** Jennifer Dunne, centre, celebrates with team mates Nicole Owens (left) and Lauren Magee (right). Picture: Piaras O’Midheach/Sportsfile
WHILE Jennifer Dunne was many people’s pick for the player of the match in the All-Ireland final, the 20-year-old admits it was still “a bit of a shock” to get the nod for 2020 Team of the Year.
Alongside Martha Byrne, it meant a breakthrough for Cuala, landing a ladies football honour like this for the first time at last weekend’s online ceremony.
They were among six Dubliners to get the nod with Sinead Goldrick (Foxrock Cabinteely), Carla Rowe (Clann Mhuire), Lyndsey Davey (Skerries Harps) and Noelle Healy (St Brigid’s) all honoured for their four in-a-row success.
For Dunne, she did admit a few of her friends had been joking she would be included in such rarefied company but does say it was a massive year for her personally.
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In 2018, she got the final quarter of the All-Ireland off the bench; 2019 saw her start at number 15 but was withdrawn at half-time for Healy.
This season, however, she started and finished the championship campaign in midfield, emerging as the dominant force with her height and athleticism wreaking havoc against Cork in the second half.
“This was definitely my best year,” she told the Dublin Gazette. “I did a lot of individual training when everything was on hold and kept ticking over. Coming back, I was eager to play and chomping at the bit.
“I was there or thereabouts for the past few years but this year, I really went for it. When I was named to start against Donegal in the first game, you want to hold onto the position. Every week following that was a challenge, even at training within the group, but I felt more involved and that I had a central role to play.”
The switch into midfield is something she had hoped for having played there at club level and with Dublin’s Under-16 and minors. With the seniors, breaking into the squad as a teenager, she was content to line out wherever manager Mick Bohan chose but she has been thrilled by the graduation to her preferred position.
“I was tried me a few times at full-forward because of my height – a bear in the square-esque role – which I don’t mind.
“But, I feel with my physique, I am built for running and getting up and down the field. As a forward, you have to be so patient and make important runs, running for days without getting your hands on the ball.
“In the past, you are happy as long as you are playing. That was the case in 2019, even getting that starting position, you are just happy to play and will go anywhere.
“We never really had a sit down chat about it [moving into midfield] but, in the in-house games, you would have seen me playing there and it made sense. I am glad I got that chance because it is so, so competitive with Olwen [Carey], Siobhan [McGrath] and the likes.”
And she pin-points McGrath’s switch to a deeper role in December’s final as a key one to free Dunne and Lauren Magee to make their searing runs that ultimately tore Cork’s defences apart.
“We didn’t show our best in the first half and anyone looking on would probably have been a bit worried.
“I don’t know what it was, we were struggling to find our feet and we weren’t scoring which you need to do to win games. The second half we screwed our heads on a bit more. Siobhan dropped back a bit; she is such a comfortable and confident player and has been around for so long.
“She was very vocal, directing things. Up front, we were more clinical to take the chances when they came. Aoife Kane got that first score, a big lift when she came up from the back and it drove us on. And we were in control from then on and didn’t let them back in. We were far more ruthless.”
For now, dreams of five in-a-row are on hiatus with no formal schedule in place with the players left largely to their own devices. Dunne is content enough for the time-being, looking after her own training and taking the downtime given the late finish to the 2020 season.
But there is an itch to have that footballing outlet and she has a tinge of jealousy when she sees Goldrick, Magee and Niamh McEvoy in action in Australia’s WAFL with Melbourne, something that be in the future for her.
“Haha, I am probably more jealous of the weather and lifestyle given they are in a better position than us at the moment! I’m still in college and want to finish my degree so it’s not something I have thought about but if the opportunity is there, I don’t know anyone who would say no. They do look like they are having a great time.”
For now, she can reflect on her own fine year and a piece in Cuala club history.
“It does feel great to be in the Team of the Year. It was weird and a little anticlimactic tuning in from home but it is great to get the recognition. And it is also great to have that good representation from Dublin on the team.
“My peers obviously recognised me as playing a key role so it was also nice to hear them speak on my behalf.
“I am also delighted for Martha. I am bias but she is one of the best defenders. Having a club mate is so helpful for me; she’s been around so long so when I was joining the team, she was so approachable – someone I could trust and rely on.
“It’s great for her to finally to get the recognition because she has been there or thereabouts for years. With Fitzy and Con, it is a nice return for Cuala!”