"One thing we looked for was pride in the jersey" - Mayo ladies keeping up traditions
By Daragh Small
Her glittering footballing career came to a self-imposed full stop in 2017, but former Mayo goalkeeper Yvonne Byrne is still in the thick of women’s sport and she warmly welcomes its recent exponential growth.
Last year’s TG4 All-Ireland Ladies Football finals attracted 50,141 spectators to Croke Park, while this week the Women’s World Cup semi-final between USA and England brought 53,512 to Lyon, and an estimated 315,000 Irish viewers tuned in on TV.
Following a stint with the Camogie Association, Byrne is now employed as a coach education development officer by Sport Ireland, and she thinks female involvement in sport, and the public’s perception of it, is only going in one direction.
“Women’s sport is more visible now that it ever has been. There is a transition happening at the minute, where it is popular to be involved in women’s sport now. There is a lot of people breaking down barriers,” said Byrne.
“The media are giving our games more coverage and the standards on the field are improving too. It’s a good time to be involved.
“With the World Cup, the coverage that is getting is unreal. Ladies football over the last couple of years has been outstanding too. Their deals with TG4 and Lidl have been key and once you get to the championship as a player, there is nearly a game on every week.
“There is more opportunities for girls. It is all very positive at the minute. For sure there is still loads of room for improvement but we’re going in the right direction.”
As Mayo goalkeeper, Byrne won TG4 All-Irelands in 1999, 2000, 2002 and 2003, and she also claimed an All-Star award during her illustrious playing career.
The 36-year-old Ballyhaunis native played most of her club football for Hollymount because there was no club in her local area, but in her final year as a player she finally got to play for her home town, when they launched their junior team.
Her final game turned out to be the TG4 2017 All-Ireland Senior Final defeat to Dublin, and as a regular fixture in the team since 1998, she knew she needed a clean break from football to survive retirement. There would be no half measures.
“I went cold turkey. The timing suited me really well. I was just after starting the new job and I wanted to focus my efforts in on that. When I was playing I was living in Mayo but with the age factor and relocation, I decided to call time on things.
“If I was living the exact same lifestyle and finished up it would have been more difficult. But the fact that I had a new job it gave me a new focus, but I really missed the craic with the girls and the routine of training.
“But the way it is now I wondered how I managed to play for so long and give the commitment. When I was doing it I didn’t think too much of it. You just did it, trained five or six times a week and that was your lifestyle.
Life for Byrne, the retired player, is very different. Home is now Cavan and her work base in Abbotstown at Sport Ireland HQ, and other than a casual game of soccer, her boots remain unused.
But there is no cutting the chord to the green and red. As a Mayo supporter, there will be a bit of novelty making the trek to the Gaelic Grounds for today’s TG4 Connacht Senior Final replay against Galway, but she says the performance of Peter Leahy’s side in the drawn game came as no surprise to her.
“This is going to be a great occasion, but the girls have played in Croke Park this year already, and two years ago they were in Croke Park for an All-Ireland final.
“I wasn’t surprised with how they played in the Connacht final. Out of the starting 15 girls, I would have played football with 11 of them in 2017. I knew the quality that was there.
“When there are a lot of new faces there is a perceived brand-new squad, but there is a wealth of talent in it.
“What I was impressed with was the attitude. When Mayo were down at half-time, they showed the fight to come back. They had someone in the sin-bin and with Niamh Kelly getting sent-off, it would have been easy to let Galway push on and win it.
“But they didn’t. They showed great determination and heart. I took pride in that. When I played with those girls, one thing we looked for was pride in the jersey and the never-say-die attitude. For me that was fantastic.
“The quality is there, it is just bringing that together into a performance again on Saturday.”