In our latest edition of ‘The 5 Minute Read’ we speak to Cliona Smith – Player, Educator, Motivator! Initially it wasn’t easy persuading Cliona to open up about her career to date but we are so glad she did. In this piece (which will take considerably longer than 5 minutes to read) Cliona touches on her roots in the community, family, the Sea Side leagues, past glories, future goals, health, fitness, the LGFA and other topics all of which are important for members of the club to be aware of. It is especially important that parents of children both male and female children read this article and educate themselves on what commitment to sport can bring in the long term.
Cliona, tell us a bit about yourself…
I’m Cliona Smith from Mornington. I’m a teacher in one of the local Schools, Donacarney Boys School. My family have been in the Mornington area for hundreds of years. Since 1796 my dad reckons. St Colmcilles has been a constant in our lives. My Great grandfather played for the local Mornington team, My Grandfather Dessie Smith was a player and selector for what was known as the Stars of the Sea. My Grandparents Dessie and Peggy Smith gave the cilles one of their first pitches out on the coast road. When Stars of the sea amalgamated with Shallon (Beamore) and became known as St Colmcilles my dad was a player and treasurer. My 5 brothers have all played for the cilles and our Mam was our number 1 supporter travelling all over the country to cheer us on. Just last year my nieces joined the academy so hopefully the connection with the Cilles will remain for many many more years.
When did you get into sport and what other sports did you play?
I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t involved in sport, football (GAA and Soccer) and tennis are my favourites.
Sport has had a massive, positive affect of my life and brought many many happy memories as well as teaching me many lessons. Through playing sport I have met some of my best friends, friends that if it wasn’t for sport I probably never would have encountered. The great thing about a team, is you get a mix of ages, personalities and people from different areas. I would have missed out on many great friendships and fun times if I never joined the Cilles. I’ve played individual sport and winning is great in that but nothing I think will ever beat that feeling of winning a championship, a game or even a fun day blitz with your friends. It is not always easy, not always fun but I wouldn’t change it. We train 3 days a week on the pitch and 2 days in the gym, we don’t always agree and sometimes that can cause a bit of tension but one of the great things about this team is that we talk it out. We need to remember as much as we do put into it, it is a hobby. It’s important especially these days that we look after each other, make sure mentally that everyone is ok. Being involved with sport and with this club in particular has been a big help to me when recovering from injury, getting through exams and returning from a year abroad.
How long are you with St Colmcilles?
My club are St Colmcilles and I’ve been with them all of my life. I remember going as a 3 or 4 year old to Seafield to cheer my brothers on, just itching to get out and play myself. I was finally allowed to start playing for Mornington under 10s from the age of 6. 28 years ago I was the only girl for a year or so, Pat and Marian Whearty guided our Mornington team as we took on all the local teams in the legendary ‘Sea Side League’ tournament. The Sea Side League really was the highlight of the Summer. Tuesday nights and Thursdays I think for different age groups. You would play round robins and the semi-final in Seafield hoping to reach the final as that was a big day out in Piltown. It was just like going to croke park for the all Ireland final. I have so many amazing memories from those days. Somebody a few years ago set up a facebook page about it and you can tell from all the comments and photos that it was a big part of our childhood and full of happy memories. It’s great to see both the men’s and women’s team full of players from those days still playing. Thankfully a few more girls joined the local teams and we were able to field our first ever girls football team, as far as I can remember there were about 8 of us. With big help from Jim Rushe our first manager Majella Hillard and Eimear Towell (the ladies committee I guess at the time) St Colmcilles ladies had begun. At the age of 14 I think we were not able to play with the boys anymore and unfortunately we didn’t have enough girls my age to have a team so I joined St Feichins for a month or so and then Belllewstown ladies for a few years, Mickey and Ann Collins were great to me and I gained great experience playing with the older players on that team. Thankfully girl’s football was becoming more and more popular and after fielding a few underage teams, under the guidance of Tom Carson, Liz Phelan, Declan Mc Ardle, Tom Ní Oistín, Brendan Kindlon, Rosemary Hutchinson, Sarah Stevens, Martina O’Reilly and many more wonderful coaches those girls were now old enough for us to field our first Ladies team under the guidance of Enda (Grogan) and Puppy (Kieran Rohan).
Speak to us about your achievements in the sport over the years…
I was very thankful for my time with Bellewstown but was so happy to be putting a Cilles jersey back on. In 2009 we made it to our first final. It was the Junior B championship against Dee Rangers. The majority or our team were 16/17 year olds, there was no hiding, they were the core of our team and never tried to hide from responsibilities. Many of those girls are still a vital part of our team now. It was not to be our day, the better team won but we gained great experience from it. The following year we reached the final again but we lost to Wolftones. Again the better team probably won but we were coming together as a great team and more and more hungry. In 2011 we made our 3rd final in a row, we were very determined. All year long our management (Graham and Mark) and all players put in serious work, in terms of bonding as a team and effort on and off the pitch. In 2011 we won the league and the Championship. I know it’s not all about winning but when all the players put in the work they did that year, all the highs and lows, it’s a pretty great feeling when it all comes together. We didn’t win it because we were good players, we won because we worked hard and as a team. The following year, we had a few injuries and players choosing to focus on other parts of their lives. The next few years were about transition and progress, integrating some of the younger players into the senior team. We did well to maintain our status in Junior A and Division 3 we were getting closer to making the next step all the time making semi-finals etc. In 2016 we made it to the Division 3 league final we lost to a very strong Boardsmill team but thankfully the top two teams were promoted. As disappointing as it was to lose the final it was great to be playing Division 2 football. We also made the Junior A Championship final after an amazing semi-final against Clann na Gael. I turned into the number 1 supporter this day and was cheering on from Abu Dhabi. It was hard not being there with the girls and it was only the threat of jail time that kept me away. I remember the facetimes and phone calls with the girls after they won. There were lots of happy tears. I was so proud of them all, I cannot express enough the dedication that went into winning that championship. The work ethic of some of our players is so inspirational and keeps you on your toes to keep up.
Is the future bright for the Cilles?
Yes, we have come a long way from a team of 8 in the club to playing Division 2 and Intermediate Football. That’s only the tip of the iceberg though, we have at least 2 teams at every level. The talent coming through this club is phenomenal. We have Division 1 teams, we have girls who are learning new skills, we have mammies who are getting back into the game and found a new group of friends and have a serious fun time. One of my favourite days every year is our Blitz day. We get all the girls from under 14 up to come and play. We mix up all the teams, the coaches and mammies and daddies come to support and organise. Some of the men’s team came out to referee also which is great to have them involved also. It’s a great way to meet some of the younger/older players and have loads of fun. The present and future of the club is very bright.
Who do you look up to in sport?
When I first joined the county panel there was a player called Katie O’Brien who had been there for a few years, an unbelievable player, she played in my position so I tried to learn all I could. I would have been quiet so instead of asking her questions I just watched how she trained and how she played her game, what runs she made, how and when she shot. So without her ever knowing, I learned a lot from her. Playing for my county was great and an honour. We won a minor Leinster Championship, we lost to Galway in the All Ireland semi-final, but it never gave me the same sense of achievement or satisfaction as playing with my club did. I think winning and losing, giving out and having the time of your life with the people you have grown up means more to me. I have many players I look up to in the club, Ann Byrne is an absolute inspiration, she has achieved so much in the game and just kept on playing. Whenever I ask myself is it time to hang up the boots I think of Ann and how she kept going. I admire so many of my teammates who work long days, are doing PhD’s and still come with so much energy and work ethic to training. Others I’ve seen completely transform themselves into serious athletes, players and excellent role models for our younger players. I also have so much admiration for all our young underage players who are creating history continuously in the club. They are not afraid of hard work and deserve what they have achieve.
Have you ever knowingly positively affected another player?
I hope over the years I’ve had a positive effect on players. I can be a pain (with good intentions) on the pitch and at training. I have high standards for myself and expect best efforts from others. As I say to my boys at school, I’ve seen and I know how great you are and what you can do, so I try to push them to be their best and reach their potential. Off the pitch I’ve always tried to be a friend, to give advice or listen if anyone is going through something. The best thing is that so many have done the same for me. Unfortunately I’m one of the 5 players to have had cruciate ligament injuries in our team. It is a long time out of the game and mentally very tough. I never felt out of the set up though, you always have someone checking in with you, you are still made feel part of the team. I also have a few friends on the team to thank for keeping me sane when I returned from a year abroad, I didn’t realise the transition back would be as difficult as it was. I always liken our team to a family, we can drive each other crazy and we are not always friends but if someone is in trouble whether on the pitch or in life you help out and you make sure they are ok.
How has ladies football evolved over the years?
Ladies football has changed massively since I first started. It is so great to see so many girls and women involved in sport and in our club. I think Cilles are the biggest female club in Meath. Sport is part of our lives now, it’s not ‘do you play sport’ or ‘are you sporty’, instead it’s what sport do play, how many. In our club, we have phenomenal golfers, runners, basketball players, badminton players, tennis players, and soccer players, some of our members at the very top of their sports. It’s amazing.
What more can be done to improve the ladies game in both this club and others?
There is still more that can be done in terms of its perception and importance. It’s not as good as men’s football etc. I’m a culprit myself, I’m a big Leeds United fan but I’ve never seen their ladies team play, until a few years ago it was only the Meath men that I would go to watch and on the telly again it was the men’s championship I was watching. The men’s football especially in the 90s when Meath were very competitive was excellent and I love watching their games, it’s fast, skilful and competitive. The women’s game is the same. Greg McDonald for the past number of years has organised a great day out to the women’s All Ireland final day. Around 10 years ago I had 2 free tickets. I actually couldn’t give them away, nobody had an interest in it. This year from our club alone we had 190 going. In Croke Park that day there was a record attendance of 50,141 in 2018 more attended the women’s final than the Champions league and Rugby world cup final. It’s just about giving it a chance, you don’t enjoy it fair enough but don’t make assumptions until you have watched it. It was also the best game of football I had seen all year. The final between Cork and Dublin was excellent. I love the game of football not men’s football or ladies football just football, I have great respect for all players and the commitment that goes into playing it. We have some amazing players male and female in our club and it’s important to recognise them all. Just like the young boys go in to our clubhouse to see their hero’s on the walls and hope to be up their one day as they should, so too should the young female players be able to see their photos on the wall and their achievements.
I love what Níall Kane is doing in our club at the minute, he really is making such great progress with our super young players. Recently he had a skills competition, it wasn’t a boy’s competition and a girl’s competition it was just a competition of skills. It was great.
The LGFA, Insurance and Player cover…
All the girls are registered to the LGFA and that can have complications with girl players in terms of serious injury. I never knew that there is only an injury fund with the LGFA and not insurance. We can’t just go to the physio and charge it to someone, it’s out of our pockets. I thought paying my membership would have covered me for insurance. Stupidly I didn’t have my own health care and when I went to have my cruciate done the LGFA fund only covers up to €5000. The rest is covered by your health insurance. It was something I was not aware of at the time and I wonder how many other players are aware. When we need physio or anything, it’s all on us or our private health insurance if it covers physio. So my advice is to make sure you have Health insurance, hopefully it won’t be needed but just to be safe.
It’s important that there is a strong voice for the ladies in every club, making sure you don’t get left behind, female membership money doesn’t go directly to their club but they are a hugely important part of the club.The one-club philosophy that our club has adopted is great to see, we just have to keep pushing forward with it.
You find the fixtures issues within club football to be frustrating, why?
The fixtures at club level can be very frustrating. I’m very lucky that it doesn’t have a massive impact on me because I’m a teacher and don’t have to work in the evenings. On our team though we have many professionals doing all types of jobs and students with exams, grinds, homework. It is not easy to change a schedule. After many a discussion with our management last year we worked it that we were fairly confident of the date the game would be played so people could organise their professional and personal lives around it. Then all that was thrown out the window when the county looked after their county players and the rest of the club players were unfairly messed around. We were informed at 11.30 the night before a game that it was cancelled because county players needed more days rest before their game. With such short notice people are unable to change work, plans etc. Clubs were also made to play games in quick succession because the championship needed to be finished by a certain time. For our team it had a massive impact, players were not afforded enough recovery time, we had many injuries, then because of these injuries we were unable to field a team and management decided to concede a game. These type of things can have a very negative impact on players and relationships within the team because of frustration and unfairness. I think it’s very important, that the club and managers need to be very strong for their players in a situation like this and stand up for the girls who have given their all for the club. It was a great year for the County. Reaching an All-Ireland Final is an incredible achievement and I was there to cheer them on in Croke Park but the fixtures should incorporate the possibility of the county team reaching a final and fixtures arranged accordingly at the beginning of the year so it does not have a big impact at club level. Respect for all the players.
We learned a lot from it all last year and have regrouped and I believe the right structure in place for us this coming season. We have just received our fixtures for this season, and I’m hopeful they will not be changed as they have in previous years, as they have incorporated the possibility of the county being successful.
What was the best game you’ve ever played in?
The best game I’ve played in was a game in 2011. It was a round robin game against Na Fianna. We needed to win to top the group and get a top place finish to have a supposedly easier semi-final. The trip out to Na Fianna is a good hour and a bit and it was a mid-week evening game. Upon arrival we were informed that they couldn’t get a referee so we agreed that their manager would ref the game. Usually this means they are harder on their own players, but that was not the case. The first half was extremely annoying. As hard as we tried we were given nothing, the ref was very one sided, fouls were called against us and for them. There was nothing we could do. Half time came, we were angry, fed up and 8/9 points down I think. Management brought us in and couldn’t give out to us as they saw exactly what was happening, they told us to go out and be a team, we won’t beat them if we are angry, we have to play together work hard for one another. The second half was something special and it has never left me, we didn’t let them have the ball, so we couldn’t foul them. We worked so hard at tracking back helping out each other, we ran in groups going forward so there was always and option, we took our scores and we didn’t let them score once in the 2nd half. I think it was only a point we beat them by in the end, but we won, with everything against us, even the light, there was no floodlights and it was getting dark by the end I’m sure he wanted to call it up early. It was the best team performance I’ve ever been apart of, there was no way we were going to let them win, what made it even better was that we met them again in the Final that year, with an impartial referee we once again played as a team and won the Championship.
What was the worst game you’ve played in?
I don’t think I can recall the worst game I’ve played in, there have been many games where I’ve not played well, many games where we as a team could have done better and many games where we were outplayed. In my younger days or ‘pre Abu Dhabi Cliona’ as some like to call it, I took it very seriously, I would get down if we lost a game or if I played badly id go over and over it in my head. I try now to not dwell too much on it. It’s important to take something from those games and improve it for the next game or just laugh about it. We played against Ashbourne last year and they completely taught us a lesson but we just like to remember that we were winning at half time!!! You put in serious effort and time in preparation for a game that its not easy to take when things don’t come together on the day, but it’s a lesson, something didn’t work right, figure out what it was and improve it for next time. There is always something new to learn and I have learned to let things and games go quicker than I used to.
Will you coach in the future, what can you bring to coaching?
I have coached for a few years in the club and now have the pleasure of playing with many of the girls I coached at under 10s, 14s and 16s.It’s great to see so many of them still playing 10 years later. When myself and Gráinne Rice first took the under 10s we didn’t have the amazing success that they are getting used to now, our win to loss ratio was very high on the loss side but we always had so much fun. At a young age I think it’s important to enjoy the sport and not focus everything on winning, learn to love it and you stick with it. Tara Mchugh also had a big influence on the under 16s a couple of years ago. As you get older it becomes more competitive, that’s also important, learning how to better yourself, learning that talent only goes so far, you have to put in the effort to achieve success. Players also develop at different stages and when you make it to the senior team you learn so quickly that you can’t be an individual player it completely comes down to teamwork. Pushing each other on, encouraging each other and being successful together. We have some amazing coaches in our club, most I know others I don’t because there are just so many wonderful volunteers who are helping our players love the game. I hope to get back to coaching this year and help out anyone who needs it. Lots of the senior players have helped coaching with the younger players and I know others are very keen to get involved, again it’s great to see that integration all the way through the club.
Are things going in the right direction for the club?
The club has transformed over the last number of years and it’s a club Im very proud to be apart of. It’s a great community and the club is at the centre of it. In 2015 I took part in the first ‘Strictly Cilles’ and I met so many people I didn’t realise were part of the club, I had never seen them before, others I knew like my dancing partner Dave, B and Gary. It was great to get back in touch with the boys I used to play with in the seaside league. I can say for everyone of us who took part in that show, it was one of the best experiences of our lives. I think it really united the club, there was a lot more support for each other at games and around the club in general. I remember Ben (Brennan) saying at dance practice, we (the men) are going to win the Championship and you guys (the girls) will too. 2016 was a memorable year in the club and all pre predicted by Ben. Not every club gets to go to Croke Park to cheer their home club on, again I had to cheer from Abu Dhabi but that day the cilles had their family all over the world cheering them on. It would be great to get the support at games like we did that year, knowing that the whole club is cheering on all the teams in the club. It all starts from home, and I think we all have to get out and support each other, not just the older teams but younger ones too, we have so many games between the two sides that I’m going to go try support at least one team a week.
It’s great to see so many of our players representing the club at county level, all the way up to minor we have players from the girls side and the men’s side too I think and 3 turning out for the senior men’s Meath team.
Speak about the volunteers in the club, who springs to mind?
St Colmcilles is more than just a football club, it’s a community, so many amazing programmes and social events are being run out of the club. Mental health as it should be is being recognized in our club and initiatives have been put in place to help people in the community. We have an excellent Irish programme being ran in the club, Ken McHutcheon set up the training for children with special needs, Kieran Moloney has brought hurling to a new level in the club.Tuesday night cards, the men’s shed, dance lessons, there is so much more to the club than just football and it’s a credit to those who have just kept pushing to make the cilles more than a football club, James, Keith, Jackser, Pat, Denis, Gwen, Denise, Barbara and so many more before my time, and those that I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting yet.
I can’t mention the ladies club with mentioning a few certain people who have done so much over the years to keep us going forward as a club. We have had incredible coaches over the years who have given up their time (and at times sanity) to coach and manage teams, we have amazing parents who have driven and supported their girls all over the place for years to allow their child do something they love. I have met many of these parents over the years with coaching and want to thank them for that. We have wonderful mammies who look after us at blitzes, games and outings, making tea, sambos and special treats, we have amazing volunteers in our club and I want to thank them all for all they have done for me and for the other teams in the club.
Special mention to Niamh Hetherington who gave so many valuable years to the girls club, Olivia Bennet who became chairperson and really helped the club out when we were in danger, Jene Hinds who took us to another level in terms of promoting us as a club, and always shone us in the brightest light, Seamus Boland who has continued Jene’s great work, Eamon McPeake, Roger Byrne and Joe Daly who have served as committee members for many many years, Elaine Smith who is a constant source of help around the club. Ollie Carrol, Tony Butler and Ann Byrne who attended numerous county meetings. Johnny Cairns who has helped me personally and steered the club in the right direction and our current secretary Maeve Connell who has done so much for the club over the past number of years we are indebted to her. There are so so many more people that make this club great, all the committee members over the years, all the players, parents and supporters the reason we are who and where we are today is because of you all.
What has sport done for you personally?
Sport has given me everything, confidence, a sense of belonging, an opportunity to improve my skills, an understanding of how to deal with losing, its given me an escape from stress, many many laughs and friendships. Although technically it is a hobby it is a part of my everyday life. I’ve missed many a night out and holidays because of football, not because I had to, but I chose to. Making tough decisions is something you will encounter. Playing a sport, you can choose how much you put into it and I think it gives you that much back. It helps you deal with blows, I’ve been on the bench many times playing this game, it’s not fun, but it’s part of the game. You keep trying, take on board what needs to be improved and push forward. I’ve learned to voice my opinion through playing sport, if I don’t understand or don’t agree with something I’ll speak up. This has helped me in my profession too, doing what’s right for your teammates is the same as doing what’s right for my boys at school. Learning to get along with people and work as a team to reach a common goal again leads into everyday life. I’ve learned to do things that I don’t agree with but it’s for the good of the team. If a manager gives you instructions to help the team you have to implement them, it’s not about how good you look it’s about what’s best for the team. One of my teammates once told me “never come off a pitch saying you could have done more” before every game I now say that to myself. You may not have your best game, but if you put in your best effort and worked hard for your teammates trying to implement the managers tactics you can’t do anymore than that.
The best thing I’ve gotten from sport is the friendships, I wouldn’t still be playing if it wasn’t for them. Training can be tough and the season can be long but you get through it all with your buddies. Nutmeg challenges, breakfasts, lunches, road trips, mystery tours, watching games, tea, chats and brownies, it’s important to make time for each other off the pitch and then work for each other on it.
Meath Minor Leinster Championship
Intermediate Championship Bellewstown
Junior B Championship
Junior A Championship
League Division 4
Meath Junior B player of the year 2011
Meath Junior A player of the year nominee 2015
Words: Cliona Smith
Interview & Photos: Brian Mulligan
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