By Daire Walsh
Having already done it once before with the Erne County, Aisling O’Brien is hopeful Fermanagh can make amends for a disappointing end to 2022 by going all the way in this year’s TG4 All-Ireland Junior Football Championship.
Back in September 2019, O’Brien was selected at corner-forward as the Ulster side lost out to Louth in a JFC decider at Croke Park. Just under 15 months later, however, the Devenish player helped Fermanagh to go a step further against Wicklow at Parnell Park and thus seal their return to the intermediate grade for 2021.
Despite suffering relegation back down to the third tier of ladies football, Fermanagh looked set to claim their third national junior title in the space of six years when they led provincial rivals Antrim by a single point in the closing stages of a compelling showdown at GAA HQ on July 31 of last year.
Yet Saffron attacker Orlaith Prenter subsequently popped up with a late equaliser and following their defeat in a replayed encounter at the Athletic Grounds in Armagh 13 days later, O’Brien and her Fermanagh team-mates, who are in Ulster Junior Football Championship action against Derry at Celtic Park this weekend, were highly motivated coming into 2023.
“Losing out to Antrim in the replay was hard to take when we were so close to winning the first time around. In saying that, Antrim were the better team in the replay and definitely deserved their win. There is definitely that determination within our team to make up for last year, but we’re just focusing on one game at a time,” O’Brien acknowledged.
“For us we can only learn from that loss last year and be ready for the same challenge this year. We’ve a new captain in Shannan McQuade, who is a great leader both off and on the pitch. We have a few experienced girls coming back, which is a great boost. Hopefully we can go one better this year.”
Since that reversal to the Wee County in 2019, O’Brien has been a largely ubiquitous figure in the Fermanagh team under current manager James Daly and his predecessor Jonny Garrity.
This is in spite of the fact she has a busy job as a staff nurse at South West Acute Hospital in Enniskillen and was transferred to their Emergency Department a short while after the Covid-19 pandemic took hold in the spring of 2020.
Like most of her colleagues, O’Brien quite often finds herself working long shifts in South West and this means it can be difficult to strike a balance between work and her commitments to Fermanagh football.
“The management team are very understanding of my job and the long hours that come with it. Where possible, I would change my shifts doing both day and night duty to work around training and matches to make sure I can make most of the sessions.
“It would be common enough for me to work a night shift and then head straight to training, but I enjoy it so it doesn’t really bother me that much.”
However, O’Brien described the early stages of the pandemic as a “scary time” and that she found football to be a “good distraction away from work” in the latter half of 2020. While the absence of supporters made it a slightly bittersweet experience, rounding off the year with that TG4 All-Ireland Junior Football Championship triumph over Wicklow at least ensured there was a satisfying end to a tough period.
“2020 was a difficult year playing football for everyone. There was a lot of rules regarding football matches and training and it was hard to adjust to. Winning the All-Ireland was a massive achievement, after the difficult year we all had inside and outside football.
“The win overall was massive, but was bittersweet at the same time when you couldn’t have family and friends there to celebrate with you. That is probably the only thing I’d change about it all.”
In donning the green and white of Fermanagh, O’Brien is maintaining a strong family tradition. Her brothers Chris and Vincent have both represented the county at all levels from underage up to senior, and she has a number of cousins who have done likewise.
As well as her club compatriot Shauna Hamilton, they had a strong influence on O’Brien as she was rising through the ranks of both Devenish and Fermanagh.
“Shauna played for Fermanagh for many years and I always looked up to her as a player and leader on the pitch. Her work-rate always stood out to me and she was always someone you could rely on when your team is under pressure. In saying that, we would have clashed on occasion in matches or in training, but it was always forgotten when the final whistle blew!
“All my family are into football and I’ve been playing from as young as I can remember. My family have always supported me. I’m the only girl in my family and always remember playing football with my brothers and cousins and being the only girl, so I suppose they have all had a big influence on me.
“I see those times as where my fight and strength in games has come from. They always said, ‘if you are going half-hearted for a ball or tackle, don’t bother’.”
It goes without saying that Hamilton and the extended O’Brien clan will be hoping the 2023 inter-county season ends with Aisling lifting an All-Ireland junior title for the second time in her Fermanagh career. A lot of work is required to get to this point though and O’Brien reiterated that she isn’t thinking beyond the group stages of the competition.
“In our group we have Derry, Carlow and London. They are our main challengers at the minute. You can’t take any team for granted. Every team steps up their game when it comes to the All-Ireland,” O’Brien added.
“We’ve played each of these teams this year, so there will be a bit of familiarity there as well. It’s just important for us to prepare right and go into these games in the best shape possible.”
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