Brid's constant presence stacks deck in Cork's favour
WHAT separates Cork from the herd was clearly to be seen in this year’s Lidl Division 1 final.
The 10-time All-Ireland champions weren’t expected to reach the league decider given that they returned this year without legendary manager Eamonn Ryan and stellar stars like Geraldine O’Flynn and Valerie Mulcahy, and lost three of their first four games. They were facing a resurgent Mayo but got a flying start.
Then, when they looked home and hosed, captain Ciara O’Sullivan got badly concussed and the long delay to get her off the pitch in Parnell Park completely killed Cork’s momentum. Yet when play resumed it was business as usual and the four in-a-row was secured. Their brilliant collective defence vitally ‘held’ Cora Staunton to 0-6 (3f) but the key marking job on her was done by Brid Stack (30).
She was flanked by a 19-year-old (Eimear Meaney) and a 21-year-old (Roisin Phelan) and happily quips “I’m like their granny!”
Yet a stranger could have been forgiven for thinking she was the rookie in their full-back line. In her 14th season, and with 10 league, 10 All-Ireland titles and six Allstars already won, Stack has nothing left to prove or win. So what keeps her attacking every ball with the speed and ferocity of a lioness?
“Any girl playing at this level has to be intrinsically motivated or there’s no point going out and putting yourself through the training,” the St Mary’s star says. “I still love playing, and I love the girls I’m involved with as well, but it has to come from within. When I stop enjoying it, that will be the day I give up, or when I can’t drag myself around the place anymore!” she laughs.
New boss Ephie Fitzgerald, whose unenviable task of replacing Ryan was the ladies’ Gaelic equivalent of taking over Man Utd after Alex Ferguson, has helped in one way.
“Ephie’s very good to motivate and he’s brought in brilliant men like James Masters come and Mike Carroll,” Stack says. “James has such a good, positive personality and it’s that lift you need. He just has a lovely manner and way about him. He gets the best out of people and the two of them work very well together.”
It’s a description that also fits the bubbly Cork defender who, as a PE teacher, has seen, first-hand, the evolution of ladies’ football since joining the Cork senior panel at 16 and winning her first senior All-Ireland at 18.
“Ten years ago women’s players definitely were not as lean and, secondly, it was straight 15 versus 15, just ‘go out and play football,’” Stack observes. “That was fantastic, and there’s a lot to be said for it, but we’re trying to keep the bar up, there’s a lot of teams nipping at our heels now.”
“You do that through tactics. Playing Waterford this summer, they put so many bodies behind the ball that we found them hard to break down. That’s where the tactics come into it.”
Is there a danger that tactics might remove some of the game’s intrinsic dynamism and excitement, as it has done in men’s football?
Stack thinks not. “There’s a lot more breaking at speed in our game, it’s a lot more direct and there isn’t as much linear play,” she notes. “Teams have to be so fit to play that system, and to be so fit to try and combat it. Everybody is championship ready and sharp now.”
She says Cork’s league semi-final defeat of Dublin (1-15 to 0-11) was a turning point this season. “It was probably only in the second half actually and still a bit segmented but, by God, there was that fire in people again!” she says.
Yet it hasn’t been all plain sailing since. “After the high of winning the league we faced into championship a week later and we started off shaky in Munster, just getting over Waterford and losing to Kerry,” she acknowledges.
“But thankfully training has gone very well and things have settled down again. Hard work was the main ingredient,” she says of their Munster final defeat of the Kingdom, despite losing twice to them earlier this season. Cork’s bid for an 11th title in 12 years now pits them against Ulster finalists Cavan in tomorrow’s (Sat) TG All-Ireland SFC quarter-finals. Their never-say-die spirit will undoubtedly be shown again so, what has created and sustained it?
“It’s about everyone buying into it. We remember Banagher,” Stack says of the team’s only All-Ireland quarter-final blip, to Tyrone, in 2010. “All Eamonn wanted from anyone was an honest effort. If you gave an honest effort, you got it back from him and, 10 years later, we were still trying to impress Eamonn!”
Many of their new look team, and management, weren’t around for Banagher yet Cork’s indomitable culture remains. And Stack has a unique take on it.
“We’re in a very privileged position, we’ve tasted success,” she stresses. “I look at the Mayo girls - I would be great friends with some of them - and how they come back year on year. I think that’s a role model, that’s phenomenal!”
“They come back purely for the love of the game, thinking ‘this year, this year.’ This rollercoaster is going to end (eventually) for us but we want to keep it going as long as we can.”
The Ladies Football Championship Final will take centre stage September 25th. Be there to show your #SeriousSupport.