Carr hopes hard work will allow her to sign off in style
There is very little Fionnuala Carr hasn't seen in half a lifetime playing adult camogie for Down, but this past year would take some beating for squeezing all the extremes into a short period of time.
The squad only had a management in place days before their League opener against Westmeath. So short were they for numbers that one of the selectors, Martina Rooney, had to step in.
By the time the Division 2 relegation play-off came around at the end of five losses, Rooney had the bainisteoir bib despite her only previous experience at county level coming with the under-14 development squad.
They won that game to retain their second-tier status, followed up by beating Derry to garner a first Ulster title in 13 years and are now just an hour from winning the Liberty Insurance All-Ireland Intermediate Championship for the first time since 1998.
Carr joined up with many of the heroines of 20 years ago as a fresh-faced 17-year-old. She was always serious about representing Clonduff and Down, reared in a household in which her father Ross was a two-time All-Ireland winner who went on to manage the county footballers.
Her mother Teresa has always been involved at committee level with club and county. Her three brothers, including ex-Down forward Aidan, are immersed in the GAA. Sister Sara-Louise, who was one of the many absentees from the Mournewomen in the early part of the League as she got married to Antrim hurler Arron Graffin in February, is six years younger but they have always been close.
Fionnuala was always a leader and an achiever. A multiple All Star in third-level camogie, she was invariably at the forefront of all that was good about Down and Clonduff. Whatever happens against Cork today, she insists that when she takes the red and black jersey off in the dressing room afterwards, it will be for the last time.
"Last year I broke my ankle and did a bit more damage than that with the ligaments," explains Carr. "It was hard to come back from and it still gives me bother. My appetite for playing county camogie . . . I didn't really have it last year or the year before. I didn't have it at the end of last year and I went along this year because there were a lot of people missing at the start.
"But I really enjoyed the first game. I was sore for about a week after it but I really enjoyed it so I stayed going at it. Every game we played I've enjoyed.
"Hand on heart, I know for a fact this is the last year. You can't play forever and I am working in Dublin. The travelling does get harder. And life changes as well. You want to do different things - work, career, family."
The team is unrecognisable now. For a start, only a handful of those brave souls who togged out in the League opener will start at Croke Park. But the mindset has improved too. That Ulster final triumph was significant, but drawing with Derry a few weeks later in the opening group game of the All-Ireland championship might have been just as significant.
"We didn't play as well as we had in the Ulster final. I always think when you play a team a second time around in a championship fixture (after beating them), it's always hard to get the same level of performance and the other team has a little more to play for, pride and the revenge factor. We managed to get out of it with a draw after being behind the whole game so that gave us a good bit of confidence."
They lost by 12 points to Cork in Páirc Esler two months ago. "We were very, very disappointed in our performance against Cork. I missed a penalty, Niamh Mallon hit the crossbar in the first-half. That's six points. Then we went out in the second-half and just fell apart.
"We came off and were given a bit of hope when we heard Laois held Derry to a draw. Against Laois, then, we showed so much character. We went a point down with 14 players and came back to win, so there's great heart and great fight in there."
That victory earned them a place in the semi-final against Tipperary. Carr started at full-forward and though happy to try what was asked of her, it was too much of a change for someone accustomed to "facing the ball and staying going".
Down trailed by six points at the interval but with Carr back at centre-back and Niamh Mallon finding her range, they got the margin down to two when Sara-Louise goaled two minutes from time to snatch the priceless win.
"During the game we never panicked. I came back and we started putting on pressure. We still missed a couple of chances, but we were continually on the ball and continually creating chances. We were also working very hard so that any time Tipperary did get up the field, we were sending it back. We'd the work done."
Fairytales are notable only because they are rare. Getting the chance to lead Down out at Croke Park in her last game is a wonderful opportunity - but it is only if she is presented with the Kay Mills Cup that she will ever remember the day fondly.
"I've won and lost in Croke Park and it's a fantastic place to win. But I lost three (Premier Junior) finals before I won one (in 2014) and it's a hard place to lose. You build yourself up so much.
"I'm looking forward to it. I'll enjoy it. I'm playing long enough to know these opportunities don't come around too often. We had an opportunity in the Ulster final against Derry and we grabbed it with two hands but we worked for it.
"It was the same against Laois. We worked for it. And it was the same against Tipperary. So I know nothing is handed to you. If we want to be successful in (the All-Ireland), we're going to have to work harder again. It's a step up again from the Ulster final and a step up from the semi-final. You only get things in life if you work hard enough."
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