Just over a month ago, Mayo ladies football captain Niamh Kelly called Perth ‘home’. The Moy Davitt star became the fourth Mayo player to make the switch Down Under, to the AFLW, alongside her sister Grace Kelly. The inseparable pair swapped the west coast of Ireland for the west coast of Australia as they officially signed for West Coast Eagles, in Perth.
Now, after a hectic few weeks, Kelly is back having just returned. The AFLW season was cut short due to the coronavirus. Their final game was played behind closed doors against Gold Coast, before everything shut down.
Many of the Irish contingent down in Australia flew home immediately but the Kellys’ return was delayed after Grace picked up a knee injury and needed surgery.
“It’s kind of a novelty being back home again, being in the comfort of your own house again. So we’ve actually enjoyed being at home and we’re so lucky that the weather has been nice and we’ve been able to go outside,” Niamh said.
“At first, we were worried we wouldn’t get home, especially when we had to wait like two or three weeks after Grace’s surgery for the swelling to go down,” she said. “But we were lucky we got a flight home and we’re home now to family again, which is great.”
The Kelly sisters joined the West Coast Eagles, a new team contesting their first season in the league. The sister act played a pivotal role in the Eagles’ first ever win as they stunned the 2018 Champions, Western Bulldogs.
CrossCoders, a global programme allowing top female athletes a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play professionally in the AFLW, brought the double act to the league. The programme worked closely with the sisters to unearth new opportunities and display their talent to clubs through data, video footage and other information.
Several clubs approached the sisters within a short time frame and they did plenty of other video calls before making a decision. Having played alongside each through the ranks at club and county, donning the Green and Red, for the last eight years, the duo always planned to play for the same club, and West Coast Eagles suited them perfectly.
Kelly, a qualified teacher, described Aussie Rules as “a brilliant experience” for the pair. “There were some fantastic people involved in the club. We really enjoyed training in a professional environment, like they had some unbelievable facilities and everything was kind of at your doorstep.”
The Mayo Captain said it’s hard to know if more Gaelic players will head out to Australia in the future, but that a lot of the skills are transferable. There’s a different shaped ball, which takes some getting used to, and it’s a lot more physical, but you adapt to it after a while.
“It did suit me and Grace this year because what we’d hoped for was to come out, play the season and then come back and prepare for the championship. That’s what appealed to us and we thought we might be in a better position then to play Gaelic at home.”
Of course, with the current pandemic, it’s uncertain whether any intercounty fixtures will take place this year. The 24-year-old hopes the championship will go ahead before the end of the year and is trying to keep a positive mindset.
The LGFA remains hopeful to be in a position to play some club and inter-county games this year, subject to public health guidelines. A survey conducted revealed that 95% of players say they are open to playing games behind closed doors. Kelly is no different.
“I’d love to see it happen, even if games were behind closed doors. It’s really hard to know because you wouldn’t want someone spreading it and then bringing it home to their families.”
Being away from sport can be difficult for athletes, who are now training alone, many of whom with no end in sight. Mayo ladies football manager Peter Leahy wanted to ensure the girls “weren’t getting mentally drained out or physically drained out,” Kelly recalls. He advised them to just keep ticking over with fitness and decide what they want to work on themselves.
The Kelly household was always a sporting one. As children,the sisters played basketball and soccer, and their older brother Sean loved football.
“Our uncles live beside us and they were always coming down to kick the ball with us, but we were definitely a football-mad house growing up for sure.”
Niamh played soccer for a year for Ireland at U-15, but her heart was always with the Gaelic. “I think after that year I was like, “Oh, Gaelic is definitely my most preferred sport.” Myself and Grace stuck with Gaelic after that.”
She joined the Mayo senior setup at the age of 15 and trained with the team for a year, which helped when she was allowed to play matches when she turned 16.
“It was great really because you could see what was expected of you at a young age,” she said.
The talented forward was given the Mayo captaincy in 2019 after establishing herself as one of Mayo’s most dangerous assets and a valuable leader in recent seasons. She took over from Sarah Tierney who skippered Mayo in 2018 before leaving the panel.
Kelly describes captaining Mayo last year as“unbelievable,” although the Moy Davitts star credits everyone in the team as a leader. The Westerners reached the All-Ireland Semi-Final, but lost out to Galway by a point, with a scoreline of 2-10 to 2-09.
Kelly is undoubtedly a determined and resolute character, She believes it’s important to see setbacks as learning opportunities. “Everyone in life and especially (in) sport, they’re going to encounter setbacks...so I think just to take it on the chin.”
One of her greatest and fondest memories playing for Mayo was the 2017 All-Ireland Championship Final, where Dublin beat them by 4-11 to 0-11. Although they didn’t get the result, running out the tunnel onto the pitch in Croke Park in front of 46,000 people was unforgettable.
“Just running out and you could hear all them, especially screaming girls. That was a brilliant opportunity and we just felt proud in the Mayo jersey.”
The sport has come on leaps and bounds over the past few years. The profile, standard and interest have all risen tenfold, with record breaking attendances year on year.
Kelly said with the help of 20x20, Lidl and TG4, ladies’ football has improved significantly in the last number of years. When Niamh first entered the Mayo senior setup, all the girls were put on a rota and they all took turns making food to bring to training.
“Without the likes of 20x20 and without the likes of even Her Sport promoting ladies sport, like that’s exactly what ladies sport needs,” she said. “So without all of these doing all the work in the background, ladies sport wouldn’t be where it is today.”
“A couple of years ago when I first started off, you wouldn't see many women in the media for sport so it’s definitely improving and I think the more people keep doing this and the more exposure that the ladies get it'll start to keep improving and increasing.”