ÁINE Hayes hasn’t forgotten how she felt after West Cork lost last year’s county semi-final.
That horrible, frustrating feeling stuck around for longer than usual. It was an opportunity lost, a chance missed.
She won’t argue with the result. St Vals were full value for their 2-11 to 2-8 win in a rain-sodden Macroom. The best team won. But the real West Cork never showed up; that’s what hurt.
It was the second county semi-final in a row they lost, Mourneabbey too good the previous year, but losing to Vals in the manner they did stung.
‘That was hugely frustrating,’ admits Hayes, this year’s West Cork captain.
‘It was a miserable night and that didn’t suit us and because we hadn’t been together since the last game, it took us too long to get up and running. We didn’t play anywhere near as well as we could.
‘That’s the challenge of a divisional team, trying to get the performance you know you have in you when you’re not training and playing together all year long like a club.’
West Cork are back, again, in another county senior semi-final, their third in a row, as John Cleary’s Éire Óg await them this weekend. With Mourneabbey and St Vals on the other side of the draw, this is West Cork’s best chance of taking the next step in their development and qualifying for a county final.
A third semi-final loss in a row is not worth thinking about. Hayes agrees.
‘If we come away next Saturday having lost, I would be concerned for the future of this team to be honest,’ the 26-year-old says.
‘Brian McCarthy, Anne O’Grady and Denny Enright have put in so much time to this team, getting players together, keeping this going, and it might be hard for them to come back again – and that would be a big blow.
‘Getting to the county final is 100 per cent the end goal and we believe we can get over this next hurdle.
‘We have felt over the last few years that we’ve had a good enough team to get to the final but we just haven’t got over that semi-final stage. It’s been a killer because we have played well in the group stages and that’s because those games come quickly and we can build momentum, but then there are a few weeks to the semi-final and you can lose momentum there.’
The divisional team, in just its third year, has again impressed in the group stages. They beat Saturday’s opponents Éire Óg by 8-12 to 2-11, St Vals by 3-10 to 3-9 and Kinsale by 4-22 to 0-9. Again, as Hayes pointed out, they’ve shone in the group stages. That’s similar to last season and the one before.
But now we’re back at a familiar crossroad they’ve failed to deal with. ‘Most years we have the potential to get to the county final,’ she says.
‘The first year, maybe we were a bit too youthful and didn’t have that experience. Last year it would have been fantastic to get there but we didn’t perform.
‘We have the ability when you look at the talent available.’
Hayes is right. This team is bursting with talent. There is the Cork contingent, Áine Terry O’Sullivan will be hopping off the ground after an excellent All-Ireland final performance, while goalkeeper Martina O’Brien and defender Melissa Duggan are the best players in the county in their positions.
Valley Rovers’ Emer and Daire Kiely are two exciting young players to watch, Skibbereen’s Laura O’Mahony is adjusting to life at senior level, Beara defender Clare O’Shea has huge potential and is a name to remember, while Claire O’Leary, Alice O’Driscoll, Niamh Terry O’Sullivan, Fiona Keating, Siobhan Courtney and Maire O’Brien can all make a difference.
West Cork lost its Kinsale contingent from last season after the club went senior but losing the likes of Orla Finn, Sadhbh O’Leary, Nicole Quinn, Aideen Lynch and Georgia Gould hasn’t slowed down this team’s development.
‘Last year we probably had around ten county players and maybe there were a lot of club players frustrated then, waiting for their chance,’ Hayes explains.
‘People saw it as an opportunity this year and saw that they were places up for grabs. There are four of the girls on the senior team so the club players saw their chance and they’ve really pushed on. I think we have more of a balanced team and we don’t depend on the senior county players as much.’
Hayes also explains how they’ve made an extra effort this year to bridge that gap that exists between club teams and divisional teams.
‘In the past few years we found it difficult to get together because players are caught up with the clubs and the county, and you have West Cork third on the list so it’s hard to get together and train,’ she says.
‘We made an extra effort this year to get together more. Last year we played St Vals in our last group game and we didn’t meet between that game and playing them again in the semi-final. Naturally when we met then we looked like a team that hadn’t played together.
‘Thankfully we have had a few sessions since our last game and we feel we have more momentum going into this week.’
The former Cork senior hopes that momentum and lessons learned from previous seasons can make the difference against Éire Óg on Saturday. She knows the pressure is on, West Cork will be favourites, but she knows that they have the temperament to deliver now when it matters most.
This team needs a county final appearance to keep interest levels high and raise the bar. No more slip ups.