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Duggan: Cork can play with more freedom in Munster, nobody will be expecting anything from us

April 15th, 2024 9:00 AM

By Kieran McCarthy

Duggan: Cork can play with more freedom in Munster, nobody will be expecting anything from us Image
Melissa Duggan in action for Cork. (Photo: David Ribeiro)

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MELISSA Duggan believes that the down-on-their-luck Cork ladies footballers can still turn their season around. 

The Rebels are reeling after their relegation from Division 1 of the national league, ending their 21-year stay at the top tier, but with the Munster senior championship throwing in on April 20th, Cork have no time to feel sorry for themselves.

Instead, Doheny star Duggan insists the reigning provincial champions have to move on from their dismal league campaign that saw them finish bottom of Division 1.

‘Everyone will have their own approach, but I’d prefer to park it and get on with a new competition,’ Duggan says.

‘The target for the Munster championship is to get back putting in good performances. I’d love to see us get back into the Munster final and we are capable of doing that. We all go to training believing that we are good enough to win matches and get to finals, and that belief is still there.

‘With Munster, because it’s a new competition I think we can play with a bit more freedom because nobody will be expecting anything from us, given how the league went. That will put less pressure on the younger girls.’

Duggan acknowledges that Cork weren’t good enough in the league as six defeats in a row pushed Shane Ronayne’s team through the trap door to Division 2 for 2025. That final round loss (2-14 to 1-7) to Meath in late March that confirmed their relegation hit Duggan hard. Up to then, it was still possible the under-pressure Rebels could muster up a great escape.

‘Even though we were on the brink of relegation going into that Meath game there was still a slight chance we could have avoided it, so that loss hit hard. It was a horrible feeling,’ she says.

‘We knew at the start of the league that we would be missing a lot of players, but we still felt we could compete and win games. It didn't go our way and it was a disappointing league. When you’re playing one week after another and the heads are down, they stay down; it was hard to turn it around with such a young squad. Hopefully with a new competition, we will pick things up again.’

The 2019 All-Star is only 27 years old but is now the third oldest player on the Cork panel. Only Shauna Kelly and captain Máire O’Callaghan are older. Then there is Duggan. In the loss to Meath she was one of only two players who started that match and also the 2020 All-Ireland football final; the other being O’Callaghan. It highlights the player drain that has stripped the Cork ladies football team of its prized assets. 

Martina O’Brien, Roisin Phelan, Aisling Hutchings, Orla Finn, Ciara O’Sullivan and Doireann O’Sullivan have all retired, sharing over 30 All-Ireland senior medals between them. Áine Terry O’Sullivan opted off the panel, Erika O’Shea is playing

AFLW in Oz, Saoirse Noonan switched to soccer, Eimear Meaney is travelling, while Shauna Kelly and Eimear Kiely both missed the league through injury, and dual player Hannah Looney didn’t feature against Meath.

‘I was thinking about the last few seasons and how we have lost 10 to 12 girls in just two seasons. That’s a huge turnover. It’s now you are seeing the combined effect of all these players retiring,’ Duggan explains. This year alone the O’Sullivan sisters Ciaran and Doireann, Roisin Phelan, Meabh O’Sullivan, Eimear Meaney and Laura Fitzgerald are not involved.

‘When we started back for the season, we didn’t expect to be relegated or involved in that battle,’ Duggan adds. ‘But what we are seeing is the knock-on effect of all these retirements, and it will take time for the younger girls to get to that level. Look at all the players who have made their senior debuts this season, we have so many players who had never played senior inter-county before this year.

This new-look. fresh-faced team needs time to gel, Duggan insists, and local players like Emma Hurley (Ilen Rovers) and Katie O’Driscoll (Clonakilty) are in the batch of young guns who are taking the giant step up to senior level. The new kids on the block need time, Duggan stresses.

‘I know myself when I joined the panel that I only saw the effect of the strength and conditioning at the end of the season or the start of the next one; it takes time to see the results from those gym sessions. It doesn’t happen overnight,’ the Dohenys footballer says, as Munster championship games against Waterford away (April 20th), Kerry away (April 27th) and Tipperary home (May 4th) loom. The prize for the top two teams after the round-robin stage is a spot in the Munster final in Mallow on May 18th – and Duggan feels the Rebels can get their year back on track in the weeks ahead before the All-Ireland series kicks in.

‘People shouldn’t give up on us,’ she says, ‘I feel we have enough quality players to still make an impact this year. 

‘The league probably came too soon for us, but we did get a lot of experience and a lot of girls made their league debuts, so those girls won’t fear the championship. It’s important for us as a group to pick ourselves up and move on from the relegation.

‘We also started this year with a new way of playing, a new game plan and a new defensive structure, and that took time to get it right in the league. Hopefully in Munster everything will gel a bit better and I strongly believe we’ll put in better performances.’  

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