.

“It helps me that if I’ve had a bad game in football or camogie, I don’t have time to think about it as I have to concentrate on the other sport. It’s a privilege to be able to play”

Both the LGFA and the Camogie Association get a lot of bad press for their handling of fixtures and trying to accommodate the dual player.

Two years ago, both organisations recognised the role of the dual player in their official guides but there is a perception that they do not communicate with each other, particularly when fixing fixtures.

The LGFA have already published their fixtures for 2024 but this apparent lack of communication is something that grates with Hannah.

“It’s the lack of communication that is the issue. I don’t understand why the LGFA and Camógie Association cannot sit in a room and do their fixtures together.

“If they do this and put their hands up and say we can’t accommodate dual players, then fair enough.”

In fairness to both organisations, there has been a more concerted effort to try and accommodate dual counties and while the fixing of matches should not happen on the same day, it is not possible with the amount of games taking place at club, schools, colleges and intercounty level, to enable games not to be played on successive days at the weekend.

Players accept this but at the same time, some feel that there is an expectation that female dual players will end up similar to that of the men, in that there will be no more intercounty dual players.

For some, focussing on just one code brings greater personal dividends. Meabh Cahalane concentrated solely on camógie this year and won her first Allstar and a second All-Ireland medal earlier this year.

Eoin Cadogan made the decision to solely concentrate on hurling in 2018 and ended up winning a Munster title with his brother Alan. For Eoin, injuries were starting to affect him and he wanted to see how his body would respond to playing only one code.

One of the reasons we do not have more male intercounty dual stars at senior level is the fact that managers are not always happy to have a player, not focussing on their particular sport, 100 per cent of the time.

The understanding and empathy of both sets of managers play a key role in allowing players to combine a successful hurling and football career.

A few years ago, I had a conversation with a senior intercounty footballer who wanted to try and play both codes but when he sat down with his manager and a calendar to see where he would fit it in, it became very obvious to him that he could not do it all at club, colleges, U21 and senior level.

Finding time was his challenge or, if you want to reframe it, it did not become a main priority for him to play hurling at senior intercounty level.

For the 27 female dual players, it is a priority and they want to do it.

“We don’t have access to the same facilities that men have and don’t get the same fairness when it comes to those facilities,” said Hannah.

“There is a structured path for underage male players to make their way to senior status with the best professional set up enforced.”

This is not the case for all female GAA athletes who have to work around the mens’ and underage teams schedule.

Integration will change this balance and this is something that Hannah welcomes.

One of the turning points for Cadogan was noticing his lack of enjoyment.

“In 2012, we reached a National Hurling and Football League final. We won the football and lost the hurling and I remember at the end feeling exhausted,” said Cadogan.

“I spent 11 weeks in a row playing both codes and felt, I need a break.”

For Hannah, though , there still is a sense of enjoyment: “Each year I honestly ask myself, am I enjoying this?

“As long as that answer is yes, I will continue to play both codes. You only have a short time in the jersey and I want to enjoy it all”

Each player’s ‘why’ is different but that sense of pride in jersey, fulfilment, loyalty, of having no regrets and being the best version of you, resonates very strongly.

For dual players, it’s a double whammy as they don’t want to let team mates down and they don’t want to disconnect that bond they have had with the team over many years.

However, the end will come, sooner than you think, to all players who play at elite level.

“I don’t accept the argument that just because the men no longer have dual players that this is the way female dual players should go” said Hannah.

In an increasingly congested fixtures calendar, fairness of facilitation of games within reason is what dual players ask for.

At senior level, men have turned away from the dual player model but for these 27 female intercounty players, the tagline is where there is a will, there is a way.

They just want to be met by all interested parties halfway.

At the end of the day “women just get on and do it” said Hannah.

A fact every woman will agree with but when it comes to being a dual player, a helping hand wouldn’t go astray.