LAST WORD COLUMN: It’s taken years of work for the West Cork senior ladies' football team to reach the summit

September 20th, 2020 7:15 PM

By Kieran McCarthy

West Cork manager Brian McCarthy chats to his players after their 2020 Cork senior football final win against Mourneabbey at CIT.

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LAST Monday morning was the first time since I began working from home in March that I wished I was in Southern Star HQ in Skibbereen.

It wasn’t because of our regular Monday morning meeting – Zoom calls work quite well for me, thanks – but because I wanted to congratulate Brian McCarthy on scaling his own Everest after masterminding West Cork ladies’ historic first county senior football final triumph.

Before Brian joined the Star, I knew him as the West Cork manager, but I’ve grown to know him a lot more since we started working together – and my biggest takeaways are:

  • He loves to talk. In fairness, he’s good at it.
  • He has a passion for football.
  • He really loves to talk.
  • He has poured his heart and soul into the West Cork senior ladies football team these past five years.
  • He’s a Liverpool FC sympathiser.
  • We’ve spent hours and hours talking football at work, always under the guise that ‘it’s for work’ when the reality is we just wanted to talk football.

In 2018 and 2019, he was at work the Monday mornings after West Cork lost the county finals to Mourneabbey. There was no sulking. Maybe a shrug of the shoulders, an acknowledgment that the better team on the day won, but there was always a regret. He knew West Cork were close. So close. But still, not close enough to topple Mourneabbey. They didn’t play to their potential in those two county final defeats. And that gnawed at him.

There were times when he wasn’t sure whether he’d stay on as manager for the following season, but he always did. He just couldn’t walk away, not after investing so much time and energy into the project since it came online in 2016.

He always believed West Cork could win the county title, but it’s not been an easy journey. There is the logistical challenges of managing a divisional team which, in the pecking order, is behind club teams.

There’s the ever-changing panel of players. West Cork can pick from junior and intermediate clubs in their division, but once a club goes senior then their players are not eligible for the divisional team. Kinsale were involved at the start but then went senior. Bantry were involved in 2016, went senior but have since dropped back to intermediate. Beara were senior in 2016 but then came down to intermediate. Clonakilty are now going senior in 2021.

It’s hard to develop a side when the personnel changes so much, but Brian and his management team (hat-tip here to Anne O’Grady who has been involved since the start and is such an important figure in this success story) have always worked with the players that they have available. Take this season: Niamh Cotter transferred to Kilmacud Crokes in Dublin, Claire O’Leary wasn’t available and Laura O’Mahony is injured, so they were down three starters from 2019. On paper, the West Cork team looked weaker, but the reality is that they were stronger than ever this year. That’s a testament to the environment that the management has created. This is a divisional team that feels like a club team – and that doesn’t just happen.

It takes time for friendships to develop and players from different clubs to gel, but McCarthy saw something in the group this year that gave him great belief as the campaign progressed. They were maturing. They focussed on themselves this year. It was about them and what they could control, and not about the opposition. That’s why when Mourneabbey struck for 1-2 inside the opening few minutes last Saturday, the West Cork boss didn’t panic.

‘The belief within the camp has been unbelievable all year. I know we got an early setback but we said if that happens, then don’t panic, there’s a long way to go and you have to give credence to the quality of the opposition,’ he said.

‘We had to reset and go again. The girls knuckled down and got on with it. This year we have looked internally at ourselves and concentrated mainly on ourselves and what we can control on the field, and to play our own brand of football.’

West Cork took the game to Mourneabbey and stuck to their game plan: get quick and accurate ball into the inside forwards as fast as possible, ideally kick passing, and let the attackers do what they do best. It’s easy-on-the-eye football, and it works. They scored four goals against the reigning All-Ireland champions last weekend, they won playing good football and they banished the defeats of 2018 and 2019.

It may be third time lucky, but there was nothing lucky about West Cork’s triumph. This was the target ever since they got together before their first game against North Cork in July 2016. When Brian McCarthy got a phone call from John McCarthy of Bantry Blues to see would the Drimoleague man be interested in starting up the West Cork senior ladies’ football team, he didn’t hesitate. He saw the potential. His first call was to Anne O’Grady of Bantry. She saw the potential, too. They were up and running, and five years on, that potential has been realised. There were ups and downs, including a move by several clubs to oust West Cork from the senior championship in 2019 which thankfully came to nothing. In 2016, East Cork and North Cork also entered teams in the county championship, but only West Cork persevered.

The people involved believed in the project too much to pack it in. They know how important it is for players from junior and intermediate clubs to get the chance to play senior – and now young girls across the division have seen West Cork win a county senior title.

That makes being involved in the set-up next year and beyond even more attractive. Not every young girl in West Cork will get the chance to play for the county, but they will have a chance to play with West Cork; that’s incredibly important in their development and the growth of ladies football locally.

Áine Terry O’Sullivan, Martina O’Brien, Libby Coppinger, Melissa Duggan, Emma Spillane, Eimear Kiely, Daire Kiely, they’re all established county players over the past few seasons and role models locally, but now Lisa Harte of O’Donovan Rossa, Sarah Hayes of Rosscarbery, Eve Murphy and Rachel Murphy of Bantry Blues, Castlehaven’s Siobhan Courtney, they’re all county senior champions too and they return to their clubs as heroes.

West Cork need to build on their success this season and create their own dynasty. Ladies football is very strong in the division now. Clonakilty are county intermediate champions, Valley Rovers are junior A winners, while Castlehaven defeated O’Donovan Rossa in last Saturday’s county junior B decider. It’s all trending upwards.

Maybe, on second thoughts, it’s a good thing I’m working from home and not in the office, as the football conversation with Brian McCarthy would still be in full flow days later. And guess who would do most of the talking …

Congrats to Brian, Anne, the management team and and all the players involved, past and present. You’ve shown that the West really is the best.


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