After a stellar second season for Western Bulldogs in the AFLW, Tipperary star Aisling McCarthy returned home from a six-month stint in Melbourne, as the season was cut short due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Now, the 24-year-old who is a qualified physiotherapist from the University of Limerick, is working in a hospital as part of the HSE ‘On Call For Ireland’ initiative, as she awaits the return of GAA training.
McCarthy, one of 18 Irish stars contracted to Aussie Rules clubs, was one of the standout performers in the AFLW this year. A positional change from forward line to the midfield in her second season saw her excel. Testament to her stunning performances, the Cahir star was nominated by her Western Bulldog teammates as a candidate for the 2020 AFLW Players’ Association’s Most Valuable Player Award.
While she was unable to get her hands-on silverware in Melbourne, the prospect of 2020 without an All-Ireland Championship would of course have been a disappointing one. McCarthy is eager to build on Tipperary’s TG4 Intermediate success from last year and with the likes of Orla O’Dwyer and Aishling Moloney in the fold, there is every chance of success.
Despite initial fears, players and fans alike have been given hope following the GAA’s announcement that if all goes well, inter-county training can resume on September 14 and fixtures from October 17 - as well, club championship games can begin on July 31.
“I’d nearly had the year written off in a sense and it was really disheartening,” said McCarthy. “So it’s really good with that roadmap that potentially if things keep going well that we could be going back training.”
The question everyone wants to ask the two-time Intermediate All-Ireland winner is whether she’ll return to the AFLW and her club Western Bulldogs for the third succesive year in Australia, or stay in Ireland and bolster Tipperary’s starting 15.
“I really do wanna represent Tipp and my club (Cahir) again, so I do think it might put a bit of a spanner in the works with regards the decision to go back.
“I think Tipperary’s in a really good place and that obviously then does make it hard if I was to go back to Australia and if I did miss out on a championship run.”
Of course, it’s uncertain when exactly the AFLW season will start again, and talks with clubs have been put on hold, so there’s a lot still up in the air.
The 2017 Intermediate Player of the Year has two seasons in the AFLW under her belt. In her debut season, she scored five goals in six games in the forward line. Although this season wasn’t a great one for the Bulldogs with one win and five losses, on an individual level McCarthy thrived in her move to midfield, scoring two goals with an average of 13.5 disposals. In her position, she was given license to involved in play more, chasing balls down and contesting for balls in the middle of the park.
As part of her visa, McCarthy wasn’t able to work in Australia and as such was a full-time athlete, relying solely on her AFLW income. The major advantage being she was able to fully focus on football, nutrition and recovery.
“You’re out there and your sole focus is on playing football. You’ve all the time in the world to get ready for training, train, recover, eat well and I think that’s just something that is potentially a bit more difficult when you are working,” she said.
“It is a great lifestyle and the facilities and everything are brilliant, but I do think like you grow up to play Gaelic football and that’s what I dreamed of as a little girl.”
Back in Ireland, McCarthy signed up for the HSE’s On Call for Ireland initiative, and is three weeks working in a hospital. “I’m really enjoying it because it’s the first time I’ve actually worked in a hospital since I graduated. (Before) I was working in a private practice, so it’s a little bit different and another area I can grow in my career as well.”
Many people are unaware of the role physio plays both in the treatment of COVID-19 and the acute management of people that get admitted into hospital in general, McCarthy said.
“Most people from my side of things anyway in sport would see physios on the sideline and things like that, so it’s a really broad profession and you can make a difference in people’s lives as well in a hospital setting.”
She hasn’t treated any coronavirus patients, but people with COVID-19 can have shortness of breath or be retaining phlegm, and physio helps with that.
Physio has a big role in rehabilitation for people who come out of an acute illness. “If someone’s been in ICU for a couple of weeks, like they’d be in the bed not moving, so just getting them back up on their feet and making them strong to get back to where they were.”
When she’s not working, McCarthy has been busy preparing for the return of inter-county football. She first played for Tipperary when she was 12 years old, played on all the county teams up as far as minor and joined the intermediate team when she was 16. Although Gaelic football is her first love, she captained Cahir to win the All-Ireland Intermediate Club Camogie Championship in 2016.
In 2017, she won her first Intermediate All-Ireland with the Premier County, an experience she’ll never forget.
“I think it was just the first taste of success at adult level with Tipperary and especially in Croke Park. I was lucky enough to be awarded Player of the Match as well, which is something that’s really special I guess,” she said. “I know it’s a team sport but it’s nice to get an individual accolade like that.”
2017 was a great year all around for McCarthy: She won the All-Ireland with Tipperary, the Tipperary Senior football Championship Cahir, and helped the University of Limerick secure the O’Connor Cup. Oh, and she was also named Intermediate Player of the Year at the LGFA All-Star Awards.
After beating Meath in last year’s Intermediate All Ireland Football Final, where McCarthy scored 1-2, Tipperary are looking to make a mark on the senior championship this year.
“We don’t wanna be that yo-yo team that goes up and down from intermediate to senior, so I think we’re fairly determined that we stay up in the senior ranks now and try to establish ourselves up among the bigger teams.
“There’s definitely some things we need to tighten up on to have a good run at senior, but I think the mentality and the drive to try and be the best we can be is definitely there.”
With the increase in support and attendances at All-Irelands for ladies football, McCarthy thinks the sport is in a great place.
“Potentially there will always be that gap for men’s and women’s, but I do think that people are seeing ladies Gaelic football for what it is and you know, they’re not comparing it to the men’s game,” she said. “It’s played at a different pace and played in a different style. “
“It’s a really free-flowing game. Sometimes I think it is better to watch than the men’s at times, you know when the men’s gets really defensive.”
McCarthy would love to see a push for supporters to attend earlier games than the finals, and for the LGFA to not schedule camogie and hurling matches on the same day.
“Unfortunately with Orla O’Dwyer on our team, she’s a dual player and she’s had a few clashes with the camogie. If they could just not have the camogie and ladies football clashing because again a lot of the supporters that are supporters of women’s sport will want to go to both games.”
While she acknowledges there’s a tight calendar year, it would be a step in the right direction if the LGFA and the GAA didn’t schedule women’s and men’s matches for the same day. “If we were to have an All-Ireland quarter final and the men were to have a hurling semi-final, I know that a lot of those supporters are gonna go to that hurling semi-final,” she said. “It just means that supporters don’t have to choose.”