‘Saying goodbye was hardest this time’: Irish Pie’s different return down under

Aishling Sheridan improved her output from two to eight goals in 2021. (Photo: Collingwood FC)

This year’s plane ride from Ireland to Australia has been unlike any other for Aishling Sheridan.

The dynamic forward will be entering her third season in the AFLW, once her hotel quarantine is over anyway. A Gaelic football convert, she’s now played 18 games at the elite level, returning to Ireland in the off-season to represent County Cavan.

Sheridan hasn’t known a season of Aussie rules without the effects of COVID-19.

The first case of the novel coronavirus was reported in Australia just days before the commencement of the 2020 AFLW season.

Matches were played as normal throughout the first five weeks, before no crowds were allowed in the Round 6 fixtures. The AFL then made the decision to move straight to finals, ending in an infamous season cancellation with no premier awarded.

The 2021 season was almost completed without a hitch, with just a handful of games needing to be rescheduled or relocated.

Though it may not seem quite like life as usual yet for the 25-year-old, exercising through her finals days of quarantine, surging vaccination rates across the country could see the 2022 season played in total normalcy.

Speaking to The Inner Sanctum, Sheridan told of the challenges of leaving behind family, friends, and partner Alan for another six months amidst uncertainty. Joining her teammates two months earlier than last year, she’s already felt the effects of being away.

“This year was probably the hardest time saying goodbye,” Sheridan said.

“I think it was because… borders being closed, and coming out earlier. [It] benefits me as a player, but it’s harder saying goodbye [earlier], you don’t get to spend as much time.

“You don’t have a date where you might be able to see them. In my first year, I got to go home at Christmas for a few days, and my family were actually going to come out before the pandemic hit, so I always had that.

“This year, who knows what way the next few months could go? Right now, it’s just like I don’t know when I’m going to see them. The beauty of technology, they’re only a FaceTime away. That’s probably a good thing as well.

“Dad was supposed to come out in my first year, but literally the night before he was supposed to fly, airports were closed and it was just when the season was cut short. Dad has said as soon as borders open for international tourists coming in, he’ll be the first one on the first flight if he can.”

Despite the ever-changing circumstances, Sheridan never had any doubts about returning to play for Collingwood.

It loomed as a very similar situation to the 2021 pre-season, where she nearly found herself in quarantine over Christmas. She described that lead in as one full of anxiety, constantly wondering what she was missing.

“I definitely was ready to come back out,” Sheridan said.

“I was lucky in one sense that my season at home had finished, so my focus was solely on AFLW. I definitely was ready to come out, and I’m actually much happier now to be out earlier this year.

“I missed a full two months of pre-season last year, that was a bit of a struggle. Now I know I actually have a full run of training and pre-season. I feel much better about it.”

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After years of being criticised as slow starters, the Pies have made finals for two years straight after finishing with the worst win-loss record in 2019.

Co-captain Bri Davey took home the league best and fairest in conjunction with Fremantle’s Kiara Bowers, being named in the All-Australian team alongside Ruby Schleicher, Chloe Molloy and Britt Bonnici.

With a slew of exciting additions including experienced ruck/forward Sabrina Frederick, VFLW leading goalkicker Imogen Barnett, and talented draft prospects Eliza James and El Chaston, Sheridan is eager to rejoin her teammates and begin their road to challenging for the premiership.

“I think I’m just looking forward to getting back into training with the group, and getting into everything,” she said.

“I have a longer pre-season, so even just that mentally helps me whereas last year I felt like I was always playing catch up. I think just to get out into the open and training with the girls and getting into it, I’m really looking forward to it and looking forward to the next few months ahead.

“We’ve been watching, and having Zooms with the coaches to keep ourselves in the loop.

“It’s things like that were a little bit hard, so it’s good to be able to link in with them and see how training’s going and see how everyone’s getting on now that we’re in the one place.”

Reuniting with Rowey and Slysh

Coming to a new country to play a new sport for the first time in 2019 would be a daunting experience for most, and Sheridan no doubt felt it.

Unlike many though, she had the benefit of joining Collingwood alongside long time friend and fellow countrywoman Sarah Rowe. The 26-year-old has played 21 AFLW games, joining the Pies a year before Sheridan.

Alongside them was key position utility Ruby Schleicher, who came into her own this year as an intercepting and rebounding defender with a strong marking game and read of the play.

The three musketeers formed a tight-knit trio both on and off the field. Sheridan describes them as being “tied to the hip”, even living together over the past two years.

They won’t be sharing living quarters this time around, but it certainly won’t change their relationship. She details Rowe and Schleicher as the people who helped her settle into Australia more than anyone.

“We’re separated this year, but I imagine to be honest that we’d be probably technically living together,” Sheridan said.

“We do everything together between the gym and trainings, going for food, everything really. Maybe a little bit of a break at night time won’t be too bad!

“[They] definitely really helped [my] transition [into AFLW]. I felt like I warmed up straight away into training and getting to know everyone.

“It is such a big move coming from the other side into a completely new game. Having Sarah there was a massive help. We lived together for years back home when we were in university together, so I suppose we knew each other really well at that stage.

“Ruby, she’s a character. It doesn’t take long to warm up to Ruby, so straight away she collected us from the airport and I knew we were going to click.

“Especially to have Ruby… she knows the game so well. Living with them is a breeze.

“We went to the gym together, we constantly pushed each other to be better athletes in our nutrition, our training. Also having that switch off time outside of footy as well… it really helped that transition. I’ll probably be sick of them by the end of [the year]!”

After a career best year with a near non-existent pre-season, AFLW fans should be expecting big things out of Sheridan.

She kicked eight goals across her 11 games, including an exhilarating start to the season with two majors against Carlton in the season opener at Ikon Park.

Taking advantage of her pace and strong kicking skills, she developed a knack for long range goals at key moments.

Her pressure game lifted late in the season well, averaging over five tackles in the last three weeks of the season. She also pushed further up in the midfield in the elimination final against North Melbourne, finding 13 disposals, seven of those contested.

It leaves Sheridan in a good spot as she works towards a full pre-season for the first time in nearly two years.

“I was definitely happy with my year last year,” the forward said.

“I didn’t go out with any expectations, especially after missing so much of a pre-season. I was really excited to just get in training and see if I could get selected for each round.

“I tried not to put too much pressure on myself, but as the games went on I just started to understand the game better. It was my second year, and I had full confidence in actually understanding the game. Even simple things with my skills, it really does help.

“This year, having a longer pre-season, having two years behind me, I’m excited to get into it and see if I can push myself again a little bit further, especially with my performance, give it a good run and see how I get on this year.”

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About Alex Catalano 257 Articles
Alex is a studying journalist from Melbourne with an obsession for all things Aussie rules, and a commitment to providing equal coverage and recognition to women's sport. A sport all-rounder, Alex reports on Aussie rules, football, basketball, netball, cricket and esports.

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