WHO WOULD HAVE thought in 2001 when we started sponsoring and broadcasting ladies football that we’d end up with 20 great years? 

It’s been an absolutely amazing journey. Honestly, it’s very hard to put into words. 

We’re so thankful to the LGFA for giving TG4 the opportunity to sponsor and broadcast their sport. It’s been a great relationship.

A general view of the 2017 All-Ireland final crowd.

Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Fiche Bliain ag fás. 20 years of Peil na mBan on TG4, and Head of Sport Rónán Ó Coisdealbha is more than happy to take a trip down memory lane. It certainly doesn’t take long for the words to start flowing. 

The obvious place to start is ’01, the dawn of something new and exciting not long after the turn of the millennium.

The Ladies Gaelic Football Association [LGFA] was seeking out a new sponsor and more coverage, and TG4 was a station still in its formative years — having launched in late 1996 — looking to get involved in more projects that provided live broadcasts.

“I don’t think we were even celebrating our fifth birthday in August 2001 when we made the agreement with Helen O’Rourke and the LGFA that TG4 would sponsor and broadcast ladies football,” Ó Coisdealbha, who has been there from the get-go, recalls.

“We were a relatively young station finding our feet. We were kind of heading into the unknown, to be honest with you. We didn’t know what to expect.

“I was pleasantly surprised by the reaction to TG4 announcing that we were going to cover ladies football. It all happened so fast.”

A three-year deal was agreed initially, with TG4 broadcasting six games in the first season, a number which has since jumped to an average of 25 in a non-Covid year, of course, across various different ladies football competitions.

The 2001 TG4 championship launch.

Source: Sportsfile.

Memories come flooding back of the first championship launch that summer, then-Taoiseach Bertie Aherne taking time away from the Galway Races to kick things off at the city’s Radisson Hotel.

It all started with the trophies, Cora Staunton and a handful of other players, Bertie and a very small media presence. A far cry from where we find ourselves today. 

While there was no intermediate championship at the time, the All-Ireland senior and junior semi-finals and finals were shown on the station for the first time later that summer. And the top-tier showpiece is one that will never be forgotten.

There was drama at the death as Mayo conceded a gut-wrenching last-gasp free; Denise Horan’s kick-out to Staunton failing to cross the 20-metre line. Laois converted with the last kick of the game to kill Mayo’s three-in-a-row hopes, and Staunton was left “broken,” as she wrote in her autobiography Game Changer.

“Everyone in Mayo of a certain generation now knows that rule. For me those words are forever branded on to my brain.”

It’s certainly a moment branded onto Brian Tier’s brain, that final coming as the commentator’s first and he’s gearing up for his 20th behind the microphone tomorrow.

“It was very new back then, but it’s been kind of dramatic from the start,” he explains.

“Had Mayo won that year, they would have had a possible five-in-a-row. That first final was down to the wire, the dramatic free. That kind of set the standard really of drama-filled matches.

“The game has developed hugely. You could argue that maybe the skill-set at that time was at a certain level but now, it’s just streets ahead of that.” 

The Laois and Mayo teams parade before the 2001 final.

Source: INPHO

Development and growth are two words Galway native Ó Coisdealbha and Tyers, of Cork, use over and over while reflecting on the past 20 years. Both parties, TG4 and the LGFA, have grown significantly, and in tandem.

Everything is on the up. The standard of the game, profile, media coverage, attendances, general interest; the list goes on. “Every year you’re kind of pinching yourself going, ‘Wow, could it get any better?’ And every year it did,” Ó Coisdealbha nods.

And that perfect fit and great partnership with the broadcaster has gone a long way in achieving that.

“TG4 was on a journey, and we still are. And ladies football, we grew up together, the growth is there at every level. The growth in the number of games we’re showing, but also the growth of ladies football in general.

“We’re able to give them good coverage and for us, it’s great to be able to provide live coverage from the games. It’s a win-win situation for TG4 and the LGFA.

“When the extra nice side stuff happens like having over 56,000 people in Croke Park for the finals or getting record-breaking viewership figures on a senior final, all the hard work is worth it.”

Having taken a break from teaching corrections to map the journey, Tiers wholeheartedly agrees. “The collaboration has been successful and I think both parties have got a lot out of it. From my own point of view, it’s been fantastic. I’m privileged to have been there from the start.

“I really do enjoy the ladies football, even though it is getting to the stage now where it’s almost as competitive as what we’re seeing in the men’s, but it’s just been more free flowing over the years.

“It’s been more enjoyable and partly because of the fact that we had more access to the players, they’re not exactly hidden away by management teams and even managers, we have great access to them.

“Over the years, it just grows year on year. And obviously being a Cork man, the 11 All-Irelands was just an unbelievable ride for all Cork supporters. To get to know those players was fantastic.”

Éamonn Ryan and his Cork team after the 2014 triumph.

Source: Tommy Grealy/INPHO

The highlights have certainly been plentiful, and the good days many.

“I mean if you stand back from the games just for a second,” he continues, “In 2001, there was 20-21,000 which is a very, very healthy crowd. But last year with 56,000 people present, that just shows you how the game has grown and how the profile between TG4 and the likes of Lidl coming on board has really blossomed.

“It’s fantastic and very well deserved. Ladies football is in an extremely healthy place at the moment and for me, it’s been an absolute privilege to be involved and at the games. We’ve had some fantastic matches and teams over the years, and dominance.

“The beauty of the ladies’ is before we came along in TG4 you had Waterford, Monaghan, then you had Mayo, then you had Cork, now you have Dublin. Some people might prefer to see it going around a little bit more than that but at the same time, seeing a team being able to stick it out for six, seven, eight, 10 years, that’s a feat and something to be admired in itself.”

Ó Coisdealbha’s admiration aims at the growth in ladies football participation at grassroots level. While he grew up playing, there was no ladies football at all in his local club. Things are very different now, thankfully.

A father seeing things from another perspective, he certainly appreciates it.

“What brings me personal satisfaction is the fact that I see so many young girls now at club level all over the country who are playing. I have two daughters, they’re playing ladies football and they love it. That growth, I just love seeing it.

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“When we started covering ladies football, there were a huge amount of clubs around the country who hadn’t underage structures in place for young girls. But thankfully, that has changed.

“Most GAA clubs now are affiliated with ladies football, and have that structure and they’re giving young girls the opportunity. It’s extremely important. We live in an age where we need to get as many young girls playing sports, no matter what sport it is.”

That drives him on in his role as Head of Sport, with new initiatives and innovations added to their armour each and every year.

In the early days, it was the gradual expansion of live coverage and sponsorship of the All-Stars, leading to unforgettable trips and banquets.

Then, there was history made when a ladies football final became the first programme shown in HD on the station, while ref cam was another popular feature along with ventures on Facebook live and Youtube to expand its audience.

Head of Sport TG4 Rónán Ó Coisdealbha.

Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

This year, the highly-popular Friday Night Lights slots did just that as viewers cooped up in lockdown enjoyed rip-roaring contests they might not have seen otherwise.

“I know for a fact that we brought in people that wouldn’t normally watch ladies football,” Ó Coisdealbha notes, speaking about the extremely positive feedback they welcomed from across the board.

“In 2021, I would love to see more Friday night games if possible. Saturday and Sunday can be very cluttered in terms of trying to get venues and good broadcast spots and everything else. I think it’s an opportunity hopefully for the future that we’ll be able to look at more games on Friday nights.”

Through the pandemic, the fanwall was also a huge success, allowing family, friend and fans at home to engage and be part of the occasion. It returns tomorrow, thankfully, so there’ll be plenty of support and colour from all corners of Dublin, Cork, Meath and Westmeath.

Tiers points to that too, saying it’s a pity there’ll be no supporters but at least they can watch from home. While privileged to have been in the commentator’s seat for the past 19 finals, the Corkman will be extra grateful as he buckles in this weekend. 

One thing’s for sure, he, nor anyone else fortunate enough to be present at HQ, will take it for granted, with so many watching on from home in disappointment as this bizarre year limps on.

It will make for a drastic change from over 56,000 fans last year, but Tiers will do his utmost to deliver to those missing out.

“It is a privilege for us to be able to watch games. We really are the lucky ones. But TG4 in particular have done great things, streaming games and showing games live.

“For us to be able to enjoy this weekend and look forward to it, I think it is important to thank the people who have made this possible: I’m including the frontline staff and hospitals, but then the actual teams themselves, the management teams, the county boards, the LGFA and the GAA who made sure that the thing is run off safely for the players number one.

“To be here, a week before Christmas, is a fantastic achievement by all concerned. Even though there won’t be a crowd, I think it’s still fantastic that we have got to the end, that we have got to the All-Ireland final.

“We’re hearing on the news the way things are going a little off track again, so just to have it played, and played in the calendar year as well, it’s fantastic.”

A general view of the crowd figure at last year’s final.

Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

So yes, two mouth-watering finals is the perfect to round off 20 years of Peil na mBan on TG4, and it’s rather fitting that we have a Cork-Dublin All-Ireland senior decider giving their colourful rivalry and mutual respect for how much they’ve contributed to the game.

They’ve shared the last 15 titles; the Rebels winning 11 in 12 years between 2005 and 2016, Dublin breaking the chain with their first Brendan Martin lift in 2010, and then winning the last three-in-a-row. Between them, they’ve brought ladies football to a completely new level over the past decade or two.

It’s fascinating to listen to Tiers assess the current state of play, with many a kind word given to Éamonn Ryan and his all-conquering Cork side, and to the current Dublin crop who are “upping it even more,” through their preparation, strength and conditioning, and longevity.

“It really is, for me, an education to listen to that guy before a game,” he adds on their three-in-a-row winning boss Mick Bohan. “Very often managers don’t say a whole lot before the games, but that guy is fascinating to listen to, just steely determination.”

Tyers’ passion shines through as he talks about both games and where they’ll be won and lost, fancying Meath to make it third time lucky in the intermediate having listened to “great addition” on TG4 and Royals star, Vikki Wall, over the past few weeks, ahead of the Westmeath clash.

As for the senior decider, he feels it could go either way. The arch-rivals have contested six finals, five of those in the last seven years, he points out. Cork have won five and Dublin triumphed once — in 2018, sweet revenge for three narrow decider defeats in-a-row between 2014 and 2016, among other losses.

“As a neutral, this is the final you would have wanted,” he agrees. “The two teams know each other well, the two managers are top-class guys. I expect this to be an unbelievable battle, a really physical battle, scores at a premium.

“I think Cork are in a very good position, to be honest with you. With Dublin, it’s very, very difficult to be going seven years in-a-row and to be competitive a couple of years before that.

Dublin’s star midfielder Jennifer Dunne facing Cork last year.

Source: Brendan Moran/SPORTSFILE

“I think it’s going to be extremely tight. I don’t think there’s going to be any more than a point or two in it either way. I’d be hoping for a Cork win myself but I expect it to be a battle royale, as you might say.”

Ó Coisdealbha echoes his colleague’s sentiments, really looking forward to both finals and predicting a “cracker” in the senior decider which would come as a real treat after such a difficult year.

Having expected the worst, AKA no championship, back in March, it’s just a testament to everyone that we’re here, he stresses.

“I really think we’re going to see two great finals to showcase ladies football and round off what has been a strange and challenging year for everyone.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if one point separates these teams at the end of the game, or even if we had extra time or anything because there has to be a winner on the day. Who knows what’s going to happen on Sunday afternoon? It would be great if we had a penalty shootout to see what would happen.”

That would definitely put the icing on 2020, and TG4′s 20-year milestone.

“Anything can happen in this year, it’s not over yet,” Ó Coisdealbha concludes with a smile. Just like TG4′s ever-growing partnership with ladies football.

Subscribe to The42′s new member-led GAA Championship show with Marc Ó Sé and Shane Dowling. 

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