WHEN Áine Tubridy was 12 years old, she missed out on playing in an Antrim Junior final and she went home in floods of tears.
Missing out on an opportunity to play in that game, when she was so young, had left her heartbroken. The memory highlights how Tubridy has been gripped by ambition since she was very young. Yet that ambition has stayed with her for the past 17 years of playing senior football for her club, and lining out with her county for 13 years.
The ambition has developed into wanting to play in Division Three and Division Two for Antrim, to play Intermediate level championship for her county, and she also dreams of winning a Senior Ulster title with her club, St Paul’s.
She says that her parents tell her that when she was young, everything was a competition.
“I don’t know why it is. Maybe because I am sporty it is just in my nature to be like that. I have been involved with St Paul’s since I was very young, and been winning since I was young, maybe that’s why.
“If you speak to any of the girls in St Paul’s they will tell you that we take a loss very bad. But it doesn’t happen very often.
“With Antrim I take defeat very hard. You couldn’t speak to me after we lose. I will be devastated if we get beat.”
It helps then that the club she plays for, St Paul’s, has been so successful. However, Tubridy didn’t start out as a St Paul’s player.
Tubridy started playing for her father’s club Lamh Dhearg but because there was no girls’ team she played with the boys.
She went to St Oliver Plunkett’s Primary School and the coach that came into the school to teach them some of the skills was from St Paul’s.
“The coach had got on to my parents and said that they should get me into a girls club. My Daddy got chatting to Donna (Coyle) one day and that’s how I got into St Paul’s. I think it broke his heart having to bring me to another club. But I think it was the right decision at the time.
“I was too young to feel weird about it. I didn’t feel like that was my club. It was probably just something I was doing on a Saturday. As I grew up all my memories are with St Paul’s. So that’s my club.
“I really enjoyed being around all girls at St Paul’s. When I was at Lamh Dhearg there was only one or two girls. At St Paul’s I have had friendships that I built up. I have been all round the country with St Paul’s and getting to stay with different families. Those memories will stay with me for a life time. I think the good memories I have had are all from football.
“When Lamh Dhearg started up there was some chat about whether I was going to go there. But it was never really a question for me. I was always going to stay with St Paul’s. That’s where it all started.”
While St Paul’s taught her how to play the game, Tubridy says that it really is her parents who deserve the credit for driving her to be the best.
“My father and my mummy have always really supported me. They have been at all my big games. If it wasn’t for them pushing me then I wouldn’t have stayed involved as long as I have.
“We were very successful at underage. I remember captaining an u-12 team and we were the talk of Belfast as we were the team to beat.
“Then we went on to win an All-Ireland at u-14. I just have so many winning memories. Thankfully I am not part of a team that has lots of losing memories.”
Tubridy did taste defeat the year before St Paul’s won their u-14 All-Ireland final.
She had been captain that year when they played in Breffni Park. The experience was important as it meant that they would be better the following year when they won.
“To captain such a strong side and play alongside girls in an All-Ireland final that you grew up with was incredible.”
Tubridy played wing half-back on those u-12 and u-14 teams.
“The coach might not have thought I was a leader but I was very vocal. I would have spoke to different girls on the field. But I think at underage level there are plenty of leaders on the team. I hope I was a leader.
“I found that we had a lot of talent up front. I think I was just a player who got the ball and tried to get it into the forward line.”
Tubridy said that she wanted to be a good leader, but she was perhaps getting inspiration from those around her. She says that in St Paul’s there are a number of players who have had notable careers who have inspired those around them.
Players such as Aisling O’Reilly and Anto Finnegan have represented the club at the highest level.
“There are a lot of experienced players in our club who would cheer us on. Mairead Cooper for example. I would have looked up to players like that when I was playing alongside them.”
Brian Coyle and Donna Coyle have been Tubridy’s coaches since she was underage.
“’Coyler’ (Brian) has been an inspiration to me. He has been my coach since I started St Paul’s. Donna has helped him out right through.
“They mean the world to me and I wouldn’t be in the position I am in now without them. I probably wouldn’t be playing. They have taught me a lot. I think a lot of girls would agree with that. They would see him as a father figure.”
Brian Coyle is regarded as a old-school in his approach to management. Tubridy points to his insistence on selecting his own captain every year, rather than asking the players for suggestions.
“Some players coming in might think that there should be a negotiation.
“He has very much got a direct style. He can put his arm round you and advice, but he likes to do things his way.
“I am sure there have been times when people have watched us barking at each other in a match situation, but we’ve never had any arguments.”
Tubridy said that the best advice he has given her is to give your all but also know that there is more to give. Tubridy certainly plays the game that way.
“He says you can never stop to the final whistle, and always to push on and never settle for how you are going.”
Tubridy joined the St Paul’s senior team when she was 12 years old.
We know that girls tend to play senior football a lot younger than boys do, but 12 still seems very young.
“I know, even saying it sounds weird. I look at u-12s now at the club, and I think how did I go play senior.
“My mum was freaking out when I said that I was going to play senior. I remember her watching games thinking that I was going to get hurt. But I feel that it made me into the player that I am today. I am not scared of things on the pitch and I approach things head on.”
Tubridy recalls that it was her and team-mate Kirsty McGuinness who started seniors at the same time.
“We were heart-scared going to that first training. I feel that has made us the players that we are today.
“We had just finished an u-12 session and then ‘Coyler’ said, ‘right girls, we are going to bring you over to the senior and see how you get on’. I just remember the look on our faces thinking is he serious.
“We were scared because the girls on the senior team were the girls we looked up to and we felt so young to be breaking in. We might have been scared to about them tackling us because they are obviously physically stronger than us.
“But once we were in there we were fine.”
Tubridy remember that first session, and working on the kick-passing drill with the senior team.
“I was paired up with Sonia Toner, who played full-forward. I just remember her kick and she nearly put the ball through me each time she kicked it.
“It was at the start of the session and I remember thinking, ‘if this is how the session is going to go I don’t know how long I am going to last’. But that’s all I can recall from the session.”
For those of us who only know men’s football, considering putting an u-12 player into a senior team is a non-starter. For one, it isn’t allowed but even if it was, u-12 players aren’t physically strong enough, or mature enough to play with the men.
That’s not the case in the women’s game.
Tubridy’s partner is Declan Lynch, the Antrim footballer, and he gave her perspective on the men’s game.
“I said to Declan about it and he said, ‘Aine, u-12 footballers playing on the seniors just wouldn’t happen’. I think because men are physically bigger. With men’s and contact being allowed there has to be protections. Women’s football is supposed to be non contact but it has a bit. But I think nowadays, u-12 is not allowed so it wouldn’t happen now. I think that it brought me on a lot and it is something that I am grateful for.
“But that was us with the seniors from that point on.”
There are other aspects of having an u-12 playing senior that could cause problems. Tubridy said that her manager Brian Coyle understood that the situation had to be managed.
“Things like bad language and that sort of thing, you obviously wouldn’t get that at u-12, so Brian was quick to stop any of that sort of thing happening.”
Yet for Tubridy to be able to step into that environment and embrace it shows that she had the maturity of character as well as the ability to deal with it.
Tubridy was a strong-willed individual at an early age and football was always the priority. having a supportive family in the background certainly helped.
“My daddy is the sort to just let me go for it. In terms of exams, if I had said, ‘I have training tonight and exams tomorrow’, my Daddy would have said let her go to her session. But my mummy would have said ‘get upstairs and study.’
“My mummy, to be honest, doesn’t understand the whole thing. My mummy was just a bit scared because I was so young. I am sure because I was playing with older girls frightened her as well. But because she had so much trust in ‘Coyler’, that she respected his decision and what he was doing.”
The key to Tubridy’s story in the early years was Brian Coyle’s management, and his management of his players. Tubridy said that the coach was methodical in his approach. He brought players into the senior team when he thought they were ready, and not before time, so that the senior team would gradually get stronger. Some players were ready earlier than others, but if they were good enough they would get in at some point.
The first year that Tubridy came on to the senior team, the club reached the junior and senior finals.
“I was due to play for the juniors but once you play a senior game you can no longer play for the juniors. I came on for the St Paul’s seniors in the semi-final.
“That ruled me out for the senior reserve (juniors) final in Casement Park. I remember being heartbroken. I would have got more game time for the senior reserve final.
“I remember thinking it was brilliant getting on for the seniors in a championship game. Then I came off the pitch and some of the senior reserves said that I couldn’t play for them now in the final. I was so naive that I didn’t have a clue. I just thought, the more football I get the better. I remember being devastated. I went home and cried my eyes out. My mum phoned ‘Coyler’ and asked why I was crying. ‘Coyler’ had to explain to her.
“At that time you don’t realise how important it was, I just wanted to play as much football as I could.”
That incident shows how much Tubridy cared about playing for St Paul’s and for winning.
It took her two years to properly break into the senior team after being brought to training for the first time by her coach Coyle.
Getting a start within two years was very good considering that St Paul’s were a strong team at the time. They won the Ulster Championship in 2011 which was the year when Tubridy established herself.
“It was mad (trying to get that place). Some people don’t get that feeling in the clubs. They go to training, and if they don’t go they don’t feel it matters. It is not like that in St Paul’s. You are always fighting for places, or sometimes ‘Coyler’ will change things.
“He will say he will wake up in the middle of the night and change his mind about where he is going to play someone. He might decide to play them out of position.
“We have also had players transfer to us and right away you are thinking I hope she is not a midfielder or a half-back, and you are freaking out that someone will come in and take your position. We have such big numbers with the two teams that any time anyone can show up and play better in training and then get thrown in.
“Our youth is also stepping up as well. I know that I was one of those girls who got thrown in, so I know it can happen. We have some good u-16s and minors who look so natural when they come in.”
Tubridy has not lost her position but she has experienced the feeling of being subbed off for a younger player.
“It is a complete kick in the teeth. Sometimes you have to accept it. You have to know that everything is best for the team.
“I have been taken off in games and we have won. When I talk about it afterwards with ‘Coyler’, I couldn’t really say his decision was wrong because we won.
“Players have to accept that if they lose their place it could be the best for the team. That is easy for me to say because I have not lost my position, but for someone who it has happened to, they would find it harder.”
So why has Tubridy not lost her place? What is it about her attitude that makes her so important. It might be her attitude to preparations.
“I think you have to train as hard as you can in training. You have to bring match-intensity to a training session. You need to be putting that in in training. You have to constantly try your best. You can’t go through the motions. That’s what I do every training session.
“You aren’t going to training for a chat. If you want a chat do it during the water breaks. People say to me Áine, you have to enjoy it. I do, but I take it seriously as well.
“In St Paul’s we do the same warm-up as we would do for a match. We think consistency is best. I am sure some of the girls are like, ‘would she wise up and get off my back’, but I think because we do win and we get results the girls don’t argue.”
She won her first Senior Championship in 2011. They beat St Gall’s in the final that year.
“Every year we played St Gall’s in the final it has always been close, the same for Moneyglass.
“I remember ‘Coyler’ going mad at half time because he expected more from us. I think we did pull away towards the end but I don’t think it was by much.
“I remember coming on for the last 15- 20 minutes.
“I remember going back to the club house and watching all the celebrations of both teams. It was amazing. It was incredible.
“I remember my family being there. I remember going back to school and all my teachers talking about it.”
Tubridy has two sisters, neither of whom play football. Her younger sister did for a period, but stopped.
“She was playing in a match and my daddy was giving out at the sideline. He gives out a lot and I’m sure loads of people have heard him. He was giving out a lot this day and she just took the gloves off and walked off. She didn’t play after that.”
Does Tubridy wish that her sisters all played?
“I do a bit. I sometimes slag them off and tell them that we could have been like the McAnespie sisters in Monaghan or the Mackins from Armagh. My older sister is scared of a ball. But it would have been nice to play with them.”
Tubridy says that she has got used to her father’s advice from the sideline.
“Any time that he gives me advice I take it on board because I respect what he is saying.”
St Paul’s won seven Senior Championships in-a-row.
During those years they were challenging for Ulster titles. However they ran into teams like Donaghmoyne, and Termon.
“We were always playing away games. But one year we got a home draw against Castlewellan and we beat them. Then we got Emyvale in the final and got beat.
“It was the same pattern getting drawn against teams who were successful. Termon, Donaghmoyne and Emyvale were dominant teams.”
Tubridy suggested that perhaps the reputations of those teams cast long shadows.
“We were playing those teams and we would be talking about the players like the Courtneys, players that I was watching on TV, and getting All-Stars. I looked at it as an experience. If we wanted to get better we had to be playing those sort of teams.
“I think it helped us. The likes of myself and Kirsty (McGuinness) and Mairead Cooper who are still there, we learnt from those experiences. We are not in awe of them any more.
“We beat Termon at minor level with the majority of the players we have now. So we don’t have the fear of those teams.”
During the years of Antrim successes, Tubridy felt that she was learning as each year passed. She said that in terms of defensive play, she tweaked her game year on year.
However, in the early years she developed a habit that didn’t help her.
“For example if I was told to mark someone, I would focus on that player rather than focusing on my own game.
“Say I was sent out to mark Cora Courtney I would focus too much on her, and what she is going to do and what I need to do to stop her. Now I just focus on my game.”
But now, at the age of 27, with 15 years of playing senior football, reading her marker is second nature.
“I’ve learned so much about the players I play against down through the years. I learn lots of different little things about the way they play.
“But I have found that it affects my game if I think too much about the player I am playing against. I think when you focus on yourself that’s half the battle.”
This was a lesson that she learnt over time, and she now advises players to not worry about who they are marking until the ball is thrown in because they will be able to work out their marker within five minutes of a game starting.
It took seven years before Tubridy experienced her first championship defeat in Antrim as a club player.
They got beat by St Gall’s in the championship.
“We were getting close to winning an Ulster final. That’s what we wanted. With the constant winning in Antrim, we knew it was going to happen. Then after that defeat to St Gall’s that knocked us back.”
The reason for the defeat perhaps came down to the players’ own ambition. While their managers told them to focus on Antrim, the team had won that competition so many times they felt that they were due a win in the province.
“I remember playing wing half-back and I remember going for a point and then it dropped back into the net. Right away I knew we were going to win this game. But then someone got injured, then one of our girls got a yellow card, then came back out and got a straight red.
“The game went from everything going well to everything going downhill. We were thinking about the next stage before we got that game out of the way.
“That is something that I have learnt.”
It is the old mantra ‘one game at a time’, a cliche, but an important lesson that players are still learning.
“I don’t underestimate any teams now. The girls laugh at me now, but if we have got a game against, say, a team that has come up from intermediate I will take the game seriously.”
The year after losing to St Gall’s in the Antrim championship, the St Paul’s girls had a changed attitude. They felt that they had to make a point. They got the opportunity to prove themselves in the semi-final when they were drawn to play St Gall’s. It was also a chance for their manager to make a point.
“I don’t think ‘Coyler’ has ever gotten over losing to St Gall’s.
“We had worked on our fitness that year. I think that one thing that was always said was that St Gall’s knew they were fitter than us, we were just that bit more skilful. I think ‘Coyler’ ran the legs off us that year. There was a lot of preparation put in for the Antrim Championship.”
They beat St Gall’s in the semi-final and Moneyglass in the final.
“I remember feeling great relief after beating St Gall’s in the semi-final.
“Beating Moneyglass was like winning our first championship all over again, just the buzz after winning.”
In Ulster they lost to Termon, and what followed was a cycle of years where they won Antrim but couldn’t get past the Donegal or Monaghan champions.
After five years the county decided that the Antrim representative should play in the Intermediate tier.
“The issue was that Antrim was playing county football in Division Four, but trying to compete at senior level at club against club teams from counties who were playing in Division One. It didn’t make any sense.”
For someone as competitive as Tubridy, the decision could have been regarded as the wrong one.
“’Coyler’ rang me about it and I supported it. I think some girls were disheartened by it. I think they felt that ‘Coyler’ didn’t think they could win. I put it to the girls, that I did believe there was an Ulster senior in St Paul’s but I didn’t feel that the time was right. I felt that we needed something to build on.
“It was tough to take, competing in senior Antrim and then dropping down to Intermediate.”
Tubridy said that the St Paul’s team noticed that the standard of play at Intermediate level was not a great step down.
“I don’t think that the teams in Intermediate are far away from senior. Senior is that step up. There is more strength and conditioning going on.”
In 2019 they proved themselves to be the finest Intermediate team in Ulster when they won the provincial title. Tubridy captained the team to the title, as they beat St Gall’s in the Antrim final, then Gowna and Kilcoo on the way to the Ulster title, before beating Fermanagh side Kinawley in the decider.
“After we won the Intermediate we knew that there was more to come from us.”
The St Paul’s girls beat St Nathy’s of Sligo in the All-Ireland semi-final, but were defeated by Niamh Ciaran of Offaly.
“I still find it very hard to talk about that. Every time I watch the game, I think we threw the game away. We were seven points up with 10 minutes to go.
“But we will learn from it. We need to learn how to play when we have got a player sin-binned. We have even been doing it in training, where we will play training games with a player down.
“I think we also needed a better kick-out strategy. We only had one strategy, and when they worked it out we had no other option. That was what beat us in the last couple of minutes. But we have made a point to learn from that.”
The ambition after 2019 was for St Paul’s to push on. They were again a senior club, but with no senior opposition in Antrim, they played intermediate sides in order to qualify for Ulster.
There is a serious issue facing St Paul’s in that they can’t get good quality competition in their own county. Moneyglass wanted to stay at Intermediate level last year. If teams don’t move up to senior level, then St Paul’s won’t get enough preparation for the provincial series.
“That is worrying. That means it is another year when we don’t get any championship football (in Antrim). That’s what everyone plays for.
“Our girls are getting fed up not getting championship football. It is hard for us to go and get friendlies in other counties, particularly if they are in the middle of their championship.”
In 2020 they got one game in Ulster, against Armagh Harps in the provincial series before the competition stopped due to the Covid-19 lockdown.
They beat Armagh Harps and then were drawn against Donaghmoyne.
“This was the first year that our girls were looking forward to playing Donaghmoyne. Sometimes when we were drawn out against them some girls were disappointed as it meant the year was ending. But last year it felt completely different. We were looking forward to it. It was our first time playing Donaghmoyne at home. A lot of effort was put in.”
But then it all came crashing down, and Ulster put the competition on hold. Now Tubridy and St Paul’s are back training and preparing for the return of championship football later in the year.
Tubridy’s experience of playing for Antrim has been mixed as well. She joined the county in 2010, when she was 16.
“I think I was very young to be playing county, but my parents were delighted. I’d played at underage for Antrim for years.
“But it was a lot different. The standard of the training was more intense, and everyone there was at a very good standard.”
The county had won the All-Ireland Junior title in 2009, but that year in 2010 was disjointed.
“I remember going in that year, and some of the girls had left the panel after winning the All-Ireland. I can’t remember there being a buzz.
“I can remember coming in midway during the season, and going to matches.
“But in some cases matches were cancelled because we couldn’t field. I can’t remember my first experience being a positive one.”
Better years were to come, in 2012 when they won the All-Ireland title under Brian Coyle.
“There was a change. I loved playing for Antrim, I am very proud to play for them. I was in school playing in that All-Ireland final at Croke Park. It was amazing even just to be able to go in and use the changing rooms at Croke Park, and having the Garda escort. It was unbelievable. It was a memory that will stay with me.”
The difference in 2012 for Tubridy was that there was a great bond between the team.
“Everybody got on together. There was a great buzz about the team that year. Everyone was willing to fight for each other. That paid off for us.”
Yet there is a cycle that exists in Antrim where the ladies can’t seem to maintain or build on good years. The year after the 2012 All-Ireland win, there was a drop off in 2013.
“Most teams that win Junior teams develop, but we didn’t. That’s quite sad when you think about it. Girls just left because they wanted to take a year out. Sometimes people leave because they didn’t get enough game time, or they didn’t get on with the manager, or maybe they couldn’t commit.”
2017 was another big year for Antrim ladies as they reached the All-Ireland final. Tubridy played in every game, bar one, the All-Ireland final. She was dropped because she went on holiday to celebrate graduating the week before the final. She missed the final that Antrim lost.
“I came on late in the game. They had pulled away from us. That game sticks out because I didn’t start.”
It was hard for her to take, but it was also tough to watch as more players dropped away in 2018, repeating the cycle that had happened in 2010 and 2013.
For Tubridy, the reason why they haven’t developed could be due to the level that they are playing at in the league.
“If we are playing in Division Four then we are not going to develop as much as we would if we were playing Division Three or Division Two. That is how you push on as a county.”
Things are hopefully changing. Dee McConville brought some younger girls in last year to change things up, though he has stepped away recently.
“We are going through a generation change with Antrim. Hopefully it will make a difference. I think that’s what we need.”
The goal now for Antrim is to get out of Division Four and to play at Intermediate level.
“I hope I can be part of it. I think attitudes have been changing Our youth at underage level in Antrim is competing at Division One, if we can get some of them in then that could get us over the line.”
She may be 27, but the heart of the ambitious 12-year-old is still there, desperate to play.