Cora Staunton: I was basically interviewed for my position on the Mayo team. It was disrespectful and disappointing
In exclusive extracts from her new autobiography, Cora Staunton gives her take on the row that has divided Mayo
I arrived home on Wednesday, April 18, and it took some time to reacclimatise to the Irish weather.
It was lovely to see everyone, and the girls were playing some good football under the new Mayo coach Peter Leahy. Peter had been with us the previous year under Frank [Browne] so there was a nice bit of continuity there.
On the Sunday, Mayo beat Cork in the Division 1 National League semi-final, and two days later he rang me to see if I had made a decision about coming back. Mayo were due to play Dublin in the final 11 days later, but I had no intention to return then. The girls had done brilliantly, and besides, I hadn't really sat down and figured things out in my own head. It would be a twenty-fourth successive season, with a four-month season in a new sport thrown on top of that. So I told Peter I'd come back to him after the league final, and that for now we'd say nothing. As far as I was concerned, if the media asked, we agreed to both say that we were going to talk after the league.
The following Monday, just five days out from the final, a headline in the 'Western People' read that Staunton's inter-county future remains uncertain. Peter had been asked about my future with Mayo and he'd spoken about it when my understanding was that we had agreed not to talk - at least not until after the league final.
"We haven't spoken," was the first thing he said. Then, he went on to say, "The reality is the panel is open to anyone who wants to play for Mayo and she's one of the best players in the country. We have an emphasis in place: it's about the team. It's not about individuals. Cora is a big name but if she comes in she'll be coming in as a team player. Our forwards, at the moment, are shooting the lights out. If that continues, we're quite happy with the forwards we have."
Was he saying I wasn't committed to Mayo? Was he saying I wasn't a team player? Was he trying to send a message that he didn't need me, or that he didn't want me? I didn't understand. I thought we had agreed that we'd talk after the National League final. We had also agreed to keep my return out of the papers because the girls were getting ready to play in a final. It should have been about them, but somehow it was about me, and I hadn't even opened my mouth.
On the Saturday, Mayo lost to Dublin in the final. Forty-eight hours later, Peter Leahy asked me to meet him in Breaffy House Hotel in Castlebar. My mind still wasn't made up, but I couldn't let his comments in the 'Western People' go unchallenged.
We met in a quiet corner of the hotel and chatted casually at first about Australia. After a few minutes, I knew he meant business when he pulled out a notepad, as did I. "Rate your fitness out of ten at the minute," was the first thing he wanted to know. Why do you want to play with Mayo this year? What role do you see yourself playing in the team? Aside from football, what can you bring to the team this year?
I was basically being interviewed for a position on the Mayo team! I didn't know of any other player who'd had to sit through something like that. Why me? It was so disrespectful, and disappointing. If I could turn back the clock, I'd have walked out of there. After more than two decades of giving my all to my county, my character and commitment were being questioned, prodded and poked. I was so angry, but I managed to stay calm.
When the line of questioning subsided, I told him how disgusted I was with what he had said in the 'Western People'. That in itself was hurtful, to me, my club and my family. I had never fallen out with him - I'd had him as a coach twice before, in 2013 and 2016, and he knew how I worked and how I put the team first. We'd had many a good talk about football so he wasn't a stranger coming in, trying to figure me out. He knew what I was about, and often praised the winning mentality that Carnacon players had, but now I was getting the impression that he didn't want me back. So I asked him straight out. Did he want me back on the team or not? He said he did, but he couldn't guarantee me a place.
I didn't expect to be guaranteed a place. I just expected fair treatment, and that in no way should my age be a reason not to play me. If I was good enough, then I was good enough. Peter wanted an answer right there and then, but I told him I'd come back to him in a week with my decision.
As we stood up to leave, he had one more question. If I wasn't the free-taker this year, how would I feel about it? I said I wouldn't mind if I was the free-taker or not, so long as the best free-taker on the team was the person taking them. That person, I told him, was standing in front of him. And, with that, I turned and walked away.
I knew I was good enough to go again. Yet, after all these years, did I really need someone questioning my commitment to Mayo football? I made a list of pros and cons about going back - and the cons far outweighed the pros. That said, I made my decision. I was going back. I needed to go back. I was fit and I still had a hunger to win with Mayo. I wasn't ready to hang up my boots just yet. The day before the team was due to reunite after the league final defeat and revisit Clare Island for a training weekend, I texted Peter Leahy: 'I'll be there tomorrow'.
From the off, I was cautious. I didn't know how my return would pan out. In over 20 years playing for Mayo I had only ever joined the season at such a late stage once before, because of the ACL injury in 2008. I doubted myself. Would I start? Would I be dropped? I didn't have a clue.
It was the first time in my career that I didn't question the standards we had set ourselves as a team. That's what I had always done before - asked questions of management and of ourselves as a team. This time around, it was different. I made a conscious effort to keep my head down and focus on my own game. If I could prove that I was still worthy of a starting place, then I knew I would be fine.
But, things didn't ever really feel fine. Obviously every manager is different, not only in how they coach, pick their team and prepare for big games, but also in how they interact with and motivate players.
Peter had a tough approach and I could see that some players weren't thriving in this new dynamic. Some seemed obviously unhappy in themselves, which was worrying at that stage of the season. Others seemed absolutely fine, which proves that what knocks one person will motivate another. Roaring and shouting have always been part of the training process, depending on the manager. Most inter-county players cope well with that as long as they get some encouragement along the way too. Finbar [Egan] and Frank [Browne] were both well able to roar back in their time and I never had a problem with it as they also knew when an encouraging word was needed - and it's not like I haven't been known to shout myself. This just felt different.
In the lead-up to the Connacht final against Galway in June, things seemed to take a turn for the worse. A few of the girls didn't appear to be coping well in the environment and several of us became genuinely concerned for them - I wasn't alone. This was real life, and players have real struggles. As a footballer, as a person, you need a safe place to express yourself.
Some didn't feel they had that any more and it was for that reason a number of us - 12 players and two members of the management team - decided to leave the panel after the Connacht final. I can't speak for anyone but myself, but some of the players affected had been team-mates for over ten years, so while I was aware of the implications of our actions on the remaining players, I felt loyalty was also owed to friends who needed support.
It was extremely difficult to walk away. I didn't take the decision lightly. None of us did. I questioned if I had done the right thing. But, I know who I am and what I stand for. I was raised with morals and principles, and even though it probably wasn't always the popular thing to do, I can always say I stood strong for what I believed in. There were rumours around that I was the cause of a collective walkout; that I wasn't happy because there was talk of using me as an impact substitute. I'm used to untrue rumours circulating about me, but this talk was also a hugely disrespectful assumption to make about the other players involved. The likes of Fiona McHale, Sarah Tierney and Marie Corbett are all very strong, independent women who are well able to think for themselves.
I knew I would be the one to take the blame. I was only in the door from Australia and things had gone south - even I could see how that would look. It was the easy story to run with, but 'it's a long road that has no turning'. It hurt to stay silent but it wasn't about me, it was about protecting my team-mates and respecting their privacy. So, if it was easier for a certain quarter to hang it on me, then so be it. For my friends, I would take it.
Those few weeks were some of the most stressful of my life. I couldn't sleep, and at times I found it hard to cope. I almost felt like I had to go into hiding. I was afraid to walk down town during my lunchbreak because I knew people were talking about me. I was so paranoid that I wouldn't go into certain coffee shops because I was fearful of who I'd see, all the while knowing the truth. It was an incredibly difficult time, for everyone. But, hand on heart, I knew I had done the right thing.