Wednesday 21 February 2018

'I don't like all these labels put on you, like legend and all that s**t' - Cora Staunton on life in the spotlight

Mayo's star forward is preparing for another All-Ireland senior football final - but it hasn't always been plain sailing

Staunton of Mayo in action during the 2017 TG4 Ladies Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Quarter-Final match between Donegal and Mayo. Photo by Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Staunton of Mayo in action during the 2017 TG4 Ladies Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Quarter-Final match between Donegal and Mayo. Photo by Matt Browne/Sportsfile

Jackie Cahill

Growing up in the west of Ireland, Cora Staunton wanted to be Maurice Fitzgerald.

She idolised the Kerry legend, loved how he played and how he carried himself on and off the pitch.

Staunton in action against Deborah Mangan during the 1999 Mayo v Meath Ladies Football Semi Final. Picture credit; Ray Lohan/Sportsfile
Staunton in action against Deborah Mangan during the 1999 Mayo v Meath Ladies Football Semi Final. Picture credit; Ray Lohan/Sportsfile

At 21 years of age, Staunton had already amassed double the amount of All-Ireland senior medals (four) than Fitzgerald managed in his career with the Kingdom.

But being thrust into the public spotlight at such a young age brought its own challenges for Staunton.

It brought her into real-life contact with Fitzgerald in a social environment, while she also rubbed shoulders with Kilkenny maestro Brian Cody and international superstars like Roy Keane and Sonia O'Sullivan.

Staunton was just 17 when she tasted an All-Ireland senior win for the first time with Mayo.

Her final against Waterford back in 1999 lasted less than a minute, as she had broken her collarbone in training a week before.

The precocious Carnacon sharpshooter was in from the start in a move designed to unsettle Waterford and to an extent, the end justified the means.

"We were on a journey, we thought we were someone," she reflects now.

"Everybody wanted a piece of us. Not that it was thrown at you but there were scholarships for college, we were in the papers.

Martha Carter, Mayo. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / Sportsfile
Martha Carter, Mayo. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / Sportsfile

"Seventeen or 18 and to deal with all of that. Not good at that age, not used to it.

"I'm not very good with attention anyway now.

"I wouldn't be a very outgoing person but all of that made me a bit more outgoing.

"I was sometimes embarrassed by it all or overwhelmed. I was only a normal Joe Soap, going to an awful lot of functions.

"At 17 or 18, meeting the likes of Maurice Fitzgerald, I wanted to be him, Brian Cody, Roy Keane, Sonia O'Sullivan.

"I was only from Mayo, playing football, and I couldn't fathom all of this.

"I was lucky enough that I had Yvonne (Byrne). We went to college and we're still friends. She was a lot more outgoing than me and shielded me from some of it.

"I didn't like the fame. I wanted to be normal and get on with everyday life. I was only a teenager, still only a child."

At 35 years of age now, and with the benefit of all her experience at the top level, Staunton says that she's "a little bit more comfortable with the spotlight".

She speaks better but is still uneasy with a lot of it.

"I don't like all of these labels put on you, like legend and all that s**t.

"You're being built up. I'm a member of a team, playing a bit longer than some people, but they don't speak in terms like that about other people who've achieved as much and are around as long. I'm only Cora.

"Maybe when I was younger, there was more pressure on me and I can deal with pressure better than when I was younger. It can be a hard thing to deal with but you get used to it.

"As you get older, you mature and get better at these types of things.

"Once you have a good circle of friends, people and coaches around you, you're fine. They'll mind you."

What matters most to Staunton is the friends she has made along the way.

She spoke to her former Mayo manager Finbarr Egan recently for the first time in years but the reconnect was instant.

She bumped into sisters Marcella and Christina Heffernan, "hadn't seen them for ages either", and there was a chance meeting with ex-team-mate Denise Horan at a wedding.

The saying goes that old friends are best and Staunton's in good company with Byrne and Martha Carter (pictured left).

When it came to deciding whether or not to go again with Mayo in 2017, Staunton, Carter and Byrne resolved that it was all in, or no one in.

They knew they were very close, having suffered an agonising one-point defeat to Dublin in last year's TG4 All-Ireland semi-final at Kingspan Breffni Park, but there was plenty of soul-searching, nonetheless.

Staunton recalls the hours and days after Sinéad Aherne's last-gasp free had thwarted the Westerners: "After a defeat, you're numb, you can't think of anything. You go away, have a couple of drinks to numb the pain but that doesn't work.

"Reality kicks in on the Sunday morning. As an individual, looking at everything I did that night.

"I'd spent that Saturday night trying to sleep but critically analysing everything in that game I did wrong. A missed free, missed shot, a pass I didn't give.

"Sunday morning, reliving it again. You're numb again and so much is going on in your head. Was that it? Was that how it's going to finish?

"The team sticks together for a day or two, nobody wants to leave each other.

"I'm so lucky that I can go back to club training on the Wednesday or Thursday night.

"Not that you've forgotten, but it's a huge distraction when things don't go well.

"It eases the pain a little bit. Throw yourself into club for a couple of months and go back to that place again. Decision time - what do you want to do?

"Deep down, you never stop believing, you always have that bit of faith, when you're that close. While it's heartbreaking, you know you're not that far away.

"If we got hammered out the gate would you have the heart for it again? Possibly not but we were very near that night.

"I enjoyed the Christmas, didn't talk too much about football but the decision had to come very quickly.

"When January comes, if I'm not back in, I'm not back at all.

"As friends, we were afraid to mention it to each other but in the end, we mentioned it.

"I probably pushed Yvonne back more, whereas she wanted to come back last year more than I did.

"But I won't forget the day me and Yvonne made the decision - she was minding her Dad, who's sick, and I paid a visit. Maybe it was the distraction she needed."

Staunton came back for days like tomorrow, and the chance to claim a fifth title.

"I still haven't let myself think that we're in an All-Ireland final - I'm taking it as another game.

"There's been enough s**t written about us and people have tried to get rid of myself and Yvonne, and they pulled us out of the championship."

Staunton is referring to a storm that blew up in 2010 when Mayo's county board withdrew the team from the championship.

Former manager Pat Costello had resigned in April of that year, claiming that he was constantly undermined by players in the panel.

The Ladies Gaelic Football Association responded by insisting that Mayo be reinstated.

"We stuck around and it's two fingers to all the people who tried to stop us," says Staunton now.

"It's satisfying from that point of view, that we're back here now.

"It fell back on me and Yvonne (at the time), there was so much s**t said about us.

"It could have been detrimental to our careers, not just football, but life in general.

Delighted

"This is for the players who stuck there through thick and thin, when times weren't good, and I'm delighted they'll get the opportunity to play in Croke Park.

"But I cannot harp on to them enough about the huge difference between All-Ireland day in winning and losing."

Staunton experienced final losses in 2001 and 2007, and she admits: "I can tell you everything about those defeats. They're in the back of your mind and they haunt you all the time.

"The only goal is to win and there's no more depressing place in the world to be when you lose a match."

It's winner takes all - something Staunton doesn't need to be told.

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