Tipperary goalkeeper Lauren Fitzpatrick.

Ladies getting long overdue recognition - Fitzpatrick

By Daire Walsh

Across her nine years as a Tipperary senior panellist, Lauren Fitzpatrick has witnessed a significant upsurge in the profile of Ladies Football.

A championship debutant in 2014, the dependable goalkeeper is now one of the most experienced players within the Premier County set-up. For that year’s TG4 All-Ireland Finals day in Croke Park, there was a total attendance of 27,374 at the Jones’ Road venue.

By 2019, that figure had more than doubled to a record crowd of 56,114. While the Covid-19 pandemic unfortunately put paid to the prospect of this figure being surpassed in either 2020 or 2021, with 46,440 passing through the turnstiles for last year’s championship showpieces, it is clear that the appetite for the LGFA remains strong.

On a weekend when Sport Ireland are exploring the theme of ‘Visibility & Events’ as part of their Women In Sport Week, Fitzpatrick believes it is important that the exploits of her fellow players continues to be captured in the strongest possible way.

“It really is phenomenal what the LGFA, TG4 and Lidl have done for the sport,” she began.

“We’re very lucky. We’re playing games each week and they’re live-streamed for people to see, and your families to see. At the end of the day, female athletes are putting in as much as the men are doing each week. I think it’s great that they’re finally getting that recognition that they deserve. Long may it continue. Hopefully it goes that bit further as well.

“We’ve been very lucky to have the majority of games at home this year and we’re playing them in Fethard. The place is packed on a Sunday for the games. It really is great to see. We’ve young girls coming out to watch us. It really is good to see them and for them to have some bit of a role model to look up to. It really is brilliant at the moment.”

That ground-breaking day for the association on September 15th, 2019 is one that will forever remain in the memory bank for Fitzpatrick as she and her Tipperary team-mates claimed the All-Ireland Intermediate Championship title with a 2-16 to 1-14 win over Meath. Two years earlier - on a day when a new record of 46,286 was set for the All-Ireland ladies Football finals - they lifted the same title courtesy of a narrow success at the expense of Tyrone.

In more recent times, Tipperary have been able to establish themselves as a regular fixture in the All-Ireland Senior Championship. The next step for Fitzpatrick and her inter-county colleagues - who are currently in their second season under the management of former Tipperary and Laois senior football manager Peter Creedon - is to become more consistent challengers at the business end of the Brendan Martin Cup.

“I think that’s probably the main goal of our team,” Fitzpatrick expressed.

“Obviously, everyone wants to be a senior team. I’ve been on the panel for a long time now and I think that’s the main goal of any player that comes through. To get senior and remain senior, and obviously compete at senior level.

“We’re very much looking forward to the Munster Championship and also the Senior Championship, to see what we can bring. I hope our training and our hard work really comes to fruition when the championship comes around.”

Certainly, there have been positive signs for Tipperary in this year’s LIDL National Football League as they currently occupy second place in the Division 2 table with four wins from five games to date.

Whereas in previous seasons there were semi-finals to determine who would progress to League deciders, this is only the case for Division 4 in 2023. Armagh and Tipperary are in good shape for the coveted top-two spots in the second-tier, with Laois also in the mix, but with meetings against Tyrone and Armagh themselves on the horizon in the coming weeks, the margin for error will be minimal.

“Coming into the start of the League, we probably would have looked at winning all the games to probably cement that final place,” Fitzpatrick said.

“Things didn’t go exactly the way we wanted and this is the position we’re in. Obviously only two teams go straight to a final and that just means for the last two games, we’re going to have to get two wins.

“That’s not anyone’s fault, but as long as we focus on our game and do what we need to do, hopefully at the end of the next two weeks we might have a final to look forward to.”

Although she has been a stalwart of the Tipperary team for several years now, it is in a neighbouring county that Fitzpatrick plays her club football. Despite hailing from the small village of Newcastle in the Premier County, she lines out for Waterford powerhouses Ballymacarbry.

The reason for this is two-fold: in addition to there being a split in her parish, there was also the lack of a female team within Newcastle when she was growing up.

She has played a key role in the remarkable success story of Ballymac and was between the sticks when they astonishingly picked up their 41st consecutive Waterford senior championship last October. This was Fitzpatrick’s ninth county success with the club, and she subsequently added a Munster crown to her list of honours with the Déise women later in the same month.

Ballymac also sit on top of the All-Ireland senior club roll of honours with 10 titles (the last of them coming in 1998) and Fitzpatrick credits their winning culture with shaping her into the player she is today.

“It’s a fantastic club,” she said.

“It’s nearly a family at this stage. They’re a great bunch of players. I’ve really learnt a lot from them over my footballing career. It has kind of shaped my attitude towards the sport.

“Every year you go back, there’s even more hunger and drive to succeed. It really is a fantastic place to be and a fantastic bunch of girls to be a part of. I count myself very lucky for that.”