By Kieran Lynch
“SMILE,” photographer Brendan Monaghan said to Aimee Mackin during her photoshoot for this article, “it’s a happy story.”
“It’s a sad story for my mum and dad,” she replied.
The Shane O’Neill’s and Armagh ladies footballer recently announced that she is set to join her younger sister Blaithin ‘Down Under’ this winter, signing for Australian rules football side Melbourne, with the move set to come after the conclusion of the inter-county Gaelic football season.
The four-time All-Star had been linked with a move to join the Australian Football League Women’s (AFLW) for some time, but home has always been where the heart is, as she proved, turning down offers to relocate 10,000 miles away, year after year.
“I suppose family is a big thing for me,” she said.
“When you have a few nephews running about it’s hard to leave, and it will be hard to leave, but it’s an experience that I can’t really afford to give up. The season is short, but I’ll give it everything I can when I’m out there, and I’ll enjoy it.”
Last year, Blaithin swapped the size five for an oval ball, and finished an incredible first season by scoring a six-pointer in the Grand Final, as Melbourne won the AFLW Premiership title, with her mother Freda, brother Connaire, and sister Aimee cheering on from the stands.
Having witnessed Blaithin blaze a trail Down Under last year, Mackin, who turns 26 on Saturday, feels that now is the perfect time for her to try her hand at the sport.
“It definitely eased some of my concerns,” she said, of Blaithin’s success last year.
“When I came home from visiting Blaithin, I think I began to realise just how much I enjoyed it, and when the opportunity came up, I couldn’t say no again.
“I actually said that to Blaithin, that I wondered how she went and did it without knowing anything; she was just so open minded to what was around the corner.”
Blaithin didn’t just have a successful time in terms of winning medals, she found success in embedding herself into a new dressing room, and after hearing the stories, and seeing Melbourne for herself, when Mackin decided she wanted to take the challenge on, there was ever only one team she was going to sign for.
“I wouldn’t want to play against my sister in Gaelic football, so there’d be no point doing it out in Australia,” she said.
“When I was over visiting Blaithin last year, I got first-hand experience of the environment of the sport and what it’d be like, as well as the country itself. I got to meet the people that I’ll be working with when I go over, and they’re great people who will go out of their way for you, knowing that you have travelled so far.
“They have done a lot for Blaithin, and they did a lot for me, even though I was only over on holidays. It was a big factor in me making my decision, the fact that I got to see first-hand what the people are like.”
The dressing room culture within the club was a major reason in Mackin wanting to join Melbourne, as the attitude of confidence, positivity and self-belief creates a winning environment, which she believes many in Ireland could learn from.
“Culturally, there were so many things that Blaithin and I could take back to Armagh, in terms of how they go about their business,” she said.
“I was listening to media interviews over there and they’re so open, having the confidence to say things like, ‘yes we’re going to win,’ whereas, over here, we’re a bit reserved.
“We sort of always try to be the underdog over here, but over there, they are fully confident in their programmes and what they can do, and they’re happy to talk about it openly. I think that self-belief has a positive impact.
“Everything was about positivity, and even the way they talked to me made an impact of, ‘I want to get out here and play with these girls.’ It’s an environment that draws you in.
“The coach Mick Stinear flew over to Ireland to meet Blaithin last year, and the way he spoke, our whole family agreed that it was the right club and the right fit for us, and Blaithin made the best decision picking Melbourne.”
Although Mackin believes that she will have the right support network, culture, and environment in place to thrive, the next step is the small matter of learning the skills of an entirely new sport, but as she’s signing a professional contract, she will look to put the hours in, and get up to speed.
“I actually trained alongside Blaithin when she was doing her individual skill sessions, so I was able to get first-hand experience,” she said.
“The shape of the ball is a little bit hard to get used to, but I’ll get plenty of practice in over the next few months.
“We’ll probably be doing similar training to what we do with Armagh, but when I was over there, I was ringing home saying, ‘the lifestyle Blaithin has over here is unreal,’ because the rest of the day is to yourself when you’re professional, which allows you to do extra training on skills.
“I’ve heard a lot of other Irish girls talk about the lifestyle, but you don’t know what it’s going to be like until you actually see it.”
It may be unusual to witness Mackin as a developing player, as she has been one of the best Gaelic footballers in Ireland over the last number of years.
Indeed, the 2020 Player of the Year may in fact, still be improving at her native sport, as she showed in a storming performance in the Division Two league final, when she netted a hat trick of goals in the opening 10 minutes, as the Orchard County saw off Laois.
However, when she moves abroad, she will go from being one of the key players in one dressing room, to the ‘newbie’ in another, and whilst that may sound daunting to many, it’s something she can’t wait for.
“One of the most exciting aspects is that it’s a new challenge,” she said.
“It’s fresh, it’s new, you have so many people to learn fromf. Even Blaithin knows a lot more than me, so I can learn off her, and then when I get into that environment, I can learn so much off the other girls.
“I think it’s the most exciting part. Obviously, I’ve been playing Gaelic since I was young, so it’s second nature, but that’s why this is such a great challenge, and one I’m looking forward to.”
As for Armagh, their supporters need not fear, as the short AFLW season will allow for both Mackin sisters to balance Australian rules football with their inter-county commitments, as they don’t head Down Under until the championship is over, and with Armagh harbouring hopes of winning an All-Ireland title, Aimee is hoping that it’s later, not sooner, that she is jetting off for pastures new.
“It’s great that the opportunity is there to still play with Armagh,” she said.
“I’m 25, coming 26 now, and these are the most important years of my career, so I still want to represent Armagh, before I head out – and hopefully that’s in the latter stages of the year.”