Sunday 4 December 2016

Band of sisters: Cork ladies’ target 10th title in 11 years

Cork ladies’ unprecedented dominance underpinned by Kilkenny-like culture of humility as they target 10th title in 11 years

Christy O'Connor

Published 25/09/2015 | 02:30

The Cork ladies football squad, with manager Eamonn Ryan (centre), celebrate their league final win over Galway in May
The Cork ladies football squad, with manager Eamonn Ryan (centre), celebrate their league final win over Galway in May

With 16 minutes to go in last year's All-Ireland final, Dublin had stretched their lead to ten points. Dublin were sprinting for home. Cork were on the run.

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Angela Walsh, Briege Corkery and Deirdre O'Reilly found themselves beside each other on the pitch. The three of them screamed in unison. "Come on". The miraculous comeback which followed confirmed why the Cork ladies have been the greatest Gaelic games team of all time.

In Cork's world, there is no easy definition of a turning point, of any one set moment when a spark ignites into a blaze. With Cork, it just happens. Again. And again. And again.

In the 2013 All-Ireland semi-final, Dublin were ten points up in the second half. O'Reilly kicked a massive point to reduce the deficit to nine. A comeback still didn't look on. But it had already begun.

"I could just feel the whole thing lifting," says Juliet Murphy, who won eight All-Irelands, three as captain.

"Even though we were still so far behind, I just had this sense that we were going to win. I don't know what it is, I just can't explain it."

On Sunday, Cork go hunting for a tenth All-Ireland in 11 years, having built a dynasty from nothing.

Before Eamonn Ryan arrived, Cork had never won a league, provincial or All-Ireland senior title; since then, they have won 28 trophies out of a possible 33. Ryan turned them into a machine.

Journey

What they have created goes beyond medals and trophies and glory. They are on a journey that none of them wants to end.

"It's just not wanting to lose and feel that feeling of losing," says Murphy. "Cork don't train like a team who are up at the top; they train like a team trying to win their first All-Ireland.

"That is down to Eamonn's humility. He is such a humble man. It rubs off on everyone else. Eamonn would probably hate to think he created a culture because to him, it's just normal stuff. But what he has created is unique."

As with the Kilkenny hurlers, this team have retained such remarkable standards over a decade that they now carry an aura of invincibility. They know how to win.

They have won shootouts and dogfights, and last year's final win showcased their immense mental strength. Of their nine All-Irelands, they have won four finals by one point.

"Cork do have a psychological advantage from those types of victories over other teams," says Murphy. "It's almost like Kilkenny in the hurling final, that they were just waiting for that moment to take off. Those kinds of things were never discussed but it's very simple; it's about a group of players who don't want to lose, and who never give up."

Before Ryan, Cork were a laughing stock. Hammerings were routine. Despite all the great days which followed, the one standout memory for the older players is the 2010 All-Ireland quarter-final defeat to Tyrone.

Standards

Cork didn't deserve to win. They dropped their standards that season. For a few months afterwards, nobody knew what came next. On Sunday, they're going for their second five-in-a-row.

"Maybe the younger girls don't know what it's like to lose but the older girls certainly do," says Murphy.

"With the younger girls coming up, the older girls feel they have to stay on their toes. The younger girls feel they have to catch up. That competitiveness between each other is always going on internally."

Success has never blunted their edge or sated their desire. It has never inflated their collective ego. "

They are not cocky players," says Kerry's Louise Galvin. "They are hard workers and grafters. They never started to believe their own hype, it was quite the opposite. They are such honest players that they keep themselves grounded."

Galvin is more than just a Kerry footballer. She was part of a UL Huskies basketball team that dominated the sport between 2011-14, winning 61 competitive games from 62. She is currently training with the Ireland rugby Sevens squad aiming to make next year's Olympics.

So she knows all about elite sport and preparation. The Kerry team she has been part of for six years have beaten Cork in Munster but they've never cracked them in the All-Ireland series.

They lost a final to Cork in 2012. After beating them twice in Munster in 2013, they were scalped by the Rebelettes in the All-Ireland semi-final. Kerry beat Cork in this year's Munster final by nine points. In last month's All-Ireland semi-final, Cork won by 13 points.

"Cork are always a different animal in late August and September than they are in July," says Galvin.

"They have always learned and always changed their tactics. Whether Eamonn Ryan admits it or not, they have got more defensive, probably because teams have been catching up to them. They absolutely block the D and catch you on the counter-attack but they know their game-plan so well by now."

Galvin remembers a time when Cork's aura was such a factor that the "psychological effect of seeing a Cork jersey affected us". That has "begun to dissipate" but Kerry have still struggled to beat Cork when it really matters. So has everyone else.

This year, Galway played Cork four times. Cork hit two late points to win by one point in the league. After drawing in the league final, Cork won the replay by one point. In the All-Ireland quarter-final, Cork won by two points.

"We could have beaten them in every one of those games," says Galway manager Kevin Reidy.

"But we didn't. They are human but they just keep going and going until the final whistle. They have so much confidence in themselves, they're just like Kilkenny. They never think they will lose."

Like Kilkenny, this team have achieved everything possible but their most important legacy lies not simply in the medals won or the glory gained - it is about the attitude that has been instilled, the standards demanded. The example set.

With everything underpinned by a culture to always demand more.

"We never really felt we had a psychological advantage over a team when the game got tight," says Murphy. "We actually thought the opposite. We felt that teams were catching up with us or, or going to beat us.

"We always had that vulnerability but I think that vulnerability made us train harder and be more focused. It's not a doubt, it's more a fear of, 'This could be the time it will end'.

"It is impossible to get the complete performance but we would always try and strive for that the next day."

And they do. Again. And again. And again.

Irish Independent

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