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Belfast girls look to turn the clock back a decade

Leading women: Naomh Pol’s Aine Tubridy and Naomh Ciaran’s Amy Gavin Mangan hold up the trophy
Leading women: Naomh Pol’s Aine Tubridy and Naomh Ciaran’s Amy Gavin Mangan hold up the trophy
Declan Bogue

By Declan Bogue

Just prior to the ladies' footballers of St Paul's playing St Nathy's in their recent All-Ireland Intermediate semi-final, they were made aware of one of their own, present to see them.

They have never been light on role models on the Shaw's Road club. World champion handballers of both genders are everywhere, but there was something special to see the great Anto Finnegan there to cheer on the girls.

For club captain Aine Turbidy, it meant a lot.

"Anto, it goes without saying how much of an inspiration he is to our club and all of our girls," she says.

"And to see him at our match last week, when he came onto the pitch it was something really special for our girls to have him there supporting us."

She can recall playing in another All-Ireland semi-final around a year ago with Aisling Reilly, the world champion handballer who has a full display board in Belfast City Hall dedicated to her sporting achievements.

"She was always somebody I looked up to. She just made everything in sport look easy."

It spurred them onto a one point win over their Roscommon opponents and set up another All-Ireland final today against Offaly's Naomh Ciaran.

Once the venue was set as Kingspan Breffni Park in Cavan, the electricity began to build.

"To be honest, a lot of our girls were buzzing. Because there's a stand all the way around and we know that will create a better atmosphere," says Turbidy.

"For us as well, a lot of our girls are familiar with the pitch. We won our first All-Ireland on Breffni Park at under-14 so it was special to know our game was there. We know the pitch is lucky to us, so we were delighted it was changed to Breffni."

She estimates that out of their panel of 26 senior footballers now, around 15 of them were part of that Feile success.

Turbidy herself was one of the key players.

She is a teacher now in Blessed Trinity in north Belfast, an amalgamated school of St Patrick's Bearnageeha and Little Flower, where she teaches PE and Religion.

That's when she is not playing sport. The commitment levels required now are incredible.

At the recent Ulster hurling final, winning Slaughtneil captain Chrissy McKaigue paid tribute in his acceptance speech to the club camogs who had won another Ulster title just hours previously, claiming they are the standard bearers for the club.

It's no different in St Paul's.

"Whenever it was county and club this year, there were a lot of times we were really training five nights a week. And then you had two individual sessions to do yourself in strength and conditioning and a speed session," Tubridy outlines.

"That was obviously done in your own time so you would have had to get up and do the gym at half six in the morning before you went to work. And maybe you were playing football then that night.

"So there was an awful lot, but we expected and wanted to have a long season this year, but at a certain stage we had to cut that back. With the county stopping, it was a lot easier to get your strength and conditioning work done because when you were doing two sessions on the same day for county and club it was just too much for some girls and they were picking up injuries."

Still, nobody forces them to do it. Their manager Brian Coyle has put decades into the sport within the club now and his example is reflected in the players.

"I think I see more of Brian than I see of my own parents," Tubridy laughs.

"He always says we are like his family because we see so much of each other. But he has been about there for so many years. I think if we do lift an All-Ireland title he might go, but it's his life and he will always be hanging about the pitches."

As a teacher, she is keenly aware of the growing appeal of female sport. The marketing success of the '20x20' campaign has been off the charts, and the numbers are flooding in.

"I think it goes without saying the attendance at the All-Ireland final this year (56,114), it is increasing each year," she explains.

"I know myself even being involved in the school, the amount of girls who maybe went through school not playing football but over the last few months have been wanting to get involved because of the publicity out there, the media and the coverage.

"They are getting to see who they can have as role models and I think now that it is a lot more encouraged in girls.

"In terms of that, I think it has increased majorly over the last couple of years."

In Antrim, they had little challenge. They beat Moneyglass in the semi-final by over a dozen points and the final was a mismatch against St Gall's.

They sealed an Ulster title in Emyvale against a fancied Kinawley outfit and ground out a win over St Nathy's in the semi-final.

They are on the road again. Who could begrudge them a day in the sun?

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