When Gráinne McElwain became the face of Sky Sports’ GAA cover last year, she traveled to Croke Park for the All-Ireland final through deserted streets.
The second time around, the Monaghan presenter was delighted to see the gradual upsurge in GAA pageantry and pageantry as restrictions eased over the summer.
However, the return to some sort of normalcy caught some of Team Sky off guard.
“Some of us this year almost got caught because we misjudged the crowd, because you didn’t have a crowd. Last year we drove in and parked the cars, ”she said.
“It’s great to see the fans again. When we started we had 500 (fans) and 24,000 last weekend, and we all thought there had to be more. Either we’re used to it being really quiet, or the fans are making so much more noise than they ever would have before.
She has been a familiar presence at the Gaelic games in Ireland over the past 15 years, with a field analysis for RTÉ The Sunday game, as well as work on BBC and TG4.
The former high school teacher, who took over Sky Sports presentation duties from Rachel Wyse, said it was a privilege to present her first All-Ireland for the channel in the dead of winter.
“It was an honor to be there because we knew there were so many people who couldn’t be there,” she said.
“Whenever I go out on the pitch I always say it’s a privilege, but it was really last year because we were able to be that connection and give people a sense of what this opportunity was like. It was a very meaningful experience every time we went out and did this.
With some shots on goal this year too quick to be seen with the naked eye, the presenter said she has trained over the years to keep up with the breathtaking pace of hurling.
“It’s a lot of practice watching games, it keeps you on your toes. We don’t see absolutely everything, but with the television it’s much easier because we can see the replays on a screen behind us.
“In real time it’s so fast, the skill level is amazing, it just hit the charts. The teams we left for the All-Ireland final, Limerick and Cork, have that athleticism, that physique, that level of skill. They rarely miss their chance.
“Hurling is such an exciting product. For me, I just think it’s just getting better and better to watch.
“We are blessed where we sit with Sky Sports because the view is amazing, you can see the games and the switches. I just hope all the players play to the best of their ability.
She sees her role as getting the best analysis from the panel of big names in hurling, Jamesie O’Connor, Ollie Canning and JJ Delaney – who will be in attendance when the final is broadcast live on Sky Sports Arena.
“They won All-Irelands at club and county, so they see it all. I am always impressed with the amount of knowledge they have. I always feel like I’m learning. I still see myself as the host and presenter, ”she said.
When it comes to the conversation around women showcasing sport, Gráinne believes female presenters are there for their merit.
“I think the idea of symbolism for a woman on a panel or involved has disappeared.
“They are very, very good at their job and now they have the opportunity to show it. I think the media have a huge role to play in showcasing the talents of pitchers and footballers of both sexes and, in all honesty, they do.
“Look at what Cora Staunton has accomplished and it’s great that we hear it. She is a brilliant analyst.
“Young boys and girls can see women and men on the same show talking about soccer or hurling. This visibility is very important.
However, she also thinks people must be wondering if they support the GAA women’s games as much as the men’s games.
Speaking to young girls recently at the launch of the 20X20 campaign calling on the nation to support women’s sport, she was amazed to find that they couldn’t name a female model.
“These lovely young girls, they were about nine or ten years old. They were passionate about sports and all of their models were men. I thought it was really, really sad, ”said Gráinne.
“I always say that TG4 has been really great at showcasing women’s sport over the years.
“RTÉ has more women on its panels, Sky Sports has done it for other sports for years, the BBC has done it. So now we see all the stations showing women more prominently as analysts and presenters.
“But I think it’s important for men and women to bring their daughters and sons to women’s sporting events so that children grow up seeing women and men as equals.
“There is a culture that we go to men’s games, but why not start a culture of going to women’s games and support them equally.
“You know, I support Phil Healy, but I also support Thomas Barr. I think Con O’Callaghan is great, but also Hannah Tyrrell and Sinéad Aherne.
“We are moving in the right direction with this.”