Aine McAllister in action for Derry camogs in their All-Ireland Quarter-Final defeat to Meath last month (Pic: Cathal McOscar)
The dual player has become an endangered species at county level. Ballinascreen's Aine McAllister played both camogie and football for Derry this season. She tells Michael McMullan about her love and passion for playing both codes.
With a day of teaching in Eglinton's Broadbridge Primary School done and dusted, Aine McAllister's mind is still racing. Her voice remains charged with energy. A passion for sport hugs every dancing word.
It's much like her all-action playing career. She empties the tank every time she pulls on the jersey. The colour is irrelevant. Red or maroon. It doesn't matter.
Since the early U6 days with Ballinascreen, football and camogie have been a constant. Her parents Mickey and Maria supported every move and ferried their sons and daughters around the corners of Derry.
Now 25, nothing has changed for Aine in her eighth season on the Derry senior squad.
In the months after Derry's 2012 All-Ireland intermediate title, the county held their annual presentation. As part of the minor squad, Aine was there in the Wild Duck that night to bring down the curtain on the season. It was then senior manager John A Mullan who asked her about stepping up to senior level.
The following year, aged 16, she joined the squad under Joe Baldwin and vividly remembers her first training session. Slamming sliotars against the wall of Magherafelt's Meadowbank complex, they honed their striking action, reflexes and handling. A who's who of McAllister's idols.
She always dreamt of playing for Derry and here she was rubbing shoulders with the likes of Katie McAuley, Grainne and Meabh McGoldrick.
It was far from daunting. Eilís Ní Chaiside was there too, a fourth year at St Mary's Belfast when McAllister came in as a Fresher. They played on the team that reached the Fr Maher Final, a competition Aine would win with 'The Ranch' in her final year.
“That helped break the ice and I knew the faces from Ballinascreen. Bronagh McGillian would've been involved that year,” McAllister remembers of that first training session.
“They were great,” she said of how the younger players were treated. “Katie McAuley would've scared the bejesus out of me for club camogie, but they were all very welcoming. They wanted girls no matter what club you were from, which was great.”
Of Derry's 12 Ulster championships, Aine has four winners medals and scored two points in the 2017 decider at Swatragh, during current manager Ciaran Cunningham's last stint in the Oakleaf hotseat.
In football, she reluctantly joined the county squad in recent seasons. It wasn't that she didn't want play football.
“I wouldn't have wanted to have came in at that point, not having trained all year,” Aine said of Paul Crozier's invite to come on board.
“It wasn't possible, training on the same nights and there was a lot on top of each other. I didn't want to be at camogie and not fully committed to camogie...it was the same for football.”
An all or nothing person, with half measures not sitting well. Crozier and some of the football squad, who were soon on the phone, assured Aine she was welcome.
“They knew I was flat out training (for the camogs) and not lying at home doing nothing,” she points out.
Aine did join the panel and this year the schedule had a different pattern. With Covid-19 forcing a split season format, her involvement with Ballinascreen was complete by the time the county scene rolled around and Aine was able to throw her lot into both camps.
“We always played both,” she said of her career. “But if you'd asked me when I was younger, I'd have said camogie was my first sport. As I've grown up, they have just gone alongside each other.”
There was always ladies football in Ballinascreen, so it just went hand and hand (with camogie), demanding constant communication between the camps.
Already, camogie manager Reamann 'Tam' Kennedy and his football counterpart Conor McGarvey have touched base. With the experiences of last year consigned to history, they have picked through the rubble to plot a better path to take.
“Tam was on the phone the day after the Slaughtneil game,” she reveals. “Telling me how we were going to improve for next year...he never switches off.”
Growing up, it was a constant wrestle between 'Screen and Swatragh for honours. Aine, with the benefit of a 'good birthday', availed of a fruitful extra year, with U14, U16 and minor glory coming her way.
“In my school year, Swatragh were always a step ahead of us,” Aine remembers. “I was lucky enough to be part of the panel (while still U12) when we won the 2007 All-Ireland Féile in Kilkenny. Two years later we got down to Galway, but we didn't win it.”
At St Mary's Magherafelt, her teams were in the shadows of Cross and Passion, Ballycastle and rivals St Patrick's Maghera. She decided to repeat her Upper Sixth year to get the grades for her teaching degree.
“I refused to leave,” she can now joke. She needed a medal before calling time on her 'Convent' days and they stopped the Maghera dominance to land the 2014 title.
“Out of all the medals, that's one of the best ones because of the long slog of school camogie and to finally get over the line was just great,” beams McAllister, placing much of the credit at her coach Reamann Kennedy's door.
“He did tactics and St Pat's didn't have a clue what was going on and by the time they did, we were in the lead and it worked to our advantage.”
What a difference a year makes in sport? Twelve months after watching Steelstown celebrate the 2017 ladies title through their own tears of devastation, it was Ballinascreen's turn to shine. The years of playing both codes would eventually pay dividends.
Again it was Steelstown in the final, but it took every sinew to pull 'Screen into dreamland. Louise Murphy grabbed two goals, with Casey McKenna bagging a third in a 3-3 to 0-10 win. They still needed goalkeeping heroics of Kathryn Connery (then McNamee) in a player of the final performance.
It sparked pandemonium in the celebrations, as history was made with a first title. Lauren McKenna's movement for Connery's kick-outs was another factor. So too was Aine McAllister's input at midfield, it a team that included her sisters Rachel and Sarah.
Ballinascreen celebrate winning the 2018 senior ladies championship, a first in their history
(Pic: Dessie Loughery)
They retained their title last season, with victory over Ballymaguigan in a Sunday night monsoon at Owenbeg. It was Aine's second game of the weekend, having played with Derry camogs 24 hours earlier. Having the football moved allowed her to play for both teams.
Last month, she did the same – playing for Derry camogs and footballers in the same weekend. The refreshing thing was how much energy she was able to expend going down the final stretch of the second game.
For McAllister, the split season had a huge impact on not only her own availability, but the rest of the county players. In the case of camogie, Ciaran Cunningham was able to boast a more competitive squad.
“We didn't have the pressure of club football and camogie.” Aine states. The county titles were long dished out.
“County is great and I really enjoy it, but I am sure there are people who say their club comes first. The one thing that sometimes bothered me, was that when you were playing county you were missing out on club training sessions, which was always the way it was going to be.”
McAllister and Megan Kerr are Derry camogs' representative on the WGPA. They recently circulated a survey to the rest of the panel, one that will be collated across all 32 counties in both bodes. Figuring prominently was the questions over keeping the split season.
Speaking with both passion and reason in equal measure, Aine feels keeping the club and county seasons apart is the way forward. Everyone is a winner.
“There are occasions that girls have turned down playing for Derry camogie, because they have a lot of pressure on from their club management, not wanting them to miss club training,” Aine points out.
“Some girls are put into the situation where they can't win. It's not fair, if you are playing for a club you should have the opportunity to represent Derry.
“It's a pity if girls are not coming out if it a case of support from clubs not being there...they would make a difference to Derry.”
The split season or not, McAllister's schedule remained a busy one, training virtually every night of the week with 'at least one' game at the weekend. It is something she accepts, but if there is a bit of give and take between both management teams, it can work.
“It is about good communication between managers, and players being honest and taking the rest, they need to have their own responsibility for their own performance,” she adds.
One group of people she feels need 'all the credit in the world' are the fixture committees.
“I don't know how they manage it,” she said. “When it comes to the championship, they do the best they can, but there is a big overlap with ladies football and camogie, I'm sure it is the same for hurling and football.
“I know Teresa McKenna has done so much for Derry football, with some of the fixtures that have been clashing.”
But, in the long run, Aine feels the club championship season needs to be looked at. Ballinascreen's entire football team are dual players.
It prevents them from perfecting any last-minute preparation. A challenge game to work on tactics, or a few nights off to keep the limbs fresh.
Aine in football action for Derry (Pic: Mark Doherty)
“You have to give them credit in Slaughtneil for how well their camogie team have dominated not only Derry camogie, but across Ireland.
“I can imagine their preparations and being down south (for challenge games) and all the stuff I'd love to do, but being dual it just doesn't work. It is not possible and girls have been burned out and that has been the case for some of the girls by the championship and they look more unfit.”
That said, she wouldn't change being a dual player 'for the world', with the more positives than negatives.
After their defeat to Meath in the All-Ireland series, Ciaran Cunningham praised the efforts of his team. Aine McAllister has a similar train of thought, having held all the aces for much of the first half.
In recent seasons, Derry have more than held their own with Tipperary, Kilkenny and Cork, backing it up with four Ulster titles since 2013.
Former manager John O'Dwyer said the same. On their day, Derry can beat anybody.
“If you are to go, player by player, when we come up against Down - I wouldn't swap anyone,” Aine admits. “It's like Slaughtneil camogs, they have learned how to work together as a unit. That is something we are missing.
“It's not that girls won't pass to anyone, that's not it. I think we are just missing that link up, that's the difference between us and the so called stronger teams.”
Down have had the core of their team playing together 'four or five years' and they know each other inside out. Clonduff had been another shining light at club level.
“But they really do live and breath for county camogie,” Aine adds.”
“In Derry camogie, we have missing girls who are not out representing their county. It is as simple as that, some girls don't have the same interest as others. It's a pity, as the talent is there. Slaughtneil wouldn't have got as far as they have without their obvious talent.”
The gap is closing in the Derry scene. Swatragh won the league in recent times and took the Emmet's to a replay this year. Lavey pushed Swatragh all the way. And Ballinascreen, like Swatragh, have threatened to topple Slaughtneil.
When it comes to the Derry squad, the same drive just hasn't been there.
“We have struggled for numbers in Derry camogie and that shouldn't be the case...there is the pick of four or five girls in each club,” Aine stresses.
There are the excuses of not committing due to club, but it doesn't wash with Aine. If the fixtures fit, it can work.
“You can manage it, if you want to play,” she added. The 2020 season has proved it.
“At the start of the year, I was the only 'Screen girl representing Derry in camogie, which is ridiculous when you see how close we are in the championship.
“They all came out and these are girls were starting on the team...they realised how much they can get out of Derry camogie and how much they enjoyed it.
“Then there are is Swatragh, Lavey and Slaughtneil, if you look at Céat McEldowney, she such an asset to Derry camogie.”
What she wouldn't do for having the full panel to pick from, chomping at the bit to push for a start.
”It's a pity, it's the only word I can say,” Aine continues.
“When I was growing up all I wanted to do was to play for the Derry camogie team and better myself. I don't think there is any other way than going to the county, you are playing against better opposition and with better girls around you.”
She longs for the day, when there are enough girls putting themselves forward that it requires trials. With players pushing to even make the panel.
“If everybody would buy in, the damage we'd do in intermediate camogie, never mind senior. When I started we competed at senior level.
“Losing Katie, the McGoldricks, Aileen McCusker, who are massive misses but there are young girls out there who should be making up for some of the players, but are not coming on board, but hopefully that changes.”
One thing won't change, Aine McAllister's love for sport. She knows nothing else.
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