So who is Aisling Saunders?
I come from a family of 6. Both my brother and one of my sisters play football for Portlaoise as well. I am a primary school teacher working in Ballyfin National School. I started playing football at the age of 13. I’ve also been involved in running and basketball teams but, football always got priority. I live for a good night out or holiday away with friends and family.
Childhood memories of sport?
It’s probably the Féile that stands out here. My first one was in Birmingham. We had a lot of girls playing at the time so we entered an A and B team and we won the whole competition out with both teams playing against one another in the final. That memorable weekend away; the crack with the team, the win, was definitely the beginning of my love for the sport.
In primary school, I was in with a very sporty bunch of girls. They were all playing camogie and football so, I started playing both in the Cumann na mBunscoil competition in 6th class. From there then, I joined the Portlaoise U14 Football team. At the time, I probably preferred camogie but, I don’t think there was a camogie team set up in Portlaoise so that was the decision made then to go with the football.
Biggest influences and why?
I went to secondary school in Scoil Chríost Rí where you had the likes of Pat Critchley (no introduction needed) and Cork All-Ireland Winner Geraldine O’Flynn working there. They instilled their passion for sport in every team they worked with. They taught us the importance of being committed and hardworking but in such an enjoyable way. Of course my family are huge influences as well for their constant supportive and post-match thoughts. There will always be ways to improve for the next game and they’ll be the first to let you know!
Notable club person you’d single out for their contributions
There are so many people that could get a mention here. It’s not too often you would drive into Rathleague and not see Pat Critchley out on the field training some team. He has probably been involved with every team over the years. Likewise, Catherine Gavin could appear anywhere. I remember when she was involved with us, we went to play a match but only had 12 players and unless we could field a team of 13, the match would be taken from us. So, the next thing I remember is seeing her coming out of the dressing room and running onto the pitch in someone’s spare shorts, socks and boots. The match went ahead and she even scored a point- she certainly took one for the team that day. Lorraine McCormack has done so much for the Portlaoise Ladies since coming on board the management team – she takes everybody under her wing and is like a (young) mammy to us all. She keeps the lads on their toes with her exceptional organisation skills and is the real back bone of our team. Sonny Keogh also deserves a shout out for looking after us on pitch 4 and sorting us out with the use of the lights/gym whenever we asked. I think he is part of the furniture out in Rathleague at this stage.
Nothing major (thank god!!) I broke my wrist in 2017 and fractured my ankle a few years before that but luckily that has been it, other than a few sprained fingers
You reached 3 finals in a row but didn’t get across the line – what emotions were at play in these times?
I think out of all 3 of the finals, we probably felt like if there was any one that we could have won, it would have been the first one. We definitely held Sarsfields the closest that year but I think on the day and in the last few minutes, we were just lacking experience. The second final, there is no debate there, Sarsfields were by far the better team. The third one then, although there was only 4 points in the difference, it felt like we never got going and just couldn’t reach the level that we needed to.
What gave ye the belief to keep going?
We believed that we were good enough to be there- we had come out 2nd best for the last 3 years so we knew we had the talent but, it felt like there was just something missing. We had put in serious work to get to the finals so, I suppose we weren’t going to give up when we all knew we were so close.
And then 2020…describe the feeling…did it feel like this was the year?
We were introduced to our new Management team in Jan 2020 and from the minute we all met as a group, there was a different feeling around the place. I don’t know if it was because we were all sick and tired of hearing the famous words after every final “ye are just there- next year will be the year” or if it was the belief that this management had in us but, something about the team changed in the meeting room that night. There was no more “we could do it”- we were going to do it. I don’t have words to describe the feeling after that final whistle went. It took a second or two for it to register that we had done it, that we had come out on the winning side for the first time ever. What a feeling!! 15 years playing football and every second of them worth it for that winning feeling. To see the tears of joy rather than disappointment on our die-hard supporters’ faces was such a surreal moment. This wasn’t just a celebration for our team but for the people who have been backing us and following us to every match from the start. This was their win too.
What is it like coming back training for Leinster?
I’ll never forget the buzz in Rathleague the first night we went back training after winning the county final. There was such a solidarity in the team and a belief that our year wasn’t over- we weren’t finished making history just yet. I don’t even remember hearing anyone give out about the December weather- we were all just buzzing to be back playing and the fact that we knew we had a Leinster final to look forward too, made it all that much sweeter.
Has it been difficult to keep focus with Covid disruptions?
During the first 2 lockdowns, this wasn’t a problem. We knew the opportunity that was waiting for us if we could just keep our focus- that is exactly what we did and lifting that cup on September 26th, I can gladly say it paid off. Our management team were great to keep things going and our spirits up. We had a very busy WhatsApp group so, when you saw that one girl was out running or doing gym work, it was easy get the motivation to get up off the couch then. This lockdown is a little different seen as we haven’t been back training yet since Christmas but, I know that once we get the go ahead, we’ll all be raring to go!