"After a few difficult years, we have a good set-up in place" - My LGFA Life with Leitrim's Clare Owens

My LGFA Life with Clare Owens – Leitrim Footballer

Age: 31

Club: St Joseph’s

Occupation: Primary School Teacher

County debut: 2006

Notable achievements: Connacht Championship 2006, Division 4 League Winners 2010, Connacht Championship 2014. Club and County Player of the year 2017.

4 Club Championships (2012, 2017,2018, 2019) Connacht Club Finalist Runners Up 2019.

Q: Clare, thanks for chatting to us. How have you found your experience of playing Ladies Football? 

A: Overall, playing Ladies Football has been an extremely positive experience for me. I have learned a lot both on and off the pitch through my participation at club and county level.

Q: What was it that sparked your interest in the sport from a young age? 

A: There was great excitement in our area when our club St Joseph’s was formed in 1996. My earliest memories of playing football are actually with my primary school team. I was lucky to grow up in our area at the same time as a really enthusiastic and talented bunch of girls who loved playing football together. Plenty of football was played on the boys team at U10 and U12. While I’m sure we all picked up plenty from our time on those mixed teams, we really started to come into our own when we began to play and train with St. Joseph’s Ladies.

Q: When did you pull on the Leitrim jersey for the first time, and how big a thrill was that? 

A: In some ways I can remember that year very clearly. I was 16 and in 4th year of secondary school at the time. I don’t remember how my joining the panel came about but I ended up having a great run on the team that year. The Division 3  league culminated in a final against Clare in Athlone. I scored a goal (one of the very few I’ve ever scored in the green and gold!) with about a minute to go to put us I think two points up. Clare won the resulting kick out, went straight back up the pitch to score a goal of their own and it was game over! Still, it was a sign of things to come for Leitrim ladies. I played in the Connacht final that year too which we won after a very nervous last few minutes. I lost my place to a more senior player in the semi-final then and didn’t feature again for the year. We made it all the way to the All-Ireland final that year, which was a brilliant experience that I felt very lucky to be a part of. Panels change year on year, especially in Ladies Football, so you never know who might strike lucky and join when the going is good! I do remember being aware even then though, that a lot of hard work had gone in from a particularly dedicated group of the more senior girls long before that trip to Croke Park, or the subsequent one where they took home the cup.

Q: What is the best thing for you about playing Ladies Football? 

A: Ultimately it’s the thrill of playing and participation. It’s the camaraderie that you build up over the years with other players and I’ve been lucky enough to get to experience that at both club and county. It is absolutely priceless and something that is quite unique to participating in a team sport, in my opinion. Nobody involved in Ladies Football is being motivated by any financial gain so there is an honesty there from anyone who commits their time and effort to the cause that money could otherwise distract from.

Outside of the set of players, I’ve met and worked with some great people over the years. Really decent people who I truly admire for their tireless work and unwavering dedication to the cause. Playing the football is the easy part! I’ve always thought that.

Q: Who was the biggest influence on your career? 

A: Very difficult question to answer. So many people have helped me to improve as a player and a person along the way. I do think it is impossible to comment on your own career without mentioning your teammates in a team sport though, so here’s to all of the players who I was lucky enough to get to play with and who taught me things along the way. I also couldn’t answer this question without mentioning a very supportive group of family and friends who have remained unerringly patient and understanding throughout the many cancelled or paused plans due to footballing commitments.

Q: What are the main challenges that you have faced in your career so far? 

A: Injuries are probably the biggest threat to one’s sporting career and I have been extremely lucky in that way. Of course I’ve had a few ‘niggles’ as they’re called! But nothing that has ever kept me out of contention for selection for more than a game. I have a lot of respect for the determination shown by so many players who manage to come back from a career-threatening injury. As much as those people can still play a part in the team activities during their rehab, a lot of what they need to do is done alone as an individual, away from the pitch and the buzz of a training session or match-day. When everything about football is geared towards the collective effort, suddenly being prescribed an individual programme must take quite a bit of adaptation mentally.

Q: You’re renowned as a tight-marking defender. What do you consider as the biggest strengths of your game? 

A: I don’t think I am renowned as a very tight marking defender, sorry to disappoint! To be honest I couldn’t really tell you what the biggest strengths of my game are currently. As a teammate I’d like that I am always honest in my endeavour, even on days when it just isn’t happening for me as an individual. I really get great satisfaction from being the provider of a ball that someone finishes to the net or puts over the bar, so maybe that’s a strength because that motivates me to give the kind of ball that will assist that in happening?

Q: What do you do for a living/college, and how do you manage the work or college-life-sport balance? 

A: I work as a primary school teacher. I spent ten years living in Dublin so a lot of time was spent in the car going to or coming from football in Leitrim. It was hard to ever really be anywhere because you were on the road so much. That was definitely a challenge. For a good part of that though there were a few others doing the same. The craic was mighty most evenings en route because we car pooled where possible. It was a great way of getting to know other girls better off the pitch too. Playing football at county level really is a lifestyle choice and sometimes it can certainly feel a bit like the schedule is running you rather than the other way around. That said, as soon as you get knocked out of a competition, all you want to do is rewind the clock an hour and start the game all over again! So I don’t know, in terms of balance, my job lends itself well to playing football and I’d like to think that I’ve gained more good people in my life through playing football than I’ve ever lost because of it.

Q: You’ve had the proud experience of captaining the Leitrim inter-county team? How big an honour has that been for you? 

A: Yes, certainly a very big honour. It isn’t something I’ve ever felt worthy of being and doubt I ever will feel like that about it. Having said that, it’s reassuring to know that the majority of players thought I was the best person for the job at the time of voting. It is a very humbling opportunity to be afforded by a group of very capable and talented women. I absolutely owe it to them and the management to do the best I can in a role that can be tricky enough to define sometimes. I can’t finish answering this question without mentioning Sinéad Brennan. I was so lucky to have the opportunity to play with Sinéad at the start of my time playing county football. I am by no means suggesting that I have or will reach the standards she set as captain of Leitrim Ladies, but what a role model for me to have as a teenager!

Q: What are your hopes and aspirations for the rest of your career? 

A: Continue to endure all of the younger players with their silky skills and terrific talent as they make a show of me in training!  Ah no, I suppose after a very unusual year with lockdown etc, I am looking forward to even one more full year of training well, getting to know new players at club and county.

Q: Have you played other sports? 

A: I have but not to any great extent. I played rugby for a couple of seasons and really enjoyed it. The GAA skill-set is well suited to it and in a different world, I would have loved to have given rugby a real go. I like to try my hand at most sports. I think playing a variety of sports is really beneficial in so many ways. I don’t know if I can afford it but perhaps golf may be an option after my retirement from Gaelic football!

Q: You play your club football with St Josephs. How have you found that experience and what is it about club football that’s so special? 

It is impossible to say what makes it so special but the feeling of taking to the pitch with your teammates on game day is unrivalled. It isn’t one or two specific things but a multitude of factors that combine. I think while lockdown has been a difficult time for clubs around the country, it has also given us as players the chance to take a step back and realise the clubs place in the wider community. Spectators not being able to attend matches this year made it clear that our matches are about much more than winning or losing or the team and management.  The ban on spectators was (relatively speaking, of course) an uncomfortable reality that everyone had to deal with. We never had thousands attending our matches anyway but we do have a very loyal bunch of supporters who would usually come to cheer us on at every opportunity. As for my experience of playing club football, I have been given the freedom over the years to really express myself on the club team. We’ve worked with some excellent managers and coaches who have placed their trust in us as players to exercise our autonomy and use our knowledge of the game to problem solve as we go. That doesn’t always get the desired result of course but we have always been able to take collective responsibility on those occasions and walk off the pitch together, united as ever.

Q: You’re in a last-gasp situation with an opposition forward. How do you rate your chances of ensuring that the attacker doesn’t get a shot away or the opportunity to go through on goal?   

A: Ah, very much depends on the situation, but there is usually something you can try in an attempt to reduce the opposition’s chance of scoring. Getting a block on the opponent’s shot is always such a lift. It’s something that is hard to work on by yourself or even at training but it is an under developed skill that I could do with improving for sure.

Q: What’s your career highlight? 

A: Probably the run I’ve had with club over the last 12 years or so. We lost the intermediate championship final in 2008 by a point. We won it the following year and since moving up Senior in 2010, we have competed in nine of the last eleven Senior county finals. We have four championships to show for those appearances. The losses were hard to take each time because the most we ever lost any of them by was five points. Obviously nine wins out of nine would be the nicer statistic to reflect on, but for me, that level of consistency in making it to the final so regularly speaks volumes about the quality of our players and our club.

Q: How confident are you that Leitrim can make a big impact in the 2020 TG4 All-Ireland Intermediate Championship? 

A: The 2020 TG4 Championship is going to be an unusual and memorable one, however it pans out. Who knows what will happen but I am excited about the future of Leitrim ladies in a broader sense. After a few difficult years, we have a good set-up in place with a top quality manager at the minute. This will continue into 2021 which is great news for everyone involved.

Q: What piece of advice would you offer to up and coming young players? 

A: I have nothing new to add here that hasn’t been said before. The usual; work hard, give it your best, try again and keep learning. Ask questions, experiment with new ideas and always be open to hearing a different perspective. Some people would vehemently disagree with this, I’m sure, but I would encourage younger players to involve themselves in as many sports and activities as they can. This will help to inform your choice then when you ultimately will have to choose which one to prioritise and it will only improve your skillset in whatever one you choose to focus on thereafter.

Q: And who’s given you the best piece of advice during your career? 

A: As underage players we were very lucky to have a club coach called Darren McGovern who was a constant for us from U12 right up to Senior really, as far as I recall. The club won its first ever Senior championship in 2012 and thankfully he was still working with us at the time. Most of the things I do well on a football pitch to this day are things Darren worked on with us in fact. Anyway, something he always tried to instil in us as young players was how to make an unselfish run and their importance. It isn’t the most headline grabbing aspect of anyone’s contributions but it certainly is something that your teammates will really appreciate and in my opinion can be a real game changer. Think not what your team can do for you, but what you can do for them!

Q: What hobbies do you enjoy? 

A: I like to try out different activities during football off season. Over the years I’ve enjoyed stints of boxing, jiu jitsu and swimming. I play the tin whistle and flute and used to play the piano for years growing up. Playing music gets badly neglected when I am playing football and there really is no excuse or reason for that. I did get a very nice piano as a present for my 30th birthday though, which has encouraged me to make a bit more time for it lately! Other than those, pre Covid activities like going to any live theatre, concerts and comedy gigs. Anything really that may provide the opportunity to catch up with friends and meet new people.

Q: You’re hosting a dinner party, and you can invite 5 people. Who’s on the list and what are you rustling up for your guests to eat? 

A: Six months into Covid, I’ll gladly cook for any dinner guests that are allowed to come visit! I’m notorious for finding a nice recipe and then not following it very closely. Most (if not all) of my cooking is tomato-based with some chillies and a clove (or five) of garlic. Everything else is subject to availability in the press or fridge! Getting back to the question of who to invite. Caitriona Perry, RTE journalist and news anchor for loads of reason, not least because I’d say she has a few interesting stories to tell from her career so far and her time in Washington DC. She always comes across very well in my opinion and would make for a great dinner guest. Michael Jordan, thanks to the Netflix documentary The Last Dance. I honestly find his levels of competitiveness almost difficult to comprehend. (He could bring Dennis Rodman too if each guest was allowed to bring one of their own!) John Hume, who passed away earlier this year. I am a 31 year old Irish citizen. I don’t think any further explanation is needed here, nor would it do him any justice. Jurgen Klopp, because of just how much he exudes warmth and positivity. It shines through the camera, image the presence he must have in real life! And finally, somebody like Bruce Springsteen maybe? I don’t know, ask me again tomorrow and I’ll have a totally different set of people to name!

Q: And finally, who’s your all-time sporting idol? 

A: I think it is Katie Taylor for me. She has managed to forge a hugely successful career and break down so many barriers for females in sport along the way. All of this she has done in a dignified and unassuming manner. She always comes across as humble, grounded and appreciative of the fruits of her life long dedication to boxing. People talk a lot about legacy in sport. What a legacy Katie Taylor already has created and will continue to in the coming years.

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