“I’m unbelievably competitive. Anything that I do, I want to win at it.” Tracey Lawlor is sitting in the lobby of the Killeshin Hotel, and has just been asked what drove her to be one of the best ladies footballers of her generation.
Her initial answer - “I don’t know” - is immediately dismissed, because she does know, whether she realises it or not. Her relentless, all-consuming drive to win, to be better, is the reason. Simple as that.
It has driven her to All-Ireland finals, Leinster finals, All-Star Awards, and, in total, almost 40 major honours for county, club and college in her career to date. And, believe it or not, that same drive is part of her reason for calling time on the most successful intercounty career of any Laois footballer, male or female.
She announced her decision on Facebook earlier this month, finally informing the world of a decision she had grappled with for months, years even. Part of her post on the social media site stated that she “had to say it out loud”, as much to finally convince herself as inform everyone else.
So, just how hard was it type those words. “It was really hard, because I know come next January, I’m going to get itchy feet. I said last year as well that I was going to retire, and then come January, the minute the manager rang me, I said ‘Yeah, I’m in.’ I’m just so easily persuaded.
“It has been such a massive part of my life that it is hard to imagine it not being there. With the last two or three years not going the way I would have wanted it, it has been a bit easier to say ‘that’s the end’. I have been playing a long time, so I said it was time I started to do things I wanted to do.”
So, why now? Well, in simple terms, the enjoyment hasn’t been the same in recent years. Training is becoming tougher, not physically, but mentally, and she was self-aware enough to pay heed to the warning signs. “It has been harder and harder to make myself go training. I wouldn’t have ever missed training, if I’m in, I’m in and that’s it.
“It has been harder and harder to motivate myself to go, the enjoyment was waning a bit, and because I have had such a good career, I don’t want to look back and see that the last few years were horrible. I wanted to look back on the good times, and when it feels like I’m starting to not enjoy it, to get out.”
The competitive drive which has driven Tracey Lawlor throughout her career has gotten her some of the biggest prizes in the game, but where did it all start? Where did it have its genesis?
That much, she admits, she cannot pinpoint. “I’m very competitive, anything we do in training, I want to win. I want to win every sprint. I might not, but I want to, and I’m disappointed if I don’t.
“It’s probably something from when I was younger, maybe having Paul there, the two of us were competing against each other as well. I do think you have to have some sort of competitive drive.
“I can’t think of any one thing I said that changed in me, I have just always been like that. I am that kind of person.”
Paul, in case you didn’t know, is her twin brother, himself an accomplished footballer with Emo and Laois. Tracey was born about an hour before him (her first race to win), making her the third youngest of eight children born to Gabriel and Hilary.
Growing up, football was a huge part of family life. “From such a young age, there was always a ball in our house, I don’t know how my mother put up with it!
“We were brought up where we were always going to matches, you were always at the field. We would be down there if the seniors were training, my dad (Gabriel) would have been involved and you’re just down there anyway. If you’re not training with the U-10s or the U-12s, you’re down there kicking a ball around.”
In Paul, she had the perfect comrade for practicing. He was comfortable on both feet and the purveyor of one of the finest dummy solos in the game, so Tracey knows how lucky she was to grow up with him. “Paul taught me a lot. I always said he got the skill and that I could run forever.
“When we were younger he was always the skillful one, he could kick with both feet and he had his dummy and everything else. I always played with the lads when I was younger, so that probably toughened me up a bit as well.”
Her career with the mens teams, incredibly, lasted up to minor level, where she played one game, in which she broke her wrist. That ended her time sharing the playing field with men, but by then she was already a Laois senior footballer.
That call came early for her, Tommy Garvan summoning her into senior panel as a 14 year old in 1998. She didn’t play that year, but learned a lot in a short space of time, and started to feature the following year.
By the time Laois had made it to the All-Ireland final in 2001, she was an established player despite having only sat her Leaving Cert that June. Some aspects of that year stick out more than others. “I just remember Goggie running us so much! I don’t think I have ever been so fit in my life. He used to kick out a ball and tell us to run out to that and back until he told us to stop. I can’t even remember much about the matches, they just came so quickly.
“The final, we didn’t even really think about it that much, and the way it ended up, with Mary Kirwan kicking that point right at the end, it was just pure elation.”
As a teenager coming into a team which won Leinsters and contested All-Ireland as a matter of routine, she couldn’t foresee the good times ever ending. As she reflects, however, her only regret of that time is not enjoying it more. “Looking back now, I don’t think we cherished it as much as we should. I had just turned 18 and I was coming into a team that had been in nine All-Ireland finals and then won it in 2001, and I thought we were going to be there every year.”
Coming on the scene at that time helped to mould her into the players she was too. Laois’ trainer in 2001, Sean ‘Goggie’ Delaney was one of the great characters of Laois GAA, but he had the respect of the players too, and Lawlor feels he set a standard which stood for a very long time. “He made such an impression on those girls, none of us were afraid to work really hard. Any manager who we have had since, if they ask us to do something, we do it.
“We used to be so afraid going to training, afraid to be late or afraid to say no to anything. You just went and did it, because you knew at the end of the day, he knew what he was talking about. When you’re younger you are very impressionable, so I just thought this is the way it has always been.”
Ladies football, like all GAA sports, has moved on from those times. The running and fitness work has had to make room for strength and conditioning work, and the success of the Cork team has meant other county’s have to step up. Laois are one of those county’s. “Loads of things have changed since then, it has moved more towards strength and conditioning and away from running.
“Then, I would be wondering, have we done enough running or am I fit enough, because I was so used to having done all that, it is such a big change.
“But then, Cork are probably the team that would say you should be doing more strength and conditioning, and I think that affected us over the last two years as well, that we didn’t do enough of that kind of work, we were pushed off the ball.”
That is one of the challenges facing the next generation of Laois ladies footballers. Lawlor has carried the torch for as long as she could, but hopes that others will drive the county on from here. “I was talking to Jane Moore recently, and I said to her that it’s time for the likes of her to step up, and Alison Taylor and Ellen Healy and Ciamh Dollard, because they are in the age group where we would have been successful.
“Those girls will have to take control and start demanding professionalism and putting in the work, and nearly dragging the team along. I have been there and I did all the hard work all the time, and I felt there wasn’t another year in me. Physically, I think I would be able to go back, but I just don’t think that mentally, I would be 100% committed.”
As she steps away from the intercounty game now, it would be nice to walk away without regrets, but she admits to having one or two. An All-Ireland semi-final loss to Dublin stands out. Leading for most of the game, Dublin hit them with a sucker-punch goal to seal a place in the final.
A five point loss to Cork in an All-Ireland semi-final in Tullamore also comes to mind, particularly disappointing as Laois failed to show up for most of the first half. Overall, however, she knows she has been lucky, but would liked to have won more. Who wouldn’t?
So, what will the future hold without intercounty football? She’s not quite sure about that yet. “I haven’t really thought that far ahead, I’m trying not to think about it, because I’m not sure what I am going to do. I will still play club football, so that will take some of the boredom away, but I definitely know that when the girls go back in January and they are telling me it is going really well, I will be thinking about it.”
On the plus side, she can look forward to a social life unencumbered by the demands of intercounty football. “I have been training constantly since I was 14 or 15, for three nights a week, not being able to socialise.
“I am so thankful that I still have friends outside of football, because I don’t know how they understand that I am never able to go to anything. I’m looking forward to relaxing, and if I’m invited to something just being able to go to it without worrying if I have a match tomorrow, and whether I can have a drink, and all those things that go with it.
“There are so many times I would have gone to weddings, for example, and you are home at 12 o’clock because you have a match in two weeks time. I’m just looking forward to not thinking about these things, and just going and enjoying them.”
Having spent half of her life devoting her time and energy to Laois, she’s certainly entitled to that.