'I have found myself in this position thousands of times' - My LGFA Life with Waterford's Aileen Wall

My LGFA Life with Aileen Wall – Waterford Footballer

Age: 26

Club: Ballymacarbry

Occupation: Primary School Teacher

County debut: 2010

Notable achievements: 13 Senior County Titles, 5 Munster B Titles, Intermediate Players’ Player of the Year 2015, Intermediate All Ireland Title, Senior Munster Final Player of the match, O’Connor Cup Title with UL, All Ireland Senior 7’s Title, 6 Munster Senior 7s Titles.

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

A: Football has been a central part of my life. I grew up with a ball in my hand, training with my club Ballymacarbry and my local boys’ club the Nire throughout my primary school years. It has brought me all over Ireland and even further afield, to New York at one stage. It’s not every sport which can afford you the opportunities which football has. It’s really permeated every aspect of my life, playing in primary school, secondary school, college and still today in my professional career. My best friends are all girls who I’ve played over the years and we’ve all had such similar goals and ambitions, it’s really allowed us to bond and create lasting friendships. I’ve luckily been afforded the chance to be part of so many teams over the years from club to county, college and provincial, and throughout all that I’ve met some amazing people. It’s safe to say no matter where you go you’ll meet someone you played with or against. Ladies Football just connects you with so many people and once you put on the jersey you’re all just football players, it doesn’t matter if you’re young or old, you can just all want to play football.

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

In action against Dublin’s Rachel Ruddy in 2017. 

A: I suppose it was my sisters’ involvement in Ladies Football which helped to get me hooked. However, my Mam might challenge that as she said from the time we could all sit up as babies she would get us to hold out our hands and she would throw the ball into them. She said no matter how many times she did it we cheered every time we caught it so I suppose playing with a ball was ingrained in us from the get-go. I played at every grade in the club. I just wanted to emulate what Mairéad and Linda were doing. I also had some amazing coaches during my underage years such as Brigid Grant who played a major role in Waterford’s Senior success back in the 90s. Ballymacarbry has been a very successful club since its foundation and as children we were keenly aware of this. I was lucky enough to have a very interested group of girls in my age group so we started off our footballing careers quite successfully which definitely encouraged us all to invest more time and effort in our training.

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

A: It was 2010 when I first got to play for the Waterford Intermediate team. I debuted during the Division 2 league. We were playing some really tough teams such as Donegal, Cavan and Tipperary. It was really amazing. I was finally heading off to training with my sisters as a player and I was no longer the ball-girl. I had always wanted to play for Waterford and at 16 I got the opportunity after being called up. It was very nerve-wrecking at the beginning, facing players from around the country who were All Star winners and who had played at the highest level of the game. Fortunately, there were a number of my club teammates involved in the team, so they, along with my sisters, were always there to offer advice and support my play on the field.

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

Receiving the Player of the Match award after the 2019 Munster Club Final against Mourneabbey.

A: It has to be the friendships that I’ve made over the years. Like I mentioned already, you just get the chance to meet such amazing people from all over the country. I don’t think there are many other organisations which afford you the opportunities which Ladies Football does. The organisation seems very close. Throughout all the clubs and counties, there is great knowledge of all the players and managers and it really makes the game feel like such a tight-knit community. Another small aspect is the joy it has and still does bring to my family. With myself, my sisters and my brother playing over the years, my parents have driven the length and breadth of the country to support us. They rarely miss a game, they just love watching us all play and it’s great to know that they’re enjoying it all too.

Q: Who was the biggest influence on your career?

A: It has to be my sisters Mairéad and Linda. My whole life, I was striving to reach the heights which they did. I followed them to every training and every match throughout the years. I just wanted to emulate their lives and their success. It was the main driving point for me. I loved watching them at senior training and trying to practice the moves and skills. They have supported me and taught me so much and I was lucky enough to get the chance to play with them both for Ballymacarbry and Waterford for many years.

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

A: When you’re young and playing underage football I guess you don’t experience as many obstacles as your parents or managers are dealing with anything that may arise but as a senior player the challenges are different. There has been significant progress in the Ladies Football to create a level playing for all players and to bring the standard up to and hopefully eventually in line with that of the men’s game. This is where the challenges arise however. Ladies Football wasn’t always as well supported financially as it is today but back at the beginning of my county career, to get hot showers after a match, never mind training, was a luxury. There was no support for players who had to drive long distances to represent their county team and we certainly weren’t provided with any food. Those were really difficult times. You were representing your county and achieving great things but the support wasn’t there. We once played a National League Game in freezing and wet conditions in a small club grounds in the West of Ireland, the dressing rooms were so small we had to take turns changing and afterwards we had to make a two-hour journey home with no warm shower to wash the mud off and warm ourselves up. That day was probably the most frustrating experience which my teammates and I ever had to go through. It was very tough. Thankfully, times have dramatically changed and we are receiving much higher levels of financial support and far better treatment when it comes to training and playing in better facilities. The status of Ladies Football is rising constantly and it’s becoming a much more popular sport, hopefully this progress will continue for years to come and the young girls playing football will be treated as they should be.

Q: You’re renowned as a pacey forward with a keen eye for a score. What do you consider as the biggest strengths of your game?

A: Yes, I suppose pace has probably been my biggest strength throughout my career. It’s really important on a team to have a mix of players and I have been fortunate with my club and with Waterford to play as part of quite well-balanced teams with players filling different roles and serving different purposes. I’d like to think that I’ve also developed a strong voice on the field. I think communication on the field is vital and I suppose with age I’ve become far more vocal. I’ve trained under a lot of coaches and learned a lot along the way and I try to relay as much of that on the field as I can. There are times I think the girls around me would wish that I’d zip it but it’s all with the view of helping out and trying to get the best out of everyone.

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

A: I’m a primary school teacher in Clonmel. Teaching is probably the profession which is most suited to playing football or any sport. The hours definitely allow me to give my all to training as I don’t have to rush from work to training in the evenings. However, the work-load for teaching can at times be overwhelming but I try my best to stay in school after hours to get stuff done and try not to bring anything home. I have a good work-life balance and it’s great after being in a busy classroom all day to get out on the field, that’s definitely the case at the moment too. With Covid-19, there are a lot of restrictions in schools and it can be quite stressful but having training in the evenings is offering a great release and it feels really great to get out in the fresh air.

Q: You’ve had the proud experience of winning a TG4 All-Ireland Final with Waterford at Croke Park? How big an honour was that for you and the team? 

On the ball during the 2015 TG4 All-Ireland Intermediate Final. 

A: Yes, that was a major high point for me. We really saw an opportunity in 2015 but we knew it would take a great effort and a real high level of commitment from the whole panel and management. We trained so hard and left no stone un-turned in our attempt to win. I remember in the two weeks prior to the final there was a real confidence in the camp. We had put in a lot of hard training sessions and made a lot of sacrifices and thankfully it was all culminating at the right time. I can distinctly remember reaching Croke Park on the bus the morning of the final against Kildare and I knew stepping off the bus we were going to win. There was such a cool and calm atmosphere in the dressing room. People were feeling great, there wasn’t the usual nerves that come with a final, we were just so sure of our preparation. What made that day all the more special was being there with my sisters. Linda was the captain that day and I was so proud to see her lift the cup. She was very emotional receiving the cup but I think it was really relief which she was feeling, relief that all our hard work over the years had finally paid off because we spent many years down in Intermediate so it was great to know we were finally progressing. Also once again I was so happy my family could be there and they were first people we wanted to meet once the final whistle blew. It meant just as much to them as it did to us.

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

A: I suppose my aspirations have changed as I’ve gotten older and progressed through the different divisions in the Lidl National League and having won the Intermediate Championship. Winning a Senior All Ireland and a Division 1 title is the current goal with county and with club I’d give anything to win the Munster Championship. I suppose the club Munster championship is the one which has eluded me and our club since I started playing so that’s the biggest aspiration for me. Hopefully at some stage this year the Munster championship will be played as we can get another chance to contest it. A hope that I’ve always had since I started playing is that I’ll be able to play for as long as I want to and that nothing will cut my time short. I’ve been lucky with regard to injury and I’ve never missed a game due to injury, which I hope will continue.

Q: Have you played other sports?

A: I’ve attempted a few – in particular basketball and badminton. I didn’t last long though as my football commitments were often a bit much and I wasn’t willing to leave football suffer. I love watching and following sport and I’ll be hooked by any sport on the TV. As I’ve gotten older, recovery has slowed down and it takes longer to get the body fit and prepared for the big games so at the moment just playing football is enough for me. My Mam is a keen tennis player so maybe I’ll give that a go in a few years, although I know my Mam would wipe the court with me!

Q: Do you have a favourite photograph from your career? Why does this photo mean so much to you? 

This is definitely my favourite photo. There is a very short frame of time after winning where you feel just pure joy. It might only last for a minute or two. I think this photo with Linda and Mairéad captured that joy and euphoric feeling which we experienced after winning the Intermediate All Ireland. There are times when you wish you could experience that feeling again but it just can’t be manufactured. This photo brings me close to it though and it brings back great memories.

Q: You play your club football with Ballymacarbry, recently crowned Waterford champions for a 39th successive year. How have you found that experience and what is it about club football that’s so special?

A: Yes, the club has been very successful and has created a record which I think is unparalleled. Each year, we as a team set out to win the championship but we don’t worry about anything that has gone before us. That record is amazing but it doesn’t mean anything when step out onto the field to start a new year. There are girls on our team who this year won their 20th title but there are also a number of young girls who just won their first. However, both of those players valued this county title the most above all others they may have. We’ve been pushed to our limits over the years and we have won some finals by the skin of our teeth. We value each title so much because we know it could be the last one and I think that’s what drives us on. Everyone wants to win games and championships and if they say otherwise they’re only kidding themselves. There are loads of other sports and exercises someone could do if they didn’t want to win but that is why I, like many others, choose football. The history which surrounds my club is amazing and it always makes me proud to hear but it is history and all that the current team is worried about is what’s up next for us. We have been trying to win the Munster A final since I started playing and it still eludes us, we have come close and we have had some heart-breaking losses so we’re definitely used to that losing feeling too. Ballymacarbry LGFC is a very special club which produces confident, skilful, driven and ambitious players and I’m sure this will continue into the future. A player’s career starts and ends with the club and I think that most players like me value their club experience far above anything else. I’ve been very lucky to play with Ballymacarbry.

Q: You’re facing down an opposition defender. How do you rate your chances of getting inside and having a shot at goal?

A: I have found myself in this position thousands of times and every time I try to back myself. I would rate my chances of pulling off a shot high enough but every chance is different. It’s clear from the first ball what kind of player you’re marking so I try my best to judge the situation as every player does. I’ve definitely become more confident in my abilities over the years and I’ve learned to try back myself first and if it’s not happening I can then turn to those around me. I’ve had to learn the hard way a lot of the time when it comes to finishing and scoring though and I’ve unfortunately been my own worst enemy at times, missing more one on ones than I’d care to remember. Thankfully I think I’ve developed – my managers might not always agree!

Q: What’s your career highlight?

A: Winning the Intermediate Championship is the obvious one but I think winning the Lidl National League Division 2 League Final against Kerry in 2019 is probably one that stands out also. Waterford were going through a few changes. We had difficulty at the beginning of the year in securing a manager and we had lost out on a lot of pre-season. There were a few changes happening with players retiring and others deciding to take time out from the panel so things were a bit unsure. Our manager had a difficult task in getting us ready in the short time period and we had a very small panel. We worked hard and committed to the set-up. We were building our fitness and skill levels as the League progressed and it was coming together to help us peak for the final. Luckily it all went right for us on the day and we had a very comprehensive win that day. It was an all-round great performance by the team.

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

A: I’m very confident that we can make an impact this year. We’re under no illusions that this is a very different year and that there are still many obstacles ahead of us this with the rising cases at the moment but we’re preparing as well as we can and things are thankfully going great. Waterford have had a very successful rise over the last few years coming from Division 3 to Division 1 in the Lidl National League and winning the TG4 Intermediate championship in 2015, and holding our own in senior until now. We’re a young team with lots of new players who have no fear. They’re all talented players who are chomping at the bit trying to secure their place on the team. We have two difficult fixtures in Dublin and Donegal but having played both of them earlier this year in the League we have good knowledge and understanding of what we need to do to overcome them. Both of those League games were very close, losing out by a point to Donegal in the 66th minute and pushing Dublin right to the end and being on top for most of the game. We have nothing to lose but at the same time we’re preparing really well and really focusing on our game and our strengths. We’re really looking forward to the championship ahead!

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

A: We were a very competitive family, whether it was playing basketball at the gable end of the house or seeing who could hold their breath the longest, we competed for everything. I attribute a lot of that my sisters and my success on the football field. Also my parents – who are pros at game analysis now – never left us away with anything. When we get in the door from a game, win or lose, we’re told exactly how we played and most of the time they’re right even if they are being a bit blunt. That honesty mixed with an extreme competitive streak is what made me try even harder the next time I trained. I would tell an up and coming player to be honest with themselves. If you want to make the starting 15 of any team, have you trained hard enough? Have you worked at every training session to improve a weak area of your game? Have you done everything outside of training to make you the best player you can be like eating healthy and doing your gym work? So I would just encourage them to be honest with themselves and try to objectively look at themselves and evaluate if they are doing their best and if not what can they do to improve? And everyone has weak points in their game – but admitting it and working to change that is what makes you a great player.

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

A: Being from Ballymacarbry there is one man who I have to mention and credit as having given me the best advice and that is Michael Ryan. He is a stalwart of the LGFA and managed numerous Waterford and Ballymacarbry teams, who were some of the most successful teams of the 90s. I am lucky enough to have had Michael as a coach and manager at different stages in my career. He really is one of the most inspirational speakers when it comes to preparing for a game. The best advice or maybe inspirational quote which Michael has shared with us all and which has always stuck with me, not only in football but in all aspects of my life is ‘If it is to be it’s up to me’. It always makes me think what I could do in a situation to make it better, whether that is on the field, in my classroom at school or anywhere else. One other nugget from Michael which I will never forget also is ‘Go around the keeper’. Unfortunately I have heard that phrase far too often over the years but I think it’s finally starting to sink in – 10 years later!!

Q: What hobbies do you enjoy?

A: I spend most of my spare time on our family farm. I help my Dad and brother out most days. I think it’s a really enjoyable way of life and over lockdown as a family we were really glad to have the farm and to be able to be outside especially when the weather was good. Unfortunately farming doesn’t halt for any weather warning but you have to take the good days with the bad. I think I get a lot of my gym and fitness training done on the farm so in one way it’s contributed to my footballing career!

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: Top of the list are Tia Claire Toomey and Matt Fraser – the two top Crossfit athletes in the world. I enjoy following some of the Crossfit athletes, they are amazing competitors. They train so hard and do absolutely everything they can to give themselves the best chance of winning. They’re also both very down to earth and just love their sport. Next has to be Rodger Federer and Serena Williams. It would be very interesting to hear some of the stories from their careers, particularly about the lows and what they had to do to get back to the top again. They have been the dominant forces in tennis for the last decade or more and I’d love to hear about what drives them after winning as much as they have. Finally I’d ask the comedian Michael McIntyre just to liven things up!!
And no way would I cook, we’d order a Chinese, I’d be far too busy tidying and hiding the mess around the house!

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

A: I don’t think I could focus on just one person. There have been many people who I’ve admired over the years. I’ve always admired people who are at the top of their respective sports (which are easy people to admire) but all the same they are people who have worked really hard to get there. My family would have a keen interest in a range of sports so we were exposed to a lot growing up. During the Olympics it was Michael Phelps, or when Wimbledon was on it was Rodger Federer. There are always a few who you’ll think of such as Katie Taylor because she has done so much for all women’s sport, not just boxing, and Sonia O’Sullivan, who put Ireland on the International map. I love watching sport and I admire all those athletes who are training and making sacrifices to be the best they can!

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