FOOTBALL: Sowing the seeds – The Big Interview with Offaly’s Fiona Dempsey
By DARAGH SMALL (Fiona Dempsey of Offaly during the 2022 Lidl Ladies Football National League Division 4 Final match between Limerick and Offaly at St Brendan’s Park in Birr, Offaly. Photo by Ben McShane/Sportsfile)
The dream move to Abu Dhabi turned into a nightmare; long-distance running inside the four walls of her small apartment, sprinting upstairs in her block, and online PE teaching in her empty classroom.
The school term finished on 1 July last year and Fiona Dempsey was on the next plane home, the following day.
Nevertheless, the Offaly Ladies footballer, who has already spent over a decade in Scotland, is planning another long-distance trek later in the year, when Australia could come calling.
She won’t let the madness of 2020 and the early part of last year deter her from her love of travel and playing the game in another part of the world.
“Good weather, the ability to travel and definitely football helps. I know Sydney have good teams out there,” said Dempsey.
The 29-year-old, who turns 30 on Monday, has already played for the Na Fianna and Naomh Maolaoise clubs in Offaly, Dundee University and Glasgow Gaels in Scotland and another Na Fianna club in Abu Dhabi.
But tomorrow she lines out for the Faithful County again in the TG4 All-Ireland Intermediate Championship, when they take on last year’s beaten finalists Wexford.
She attributes her drive to wear that jersey again to her early days playing underage football. She was called in at U-12 level and will never forget the feeling that representing her county gave her, even at that tender age.
“When I was in school, we had to do sowing while third, fourth, fifth and sixth class boys used to play football. That was training for our school team,” said Dempsey.
“In sixth class, I eventually picked up the courage to say ‘that’s unfair I can’t train’, I’m looking out the window at the lads.’
“For me, a lot of my hunger to play football, my competitive side and determination came from my underage playing with the boys, trying to compete with them physically and everything.
“That gave me a bit of an edge too. I went into county when I was U-12 and I played right up until I moved away in 2010. I had been away for ten years from county and decided to come back in with all my memories I had from underage.
“That sense of pride to wear your county jersey that came from such a young age…there is a short amount of time you get that opportunity to play for your county, so I think it’s fantastic.”
Dempsey finished school and opted for the more unlikely route when she headed to Dundee to study PE Teaching.
She had just turned 18 at the time and although the whirlwind of first year in college did aid the bedding in process – but it was Ladies football that really made her feel at home.
“When I was in Dundee, I played with Dundee University. I competed in the British Championship over there. One of the years, I was nominated to go play for the British Universities All-Stars team,” said Dempsey.
“I did continue to play football over there but after two years I got injured which stopped my football for two or three years. But once I qualified as a teacher I went and played club in Scotland. I played for Glasgow Gaels.
“I was very fortunate, I played with a number of other county girls who played when I was over there. I had the opportunity to play with some serious players over the years. It was always competitive and to a very good level. That really helped me when I came back.”
Then, in September 2019, Dempsey made the move to the UAE in the Middle East, where she was hoping to live the dream, like a lot of Irish teachers who head in that direction.
But by March, that disintegrated into turmoil when Covid-19 struck and the strict local rules took hold.
“We went into school and rumours were circulating that Covid had hit. People were starting to get cases. Then by the Thursday, which would have been our last day of school at that time, they told us they were cancelling our spring break,” said Dempsey.
They were going into a complete lockdown and teachers had to get used to the new online learning model. For an active sportsperson, it was the worst-case scenario.
“From that day on, we were wearing masks. They went from shutting down everywhere public to you not allowed out of your house, even for walks, you would be fined,” said Dempsey.
“Also, we had played our leagues and we went from training flat out to all football is cancelled, all tournaments are cancelled. A big change in a small timeframe.”
The Killeigh native was desperate to keep her mind and body working and came up with inventive ways to stay fit without leaving her apartment block.
“I did absolute mad things, I did 5k and 10ks running around my apartment. It was a one-bedroom and I used to run in and out around it, I had a little path,” said Dempsey.
“Honestly, I used to do it. When I look back on it, and I didn’t just do it once, I did it a few times. Anything to fill time, there is only so much Netflix you can watch. I did home workouts too, we used to do sprints up the stairs. It was mad stuff.
“Then eventually, come May, you were allowed to go outside. Did the 100k in May and did loads of running. Now those kinds of runs, I am allergic to.”
Dempsey spent another year in Abu Dhabi before she returned home to Ireland in a hurry last summer. She has moved to Dublin and teaches in Balbriggan Community College.
Her primary focus this weekend is on Wexford tomorrow and the reigning Lidl NFL Division 4 champions look to be in a good place heading to Enniscorthy.
“We had a great game against Laois and definitely Laois are a strong intermediate team. That was a great confidence booster for us,” said Dempsey.
“We are really looking forward to starting the All-Ireland series. We play Wexford this weekend, I haven’t had the opportunity to play Wexford. Definitely we are looking forward to that challenge.
“Teams that are in the lower divisions, sometimes it can be very hard to get out of them even though you know you are capable of playing to a higher standard.
“We are looking forward to it. Hopefully we will get some good performances over the next few weeks.”