EMMA Spillane has surprised herself this past season.
On the last Sunday of January, the Bantry Blues teenager made her senior debut for the Cork ladies’ footballers, coming on in the national league Division 1 opener against Kerry in Mallow, a tie the Rebels won with ease, 5-17 to 1-11.
With 12 minutes left in the second half, Emma stepped on stage, replacing Sinead Cotter, her first taste of senior football, and she was delighted with that.
Her goal before a ball was kicked last season was to break onto the Cork senior panel.
Not only did she do that, but Emma, who turned 19 on Monday, went on to become a mainstay in the Cork defence to such a level that she is the county’s only TG4 All-Star winner this year, named corner back on the star-studded team. It’s an incredible rise within 12 months – but those that have followed her journey through the underage ranks won’t be surprised, with five All-Ireland and Munster medals to her name from her early days with Cork.
‘I was absolutely shocked when they called out my name last Saturday night,’ Emma said, still coming to terms being named on the 2017 TG4 Ladies Football All-Star team at the awards night in the Citywest Hotel, Dublin.
‘I wasn’t expecting it at all. I was looking around me waiting for someone else to get up.
‘At the start of the season my target was to try and be one of the 30 players on the panel. I wasn’t looking any further than that.
‘I never really thought about getting on the team and starting, to be honest.’
But after making her debut, manager Ephie Fitzgerald liked what he saw in the Bantry Blues defender and she became a permanent fixture through the league, starting at corner back as Cork beat Donegal in May.
Then came the Munster championship and while that was disappointing for Cork with losses to Waterford and Kerry, Emma made her senior championship debut in the 3-11 to 1-11 loss against the Déise, just days before her Leaving Cert exams.
‘I played a game three days before the Leaving Cert, away to Waterford, and I finished my exams on the Thursday and we played Kerry in Killarney on the Saturday,’ explained Emma, Bantry’s first All-Star footballer since Graham Canty in 2010.
‘It’s been a busy year, I’ve crammed a lot in, and I didn’t expect any of it.
‘I felt what it was like to win when we won the league title and I saw the other side of it then when we were beaten and knocked out of the All-Ireland semi-final so I experienced a lot in one season.’
The UCC Commerce student blossomed as the season progressed, looking at home at the top tier.
‘What I found straightaway is that senior is a lot more physical,’ she explained.
‘I was coming up out of minor so that’s a shock to the system but I settled in pretty fast, especially with all the training and then games. Once you get more comfortable you become more confident because you know you’re able for it.’
That All-Ireland semi-final loss to Mayo was a disappointing end to what was a breakthrough season for Bantry’s finest who is convinced that Cork will be back in the hunt for All-Ireland honours in 2018.
‘With the minors winning All-Irelands there is talent coming through and I don’t think Cork are going anywhere anytime soon,’ she said, with the new season just around the corner, and another chance for Emma to make her mark.
She was one of nine first-time All-Star winners – but we’re pretty confident that it’s the first of many for this Bantry star.
There’s more to come.
The 2017 TG4 Ladies Football All-Star team: Ciara Trant (Dublin); Emma Spillane (Cork), Sarah Tierney (Mayo), Rachel Ruddy (Dublin); Caroline Kelly (Kerry), Ciara Hegarty (Donegal), Leah Caffrey (Dublin); Lorraine Scanlon (Kerry), Aileen Gilroy (Mayo); Aimee Mackin (Armagh), Niamh Hegarty (Donegal), Nicole Owens (Dublin); Sinéad Aherne (Dublin), Cora Staunton (Mayo) and Noelle Healy (Dublin).