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Emer Flaherty was part of the Galway side that won the 2004 All-Ireland. Photo: Sportsfile

Emer Flaherty was part of the Galway side that won the 2004 All-Ireland. Photo: Sportsfile

Emer Flaherty was part of the Galway side that won the 2004 All-Ireland. Photo: Sportsfile

After the 2018 All-Ireland semi-final defeat by Dublin, Emer Flaherty knew deep down that she had played her last game for Galway. She didn't make that immediate public knowledge but following a few months of weighing up all the factors she announced that her career was over. By then she was the last link to the Galway team that seized the county's only All-Ireland senior title in 2004.

She could see Galway were starting to rise again, with enough young talent, smart management and mounting ambition to make any departure difficult, but time was against her and the gap to the main cohort of players almost generational.

"I suppose you are clinging on for so long," she says, "with the hope of getting back to Croke Park and that. I think you come to terms with the fact that you are probably empty. Literally at the time you had 17 years put in. It just ran its course."

Remarkably, after winning in '04 when she was 19, and playing in the final the following year, Croke Park suddenly became off-limits, a cold house, and Galway didn't set foot in it again until this year's semi-final against Mayo by which time she had left.

Flaherty could see the quality of the new players emerging and the calibre of the backroom team headed by Tim Rabbitt, who replaced Stephen Glennon as manager at the end of last season. Fitness coach Mike Comer was part of successful Corofin All-Ireland expeditions. The changes brought a level of preparation she had never experienced previously.

"I really enjoyed recent years when you got to see more of a breakdown of your own performance," she says. "Everyone's performance was analysed. Whereas that wasn't done as much in the past. You were constantly in competition with yourself, to reach targets in the gym or on the pitch, trying to improve your turnovers or tackles. At times you felt you would love to have been 10 years younger to experience these kind of changes when you were in your prime rather than at the end of your career. You have a kind of envy of the set-up players have now - but I was delighted I got to experience that at the end."

She was Galway captain as recently as 2017 and played in a league final in 2015, when losing to Cork, but says she is satisfied the day had come to depart.

"For me it was a case that my mind was made up. Life and other things have to be taken into account. I just knew I had nothing more to give."

Before Flaherty and the crew that brought Galway a first senior All-Ireland in '04, there were the early pioneers that reached the first senior final in 1975, losing to Tipperary in Athy. Winning national titles has not proved an easy ordeal for Galway teams with each of six Division 1 league final appearances ending in defeat, the most recent earlier this year. The county's last piece of silverware in senior ladies football was in 2014 when they won the Division 2 final. But there are encouraging signs with notable success at underage levels in recent years.

Flaherty went from winning an All-Ireland junior medal in 2002, to reaching the senior semi-final the following year and then winning the senior championship in '04. In '05 they lost the final to Cork and were edged out by Armagh at Hyde Park in the '06 semi-final by a point. After that the well ran dry.

In the 2004 final they had a poor start, trailing 0-1 to 0-7 with 26 minutes played, but they went on to dominate a John O'Leary-managed Dublin in the second half.

What happened in the years after is mostly explained by the emergence of an outstanding Cork side. Galway didn't reach that same level again but Flaherty kept playing, undeterred, and was fortunate to avoid injury. Last weekend in a challenge game for Tuam/Cortoon, in preparation for next weekend's intermediate club final against Glenamaddy/Williamstown, she broke her ankle. This was going to be her last year but she sounds unconvinced, like she hasn't quite made her mind up on that now. She would not want to end on those terms, on crutches.

She was the most experienced player in the Galway defence last year when they faced Dublin in the All-Ireland semi finals. Three first half goals proved their undoing in a match they lost by seven points.

"There were early goals which cost us in the end," she says. "It will be interesting to see what way Galway set up from the start. The Dublin forward line takes no prisoners and have some real sharpshooters. If they (Galway) go in and settle down early and get scores on the board they will be in with a chance.

"The Dublin backs at times tend to concede fouls; they are so tenacious and tackle so tough it will be interesting to see how the referee manages it. If he starts giving frees, Tracey and Róisín Leonard are able to convert them."

Having played in Croke Park during the recent semi-final win over Mayo will settle Galway, she feels. And she sees room for improvement in some of the Galway players since the semi final, one being Aine McDonagh who was replaced during the course of that game.

"She has a big game in her," states Flaherty. "Galway have a big game in them and they need to bring it. It will take a big performance from everyone; Dublin are going for three in-a-row."

With Galway winning the All-Ireland at under-16 level this year, and minor last year, there is talent coming on stream. Flaherty, an All-Star in '03 and '04, acknowledges that the transition is difficult, a prodigious talent herself when wing-back the day Galway made ladies football history defeating Dublin 15 years ago.

Sunday Indo Sport