KIERAN McCARTHY looks at the Cork ladies’ football conveyor belt that has bene in overdrive and is now powering the seniors
EMMA Spillane never lost an underage All-Ireland or Munster football final with Cork.
In five years the Bantry woman won ten titles between provincial and national level. They came at U14, U16 (twice) and minor (twice) grades, the latter in 2015 and 2016. She’s used to winning. It’s a good habit to form. In her first season at senior for Cork (2017) Spillane impressed so much that she won an All-Star. She won her second successive All-Star last year. She’s still only 20 years old and already a two-time All-Star defender.
Spillane made that jump from minor to senior level look easy – but she’s not alone.
Cork currently has an incredible conveyor belt of young talent that has strengthened the senior panel and added serious depth to Ephie Fitzgerald’s options for the upcoming Munster and All-Ireland championships.
The success of the Cork minor team in recent seasons has come at the right time, says minor manager John Cleary. As Eamonn Ryan’s dominant senior team broke up and established stars like Briege Corkery, Brid Stack, Rena Buckley, Valerie Mulcahy, Angela Walsh, Geraldine O’Flynn, Deirdre O’Reilly and Vera Foley left, it created an opportunity for others to step up.
Unlike the men’s game, and with no U21 grade currently in ladies’ football, players progress faster from minor to senior, and that’s more than helped to ease the pain of such high-profile departures in recent years.
‘It’s worked out that in these last few years a lot of the senior players at the top end of the scale have retired so there were vacancies in the panel, and a lot of girls just out of minor stepped in and took their chance,’ Cleary says.
‘A lot of the players involved in the league final win recently have come from the minor teams of the last three or four years.
‘It’s nice to see, from our point of view, that the girls we had at minor level are moving on to senior and doing well there too.’
The progression of Cleary’s former minors has helped Cork build a new team quicker than most expected. Now Cork possess a very strong panel. Selector James Masters says it’s the most competitive he’s seen in his four years involved. The experienced Orla Finn has hailed an ‘unbelievable panel’, pointing to the strength in depth: ‘We have fix, six or seven subs that can come on and fill the same positions as we have starting players.’
It’s that incredible conveyor belt again. And it’s not just minor level. Cork have completed the clean sweep of Munster ladies’ football this year, winning U14, U16 and minor titles. A new wave of young Cork footballers are used to winning. Cleary’s minors have won three of the past four All-Irelands.
‘We always knew these players were capable of making that step-up from minor to senior but maybe we thought it would take a small bit longer to bed in,’ admits John Cleary.
‘The standard at minor level is very high and there isn’t as big a gap as there is in the men’s game. What has slightly surprised me is how well they have done once they got in. They all seem to be doing well and they all have a nice bit of experience this year, so I can only see it getting better and better.’
Cleary added: ‘There is a lot of good work being done at underage down along and these girls have been lucky enough to be successful too.
‘Not only did the U16s win but they played very good football too. It was attacking football and that’s permeating down throughout all the levels. They are all well coached so when it comes to minor they are ready to step up, so that’s encouraging.’
And in recent seasons Cork’s minors have shown themselves to have major potential at senior level. Let’s look at Cleary’s last four minor teams that have all reached All-Ireland finals, winning in 2015, ’16 and ’17. Alongside Emma Spillane on the 2015 Cork minor team that won the All-Ireland title were several players who featured for the Rebels in their recent successful Division 1 football league campaign – Eimear Meaney (Mourneabbey), Aisling Kelleher (St Valentines), Hannah Looney (Aghada), Eimear Scally (Eire Óg), Laura Cleary (Eire Óg) and Ciara McCarthy (Aghabullogue).
Emma Spillane won her second All-Ireland minor title in 2016. Nemo Rangers’ Saoirse Noonan was a star on that team and scored 2-5 in the All-Ireland final against Dublin. Kinsale’s Sadhbh O’Leary was another to shoot to prominence that year. Noonan was Cork’s super sub in last year’s All-Ireland senior championship run while O’Leary made her debut for the seniors in this year’s league and featured in six of the nine games.
In 2017, as Cork won their third All-Ireland minor A football title in a row, it was Noonan and O’Leary who starred, but that Rebel team also included a strong number of players who lined out for Cork seniors in the league this year – Beara’s Clare O’Shea, Valley Rovers’ Eimear and Daire Kiely, Sarah Leahy from Aghada, Jenny Brew Dinan (Donoughmore), Ciara McCarthy (Aghabullogue), O’Donovan Rossa’s Laura O’Mahony, Nicole Quinn of Bandon, Dromtarriff’s Chloe Collins, Saoirse Noonan and Sadhbh O’Leary.
While the Cork minors didn’t win the four-in-a-row last year, Clare O’Shea, Sarah Leahy, Ciara McCarthy and Laura O’Mahony all started the final. Leaving Cert students O’Shea and O’Mahony, in particular, have impressed in the league this year. O’Shea looks to have made the corner back slot her own and could be around for the next decade. Former minors Eimear and Daire Kiely, the twins from Valleys, have been two of the finds of the league for Cork. They were involved on the panel last year and that season has stood to them this year. Eimear started all nine league games at wing back, Daire started in eight and was a sub in the other.
The young players put on a strength and conditioning programme over the winter with S&C coach Kevin Tattan are reaping the benefits now.
‘Ideally, you want to develop two or three every year but there have been three or four who have come in now, like Laura, Clare and the two Kielys, who have laid down a marker,’ Cork selector James Masters told The Southern Star recently.
‘I would have no issue with them now being in a championship team whereas if we didn’t play them in the league you would be a bit unsure when it came down to the crunch – but we know now they can do it.
‘They have done it against the best in the country and that’s a great boost. They have stepped up, made that jump from minor to senior which is a big one to make, and are in the position now that other girls have to come and get their place. They have set the standard.’
Ephie Fitzgerald’s options for 2019 are impressive. There’s strength in depth there. And the conveyor belt is not finished yet. Fiona Keating, Ellie Jack and Katie Quirke fired Cork to Munster minor glory recently. All three started in last year’s All-Ireland minor final too.