As a measure of how all this split-season malarkey is settling in, consider what is happening with the Ladies’ All-Ireland Gaelic Football Final.
In pre-Covid times, there was a lofty but attainable ambition that one day the ladies’ Finals day would sell out the Croke Park stadium.
The high watermark came in 2019 when 56,114 filed into the stadium to see the game, headlined by what turned out to be a pretty grim 2-3 to 0-4 win for Dublin over Galway.
Still, the crowd was eye-popping. The FIFA Women’s World Cup Final the same year had 57,900 in attendance, making the ladies’ Gaelic Football Final the second-highest attended female sporting event in Europe.
The progress was significant and credit was shared out evenly between rising standards of playing and coaching, but also in how the ladies’ Association began promoting themselves, helped by a clever social media marketing campaign and the provision of free copy for newspapers and websites.
This year, they are expecting a crowd of around 40,000. It’s a huge drop-off that temporarily stalls the progress and expectation around the ladies’ game.
Several factors contribute to this. Not having Dublin in the Final is the obvious thing. There is a sense that the game has been weakened and the air is let out of the bag with numerous high-profile players seeking to make a semi-pro career for themselves in the thriving Women’s Aussie Rules game.
At this time of year, there is no opportunity for schools to co-ordinate trips, and it lands slap bang in the middle of holiday season. There are some in the ladies’ game that already see the new scheduling as a bit of a disaster and would happily revert to the previous regime.
Unrelated to that, but significant nonetheless, is the lack of female managers in both ladies’ Gaelic football and camogie.
The senior headline game will be fought on the sideline by Kerry manager Declan Quill and his opposite number, Meath’s Eamon Murray defending the Brendan Martin Cup.
At Intermediate level, Alan Harnett of Laois comes up against Lizzy Kent of Wexford and the curtain-raiser is Fermanagh — managed by former Armagh boss James Daly — up against familiar opponents Antrim.
The Saffron girls are managed by Emma Kelly, originally of Desertmartin, Co Derry and former Down player Kyla Trainor.
The lack of female coaching input into the ladies’ game is concerning for Kelly, but at the same time is something that she has been spending her life tackling.
Ever since former Derry All-Ireland-winning full-back Tony Scullion came to her school and took a training session, the football bug she caught was for playing and coaching. She just wanted to swallow the game whole. A sports studies degree was followed up with a job with the Community Sports Network. Gaelic football, fencing, basketball, she coaches them all, from four-years-old to pensioners in retirement homes with armchair aerobics.
Last year, when the previous manager stepped down, her phone went berserk with team-mates convincing her that she was the ideal candidate, and the county board felt the very same thing.
With a county career that stretched back to playing for Derry as a 14-year-old, she stepped off the pitch and onto the sideline. The first call she put through was to former Down player Trainor. The two had marked each other for years anyway.
“Both of us want to push the girls on and knew what we were talking about and neither of us would shut up in games,” Kelly laughs now.
“I get messages now with people telling me I don’t realise what I am doing for the younger generation by having a girl in charge.
“To me, it’s not really a big deal, but I am aware that there is such a shortage.
“But I would like to think that the likes of Sinead Aherne, when she retires, or Valerie Mulcahy, that they would go in to coach Dublin and Cork and so on.”
Another thing about Kelly. She is a qualified and experienced referee. She hasn’t been able to get out much with her own commitments playing for St Paul’s and managing her adopted county. But come the Club Championship, she will be out there.
“The clubs love it when I referee because I am still playing, I know the rules, and I explain the rules. I know what to look for and I know all the tricks of the day because I use them all!” she laughs.
Back to tomorrow. Antrim come up against familiar opposition. It will be the fourth time they have played Fermanagh this year. A couple of years ago, they played each other six times.
There are no secrets at this stage.
“A couple of years ago they won them all, but we stole one, the Ulster Final. I got a block on the goal line to get Joanne Doonan’s shot away. I think that was the deciding factor in that game,” recalls Kelly.
Fermanagh have undergone a player turnover. Doonan is now playing Aussie Rules. Others such as Courtney Murphy have stepped away from the county team, but that’s a common theme.
“You look at our team, there are five girls that started last year’s Final who aren’t in our squad this year. And then we have brought in a lot of new ones and it is their first year playing senior county,” says Kelly.
“But again, you are not going to chase girls to play for their county.
“You want girls who want to play and put the jersey on.
“If someone doesn’t turn up for trials, then you don’t ask them. You let them make up their own mind and let them miss and then come back.”
Hard to beat a bit of passion for your sport.