McCarthy takes long road back to top table
There was a time, even as she had barely entered her teens, when it seemed inevitable that the Niamh McCarthy would play for Cork.
There was a time too, when it appeared certain that the prodigy would never pick up a hurley again. That McCarthy is lining out for the Leesiders in tomorrow's Littlewoods Ireland Camogie League Division 1 Final is a testament to her bravery and character, to her love of playing.
More than anything though, it provides evidence of an intangible that probably has the most value in her estimation, given that she has spent the best part of five years in the solitary pursuit of regaining her fitness: sharing a purpose with like-minded people, with friends, who make each other laugh and then do all they can for one another on the pitch, going through happy and sad times, together.
She almost walked away but McCarthy just missed all that too much. Had she given in to the anxiety about what further torture might lie ahead and hung up the boots for good, she knew she would be haunted by the question that torments us all at one time or another. What if?
It was late February in 2011. McCarthy was 14 but blitzing teams at her own grade wasn't what marked her out. It was that the tyro had brought her goalscoring to the highest level, playing a key role as Inniscarra reached the All-Ireland Senior Club final.
She had always played basketball too. It was her mother's sporting passion and the she enjoyed it as much as camogie. It was during a game on court that she suffered her first cruciate knee ligament injury, a fortnight before she was to be let loose on Croke Park.
dreadful The thought of missing an All-Ireland was dreadful but it wasn't one game itself that stood out in the ensuing years. "All I did was play sport. Every evening would be either two trainings or one training. I loved it. So it was terrible but I thought I'd get my knee right and be out a year. But it wasn't like that at all."
The healing process was tortuously slow. It was thought she might have torn the cruciate again but another operation revealed this not to be the case. She was out for more than two years before she got going again, only for disaster to strike again and she did her other cruciate when she was 17.
Given that she lost out on two or three complete phases of development, it is quite remarkable that McCarthy is flourishing so quickly. It is reasonable to assume that she will improve further.
Cork beat Kilkenny by a point at the beginning of the month but it was an illuminating experience. Meanwhile, the culture within the squad cultivated by the likes of Rena Buckley, Gemma O'Connor, Aoife Murray, Ashling Thompson and other long-serving members is one that appeals to her.
"They want to win so much. Everyone has bought into the way we're playing. Training is going good, there are new players there and everyone is pushing each other forward. When the championship comes, even after the league final, there'll be some fight for places. You have to perform in training.
"The physicality that Kilkenny brought, I don't think any other team that we had played against had brought it. It was more physical than any game I had played before.
"So I'm looking forward to (tomorrow). The fact it's on before the hurling final, that it's televised. It's a big game. Training is going well and we'll give it our best shot."
- Cork v Kilkenny, Live, TG4, 1.30 tomorrow