From DCU to Down Under: The team-mates, house-mates and friends dreaming of AFLW glory

Updated Apr 9th 2021, 8:07 PM

THE RULE WAS no football chat in the house for the week. Well, for the rest of the week, after the usual Sunday night post-mortem of their respective inter-county league matches.

The house was home to some of the best up-and-coming ladies football stars in the country at the time, all having crossed paths in Dublin City University [DCU].

There was Sarah Rowe from Mayo, Aishling Sheridan of Cavan, Tipperary’s Aishling Moloney, and Muireann Atkinson and Caoimhe O’Sullivan, hailing from Monaghan and Kerry respectively.

Rowe and Sheridan are now flying the flag in Australia, one win away from reaching the 2021 AFLW Grand final with Collingwood this weekend.

They’re house-mates and team-mates on the other side of the world now, their colourful friendship beginning in Glasnevin in 2015 and taking on a life of its own ever since. Rowe studied PE and Biology Teaching, while it was Athletic Therapy and Training for Sheridan, but it was the ladies football team, and shared accommodation in the renowned House 15, or GAA house, which first brought them together.

Soon after, Moloney came on the scene. “The two girls were older than us, myself and Muireann Atkinson, so they actually did take us under their wing,” the Tipp star recalls.

“It’s amazing looking back now, and seeing them doing so well over in Australia. It’s really nice to see that. We’re obviously in different parts of the world now. I’m still in college and they’re gone off living life, but it was an experience I must say.”

An experience doesn’t even scratch the surface.

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The memories come flooding back from on and off the field, the most treasured ones coming in the house in Santry they moved into for Rowe and Sheridan’s final year in 2017/18, the year they won the biggest prize in third-level ladies football together, the O’Connor Cup.

Naturally, it became the base for team bonding activities and other general mischief.

Moloney can’t help but laugh as she remembers the late-night trips to Tesco, and the hunt for rice cakes. “You could hear the car before you saw it coming with the noise of the tunes absolutely blaring inside,” she grins.

The music took over, and there was no loud football chat.

“We had a rule in the house that when you came home on Sundays, you could talk about your league game but then that was it, football was done for the rest of the week. It was actually mad, although we were so involved in football, we actually never really spoke about it.

“It was a collective thing amongst us; we love football, we enjoyed it, but we just enjoyed different things we were doing, going to the beach or doing some activity every night. You need a break from football when you’re not training. It’s such a big part of your life and you need that extra outlet to just sit back, relax and not be thinking about it.

“We actually kind of did get that balance right between the group of us. I suppose we went out of our way to make it right, by just banning talk of football.”

When it was time for training and matches, football completely took over, though.

DCU days

Pat Ring experienced that first hand, the well-travelled coach a member of the 2018 O’Connor Cup-winning management team along with Peter Clarke, Angie McNally, Alan ‘Nipper’ McNally and Leona Byrne.

Ring and Clarke are a well-known double act in the game, enjoying success with many teams. Having previously guided DCU to glory around the turn of the decade, they were back in familiar territory after a triumphant stint with cross-city rivals UCD.

Rowe on the ball for Mayo in 2012.

Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

This was a completely new group to work with in their first year back, though they had crossed paths with a few individuals before; a younger Rowe, for one, from when they managed Mayo together in 2013 and 2014.

“We got to know them very quickly,” he nods, reflecting on a settled team containing a big group of final-years students. “A real bonus if you’re going to have a go off a championship.”

The team, Ring says, was a very professional one, and Rowe and Sheridan epitomised that.

“They were top class to work with. The one thing that stood out for me was their attitude to their football. It was as if they were operating on a professional level even back then.

“They were thinking, they came prepared, they were on time, out on the pitch early, never missed training, always had the proper gear… had a bit of a craic, obviously we all had a craic, but once we started, they were fully into it.

“I always remember their attitude to training was absolutely unbelievable. It was as if you were training professional sportspeople. They were just so professional in how they went about their business, and that was a big eye-opener for me personally, their overall attitude.”

That was the same for Moloney, their professionalism, attitude and appetite for training certainly rubbing off on her, and others, through their time at DCU.

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“They would have always had a professional manner towards sport in general,” she nods.

“The two of them, I would have been that bit younger than them and they probably would have influenced me on different aspects that they might have taken into consideration in their daily routine.

“They’ve always been very professional in their outlook on sport. To see them doing so well over there, it isn’t a surprise really with the way that they have been dealing with themselves the last four or five years.”

As is evident in Australia, Rowe and Sheridan have a real telepathic bond on the pitch, both linking up time and time again, finding each other in the right place at the right time with ease.

That’s something that was forged in DCU, and one that really came to the fore in that double-winning season of 2017/18 Division 1 league and championship glory, beating University of Limerick [UL] in both deciders.

“To be fair to Sarah and to Aishling, they were our main scoring threats up front,” Ring agrees.

“They were like goal machines for us, they were just getting goals all over the place.

“That year, we got in a couple of first years that were ‘the future stars’. They really made the younger girls feel so welcome as well and they were very good with them. They were very good in making sure that the younger girls were integrated into the squad, included in everything, and they were never threatened by them.”

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Everyone was welcomed into their home throughout the college year for team bonding and everything that went along with it, winning the O’Connor Cup together the standout memory of their friendship so far for Moloney.

“The year we won that, we all got really close. What happened with Peter and his daughter passing away, it had a massive effect on us as well because obviously we were so close to Peter.

“We were a very tight-knit group. It was a team environment, obviously, but us in particular — myself, Sarah, Aishling and Muireann — it was that bit more special, playing with your friends on the same team. It was like a group within a group, kind of.

“I think it always will track back to that day we won. It was just really nice. There’s actually a picture of us together, that’s probably the nicest moment that we have, and we always talk about it.”

“We did have a nice social life too at times, when we tried to fit it in,” she laughs. “I’m sure there’s plenty of stories to be told about that as well! But what brought us together was football, and football is what we’ll always refer back to and talk about.”

Life in Australia

Communication at the minute is kept to FaceTime and WhatsApp, with Rowe and Sheridan starring for Collingwood in the AFLW. This is Rowe’s third season with the Pies, Sheridan’s second, and their first in the preliminary finals together.

The duo have played a central part for the club this campaign in particular, and combined brilliantly in a thrilling comeback victory over North Melbourne last week.

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With history made at Vic Park, it certainly was an emotional one — as best seen in that viral post-match picture of Sheridan calling home — and a huge milestone along their AFLW journey so far.

It’s one that hasn’t been easy, or straightforward by any means or manner, between various different challenges and setbacks, but that’s all paid dividends over the past few weeks. And that’s clear to see Down Under.

“When Sarah came out to Australia, there were a lot of conversations around what she’d bring alongside the likes of Cora Staunton,” CrossCoders co-founder Jason Hill, agent to Sheridan, notes.

“When Aishling came through the CrossCoders camp, there were a few clubs that put their hat into the ring to get hold of her, but once Collingwood made the offer it was hard to ignore due to the long-standing friendship between the pair, and they haven’t looked back.

“There have been plenty of Irish duos across the league — McCarthy and Herron, Seoighe and Gilroy, Staunton and Bonner, the Kelly sisters, Tighe and Flood — but it’s hard to look past the depth of this relationship on and off the field.

“Speaking to them both, they provide so much support to each other and that’s shown on the pitch with the impressive improvement by Aishling in 2021 and the fact Sarah is willing to push her body through the pain to get back into the side to help them make finals this year.”

Sheridan has kicked a huge number of goals, while Rowe battled back to her best from a shoulder injury. Taking a closer look at their scintillating displays, and link-up on the pitch, Hill explains:

“The way they have developed their play has become more and more effective as the year has gone on and it’s become a bit of a trademark seeing Rowe burst out of the midfield to hit up Sheridan inside the forward 50 after both players getting free with their speed and then using their quick ball movement to give opportunities to score.

“While they’re both so young in their respective AFLW careers, they’ve quickly established themselves in a quality Pies side, which wouldn’t be the same without either of them.”

Their team-mate and house-mate in Melbourne now, Ruby Schleicher, echoed those sentiments in an interview with AFL Europe earlier this week.

“They bring a nice refreshing dynamic to the club,” she said. “Their on-field stuff, explosiveness and that is really evident. Off-field, none of us have family – we’re each other’s family so that’s really nice.”

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Having lived together last year too, Schleicher explained how they were “good emotional support” as she was on the comeback trail from injury, helping her back on her feet in several different aspects towards an All-Australian-winning season in 2021.

And just like family, there’s plenty of time for messing and arguments over dirty rooms, kitchens and what not else. “They produce plenty of laughs with the accents! They get a lot of the piss taken out of them which is perfect.”

Keeping a close eye

That’s something Moloney must miss, the craic in person. But she’s delighted they can stay in touch over the phone, and she can keep a close eye on their matches on TG4 every weekend.

“Obviously, we always love to see Irish doing well and it just makes you that bit more proud when you see them doing so well over there. It’s great. You can only be happy for the girls going over.

“Knowing them and living with them for that length of time and knowing who they are, and how humble and honest they are, how they go about their sport and everything in general, it’s just really nice to see them do so well over there.”

Ring, who glowingly hails the legacy and “solid foundations” Sheridan and Rowe left at DCU, also tunes in to bits and pieces of the action, with Lauren Magee and Niamh Kelly from that O’Connor Cup-winning DCU team also playing in the 2021 AFLW season.

“I’d watch it now some days,” the Corkman, having recently brought the curtain down on his glittering club coaching career at Dublin powerhouse Foxrock-Cabinteely, nods.

“It’s great to see the Irish girls doing so well. Obviously, I’d be looking out for Goldie as well. She’s been a bit unlucky again with injuries, but anyway. No, it’s great to see the Irish girls doing well. But I have to say the physicality over there seems to suit Sarah Rowe and Aishling. They have the physique for it.

“It’s a great opportunity for them, to be able to go over for a period of months. It’s huge experience for them and it’ll really stand to them when they come home in whatever aspect of life, whether it’s sport or in their careers, it will really stand to them.”

One step away from making history and reaching their first-ever Grand final, we’re guaranteed an Irish Premiership winner this year. Rowe and Sheridan come up against Tipperary’s Orla O’Dwyer and her Brisbane Lions in the early hours on Saturday [7.10am Irish time] while it’s Dublin v Clare in the other last-four battle as Melbourne — with Magee, Goldrick and Niamh McEvoy in their set-up — lock horns with Ailish Considine’s Adelaide Crows [5.10am, Irish time].

It’s a strange one for Moloney with three of her good friends in Rowe and Sheridan, and county-mate O’Dwyer going head-to-head, but that’s sport.

Rowe and Sheridan in action for Collingwood last year.

Source: AAP/PA Images

“It’s no different really to playing here, we’re going to come up against each other in the league. The girls will always be respectful to each other. On the other side of the world, they’re going to have a lot of respect for each other as well.

“It’s lovely to see Orla getting the reviews too. I definitely will keep a close eye on them. It’s getting to the exciting stages of the championship over there so I think we’ll all have our eyes peeled to the TVs.”

In a few weeks time, all going to plan, they’ll be back on these shores and getting stuck in to inter-county football, and Moloney laughs that they’ll get the shock of their lives coming from the beach to being restricted to 5km from home.

The tips, hints and “extra centimetres” they all bring home will be more than welcome to their respective inter-county set-ups, their experiences of a semi-professional lifestyle certainly beneficial on home soil.

AFLW clubs’ interest in Moloney herself is no secret at this stage, and it’s certainly something that appeals to her. The big question is could she be returning with them?

“It would be in the back of my head,” she concedes, but finishing college later this month and the return to football after her knee setback is top of the list of priorities now.

The friendship and bond with Rowe and Sheridan that will never be broken stays front and centre. It’s only fitting that the last word go to that.

“We have such memories together. It was just a special bond. We just always got on really well, there was no arguing, no one ever annoying each other or getting mad with each other — and if you did, it was spoken about.

“I just love that we just had a really connection with each other — in all aspects as well. We all know a lot about each other, families and that, we just got to know each other very well.

“We always talk about our weddings… when the wedding day comes, that will be the best craic! Reminiscing on all those good times we had in DCU and the craic that we had.

“You take it for granted. When you’re in college, everything’s going a million miles an hour and you don’t actually stop to appreciate what’s going on around you — and the people that you might have met in your life.

“It’s only afterwards, when you leave, obviously you don’t see them that much, but you appreciate the times that you have spent with them.”

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