With 13 minutes left on the clock and a slender three-point lead, DCU were on the brink of something special. UL, the undisputed Queens of College Football, had won three of the last four titles, but their arrival in Santry wasn’t going to plan against the North Dublin side. Until that 47th minute.
Aishling Moloney had fulfilled her role as captain excellently. Contributing six points, her tall build and blistering pace linked defensive quarters with their potent attack all afternoon.
Aishling plays her football on the edge, but her sheer determination to finish the day a winner led her over the disciplinary line, resulting in a yellow card and ten minutes in the sin bin. In the heat of the moment, the DCU captain felt it was a harsh call from officials.
“In my own head, I never really argue with refs and I thought ‘That definitely wasn’t a yellow card’. Everyone was assuring me it wasn’t a yellow card.”
While her height may be a factor to blame, replays show her left elbow making contact with the UL players torso, causing her to fall the ground. Aishling’s opinion has changed on the incident upon reflection.
“I actually looked back on it there with my Dad recently and it was a blatant yellow card, there was no question about it!”
DCU not only lost their captain and leader, they also lost grip of their three-point lead. UL’s accuracy upfront through Shauna Howley and Eimear Scally chipped away at the scoreboard, the Munster side and defending champions gathering a three-point lead for themselves as Moloney returned to the field in the 57th minute.
She instantly made an impact.
“I was angered on the sideline. I felt I was leaving down the team a bit. When I came on I just got this extra adrenaline rush and things just fell into place really.”
With DCU reinstated to a full 15, it was a matter of seconds before the deficit was overturned. Mayo All Star nominee Sarah Rowe initiated the attack from the middle of the park, supported to her left by the accelerating Moloney.
The play finished with a converted penalty, followed swiftly by an exchange of points to leave the sides on level terms once again.
Given the turn of events in the final quarter of play, it is naïve to assume Moloney would be happy to face extra time.
“There was about two or three minutes left on the clock. We were kind of running down the time at that stage and I was just thinking in my head ‘if this goes to extra time, I don’t think we’ll get through it because UL have the upper hand on us.’ I just said I’d have a cut off it.”
Three minutes into injury time, Moloney assumes responsibility for the 45”.
She opted to hold possession, kick short, demanding the ball was immediately returned to her. Making her way along the right flank, two UL jerseys are in pursuit. Moloney alters her run and heads for goal – two more UL jerseys join the chase.
She chooses the smart option and offloads to Rowe. She assesses the situation and makes her way back out the direction she’s come, knowing Rowe will need support.
She’s now on her own but she’s created the opportunity. She’s closer to the sideline but standing on the 20m line. She kicks high. She kicks it over.
“When the final whistle went I honestly couldn’t believe it. It was the first time I actually felt a lot of emotion after winning a game. I’m normally cheerful either way, win or lose. It was the first time my actual emotions ran high. I was lost for words after the game, I’m still lost for words.”
While she’s only in her second year studying PE and Biology at the North Dublin university, the bond she has created with her teammates makes it one of her most special victories:
“I’ve become friends with girls on that team, they’ve become my best friends, and it just made it that much sweeter. People always say the old cliché of college football being the best football, but it genuinely is.”
Her decision to study at DCU is one she feels has helped nurture and develop her ability on the pitch, such is the environment created.
“You’re playing with experienced players from counties like Dublin and Mayo. Girls that have been playing All-Irelands over the years. Maybe being from Tipperary, I haven’t been as privileged to be making it to All-Ireland’s like they have. They bring their experiences and what they’ve learnt to the college set up. It helps me to develop, we’re always challenging each other.”
Her exposure to players excelling at the highest grade hasn’t been limited to DCU, as her O’Connor Cup celebrations ended prematurely, hopping on a plane to Bangkok as part of the All Stars tour just two days later.
Chulalongkorn University Stadium hosted an exhibition match between the All Stars of 2016 and 2017 on St Patrick’s Day – the trip’s main event.
“It was sickening that I missed out on the week of celebrations with the girls after the year we had but I can’t complain either. It was really nice to see another side of people, their personalities away from the pitch are totally different. It was a really good experience.”
Aishling is grateful for the efforts of the LGFA to support and recognise their intercounty players but also lauded the impact that sponsorship deals with TG4 and Lidl have had over the past number of seasons with regards to media coverage and subsequent match attendances.
The trio of All-Ireland Ladies Football finals in late September was the best attended women’s sporting event of 2017, with 46,236 people at Croke Park to see Dublin take home the big prize. The sheer scale of the event struck a chord with Aishling.
“Sitting in the stand watching the Mayo and Dublin game and looking around, seeing all the stands full, it was absolutely amazing. It was obvious to see how far women’s sport has come.”
She isn’t sold on the opinion that increasing the popularity of the sport is to come solely from the top table and urges her inter-county colleagues to actively promote the game from grassroots level.
“I think the girls themselves should act as role models for the younger girls, to go back to their club, encouraging the younger generation to become more enthusiastic about the game. They should make it clear to see the parallels between where those young girls are, and how they can progress to be where we are now, playing for our counties.”
The responsibility doesn’t lie solely there though, being from a county like Tipperary the influence of the success of other teams can set a trend early on: “I think we need to start targeting younger girls in schools and clubs and get them supporting their own sport. Every young girl across the country will be brought along to a men’s GAA game, but they won’t go to a camogie or ladies football match. Even if we target our own gender, to encourage parents to bring their kids to matches, then it’s setting the foundation and starting from the bottom, working to the top.”
She’s thrilled to see attendances at home league games in Tipperary improve, and attributes that to 2017’s All-Ireland Intermediate success raising the profile of the squad within the county. Their 1-13 to 1-10 victory over Tyrone at GAA HQ last Autumn crowned the perfect 2017.
League and All-Ireland champions, Shane Ronayne’s panel were unbeaten all season, a statistic that continued to hold true until early April. Despite the step up to Division 2, Tipperary had taken maximum points in their first six league fixtures, racking up a phenomenal 21 game unbeaten run, before losing out to Waterford in their last game.
“We’re up senior now this year (in the championship) and at the start of the year we had no expectations really because we’re such a young team. We set out a few standards and have tried to fulfil them in each match so far. We’ve been on a runner the last while, but we haven’t won anything yet. We’re at the semi-final stage, and maybe a final, so until we actually win a bit of silverware we can then look back and reflect on what we actually did, but until then, we won’t say much about it.”
While matters inside the white lines down in the Premier county continue to prosper, the passing of former Tipperary footballer Rachel Keneally cast a dark shadow over the group, having played with many of the current squad in the 2013 All Ireland Intermediate decider.
“To get the news was very sad. We’d all be complaining about the little things, like me worrying about exams or something but at the end of the day, when you look at her and how positive she was with her whole situation, it’s something we can all learn from. It was very hard for some of the girls to turn around and play a match last weekend. It would put the hairs standing at the back of your neck”.
Despite her friends and family at home in Tipperary slagging Aishling’s newly developed “Dublinised” tendencies, her performance in the yellow and navy of the north Dublin-based university has ended the college’s O’Connor Cup famine, earning her Sportswoman of the Month for March.