BEFORE a ball was kicked by West Cork in this year’s county football championship, manager Brian McCarthy phoned Claire O’Leary.
He had an idea.
The Rossmore woman (27), new on the divisional panel this year along with several other Clonakilty team-mates, has spent nearly all her football life in midfield – but McCarthy had a different role in mind for his new recruit.
‘She’s strong, combative, energetic and she’s adaptable. Claire can used in a few positions,’ McCarthy explained, as he moved her to wing forward.
It was new territory and a new role – but she’s relished the move, and flourished in the group stage wins against champions Mourneabbey, St Val’s and Bride Rovers.
‘When Brian rang me first and asked me, I was a bit nervous about the role,’ she admitted.
‘I was midfield all my life but I’m being used at wing forward this season.
‘Brian has given me the licence to go forward when I want to but then to get back and defend. It suits me. I’m a runner. Don’t throw me into the corner because I’d feel trapped.
‘I like the freedom that you get at wing forward. I like to get the ball and go forward. But I can also drop back along our half-back line, too.’
McCarthy has given Claire’s performances in this campaign the thumbs up but he won’t have been surprised by what he has seen either.
She has plenty of football pedigree.
Claire played with Cork from U14 through to minor via U16 and has five Munster and five All-Ireland medals. But that’s where her inter-county days stopped. She never played for Cork after her Leaving Cert. She was offered a few trials but politely declined.
Claire was on the Clonakilty team that won the All-Ireland junior club title in 2009, alongside her sister Áine. They formed a fine partnership in the Clon midfield for years. Incidentally, that Clon team was trained by Denny Enright, who is now involved in the management team for the West Cork ladies.
Her older sister Marie doesn’t play while her younger brother Daniel is involved with Kilmeen-Kilbree and was on the Kilmeen team that won the county junior B title in 2015.
GAA is very much in the family with her father, Jerry, one of her biggest fans and who has clocked up countless miles ferrying her and her siblings around the county and country.
‘I’m playing football a long time,’ Claire laughed.
‘I started off with Kilmeen. If I have to thank anyone, it’s Kevin O’Donovan. He helped me so much at the beginning.
‘I started playing with the boys. My brother went to football and I joined in. I played with the boys for years and that toughened me up.
‘I have one county medal with Kilmeen, Kevin was training us that year, we beat Fermoy in Ballincollig, I think. We folded then. A load of girls from Clon played with us but after that we all went back in to Clon and played there.
‘We won a school All-Ireland title in 2007 and Kevin trained us that year, too. And then there was the club All-Ireland with Clon in 2009.’
It’s quite a collection this maths teacher in MICC Dunmanway has amassed – but she’s looking to add a Cork Ladies SFC medal.
That could happen this year, she feels.
Next Wednesday night in Macroom at 8pm, West Cork take on St Val’s in the county semi-final, with the divisional side hoping to repeat their 4-6 to 1-12 win over the same opposition in Rosscarbery last month.
‘They’ll have their homework done on us this time around so we need to be wary,’ Claire warned.
‘We didn’t play that well in the second half against them, they came back strong at us so we need a more consistent performance over the 60 minutes. They definitely had their moments in the second half so when we’re on top we need to make it count.
‘They’ll have more experience when it comes to county semi-finals and county finals compared to us, and we have a young team as well. The furthest I got was to a county semi-final years ago and we lost to Donoughmore. This is a different stage, they will be confident.’
With Clon dropping down to the intermediate grade this season, it opened the West Cork door for players, and six were brought into the set-up. Along with Claire, there is Cork goalkeeper Martina O’Brien, Juanita Brennan, Sinead O’Neill, Ciara Ryan and Lydia Kenny.
‘We were keeping an eye on West Cork last year because they were doing so well and everyone was interested to see how they would get on in their first year,’ Claire said.
‘It’s been brilliant this season, training and playing with the best players in West Cork. We don’t want it to end.
‘We thought we would never get a chance to compete in a county final and win a county title. I remember talking to Áine Hayes (Rosscarbery) and we were saying that this is our chance to win a senior A county medal. The clubs in West Cork wouldn’t have this chance, Clon and Ross wouldn’t be strong enough on our own, but together we have a chance.’
And just like Claire took her chance at wing forward, she’s confident West Cork will take their chance in Wednesday’s county semi-final.