LAST WORD COLUMN: The battle to secure West Cork’s future has started

February 28th, 2021 6:10 PM

By Kieran McCarthy

The West Cork team celebrates their historic 2020 county senior football final win.

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THE battle to secure the future of the West Cork ladies’ senior football team received a boost this week – but the main war lies ahead.

First, the background.

Last year the West Cork ladies’ football team, which has been competing in the county senior championship since 2016, won the senior title for the first time. It was an historic success, celebrated all over West Cork as the divisional team is made up of numerous clubs across the region; from Valley Rovers over to Beara, from Dohenys to Castlehaven.

Therein lies the issue: the number of clubs that make up the West Cork senior team.

In the LGFA official guide, Rule 190 includes: ‘County Boards may allow players from three Junior clubs or one Junior and one Intermediate club to amalgamate to form a Senior team, without losing their Junior or Intermediate status.’

The West Cork team in its current guise draws from more clubs than that rule allows.

In 2019 the legitimacy of the divisional team was queried by other senior clubs when a letter was circulated recommending that the senior championship be confined to senior club teams and teams made up from amalgamations that are in line with the official guidelines. The contents of that letter were discussed at a county board meeting and the end result was that West Cork was given the green light to continue as it is.

It’s important to note here that there is no wrongdoing whatsoever on West Cork’s part. The Cork board run the championship as they see fit, and that allowed West Cork to enter, as did the North Cork and East Cork divisional teams when they competed in the 2016 senior competition.

After West Cork won last year’s county final, this issue surfaced again. As a divisional team that doesn’t meet the criteria set out in the LGFA official guide West Cork couldn’t progress to the provincial series as Cork’s representatives. Worth noting too that West Cork didn’t try to advance either. The county championship is where their interest lies. So, runners-up Mourneabbey – the reigning Munster champions – were put forward to fly the Cork flag but it hit a hitch as they weren’t county champions.

Eventually, the matter was resolved with Mourneabbey allowed to progress into Munster, but the LGFA fined the Cork Ladies Football Board for breaching Rule 190 (because they allowed West Cork enter with more clubs than the rulebook says) and told the board they must abide by the rules of the official guide in organising future competitions. That suddenly threw the future of the West Cork senior ladies’ football team into doubt. They were an illegal team in the eyes of the rulebook.

But the West Cork LGFA Board – headed up by new chairman Brian Cotter – and everyone involved in this team knows that the benefits of the divisional outfit are far-reaching and hugely beneficial to ladies’ football in the region, and even beyond.

Young girls in local clubs, from junior up to intermediate, across West Cork can aspire to play senior with their divisional team. That drives standards and keeps girls playing football and active. They have heroes and role models too in the current West Cork team that are county champions and packed full of local women who they can aspire to be like. Libby Coppinger. Áine Terry O’Sullivan. Melissa Duggan. Emma Spillane. Martina O’Brien (now Cork senior captain). Siobhan Courtney. Sarah Hayes.

Success breeds success, and last year’s county title win was a boost locally, but also to the Cork inter-county teams, from underage up to senior, who will benefit from the explosion of ladies’ football in West Cork. In 2020 West Cork (senior), Clonakilty (intermediate), Valley Rovers (junior A) and Castlehaven (junior B) all won county titles. Look, too, at the number of West Cork players on the Cork senior team, and the divisional outfit has given players like Melissa Duggan, Laura O’Mahony, Daire and Eimear Kiely, all playing with junior football clubs, the chance to test themselves at senior, and they’ve excelled.

West Cork has driven standards in the county senior championship, too. They are genuine title challengers for a Mourneabbey team that has steamrolled all the other clubs in recent times. In fact, All-Ireland club champions Mourneabbey were going for the seven-in-a-row at county level last season before West Cork shocked them. If West Cork weren’t there, Mourneabbey could rattle off ten-in-a-row and more – and that would be detrimental to the senior championship. Who wants to watch the same team win year after year? Bar the team who wins, no-one does. The inclusion of this West Cork team is good news for Mourneabbey because it will make them raise their standards. Is it a coincidence that since West Cork have come along and forced Mourneabbey to up their game that they’ve won two All-Irelands?

‘I think it’s hugely important to have in Cork county. There are development teams in West Cork, from U13 upwards, and that’s already developing players for the future of a county team, but it’s also developing young girls and giving them an outlet to play football and meet people and meet friends and exercise,’ explained Cork captain Martina O’Brien, who was the goalkeeper on the victorious West Cork team last season. (This year she will play senior with her club, Clonakilty, who won the 2020 intermediate championship)

The positives for West Cork’s inclusion far outweigh the negatives, and that’s why a motion – that wants to include divisional teams in championships as a rule – has been sent forward to the LGFA Congress to amend Rule 190 to include: ‘County Boards who operate Divisional Boards as per rules 181 and 182 may allow Divisional teams made up of non-senior clubs within the Division to compete in their Senior County Championship without losing their Junior or Intermediate club status.

‘A Divisional team that wins the County Senior Championship shall not be permitted to represent the County Board in the Provincial and All Ireland Club Championship.

‘The County Board concerned shall have in place competition structures, ratified by its clubs and submitted to Provincial and Central Councils prior to their competition commencing, which outline how the Club representing it in the Provincial and All Ireland Club Championship is decided in the event of a Divisional team winning its senior championship.’

This motion was ratified by county delegates at a county board meeting on Monday night, passing by 45 votes to 18, and it will now be debated at an LGFA Special Congress later in the year, and not at next month’s LGFA Congress. If the Special Congress is held later than the Cork senior championship then it could mean West Cork might have to sit out this year’s competition. That might be a small bit of pain to take for long-term gain if the motion does pass – and now the need is there to convince other counties about the benefits of this motion. In truth, it affects only Cork as we have a divisional team here, but the West Cork success story should be championed and used as a template for others. Why can’t North Cork or East Cork get their house in order and follow in West Cork’s footsteps?

In men’s GAA, divisional teams can draw from as many intermediate and junior clubs within their division as they like. Look at the Carbery men’s football team. In the Carbery team that lost to UCC in the county senior championship last season, players from nine different clubs featured. Manager Tim Buckley knows the benefits of that team for Carbery, and while the LGFA has a different rulebook, those benefits transcend genders. You get to train in a senior football environment, think like a senior footballer, use it as stepping stone to senior inter-county, bring that knowledge back to your club, etc.

The battle now will be to convince other counties that this motion works and will benefit ladies football. In truth, too, because under this motion divisional teams like West Cork can not go forward into the provincial series, it won’t have a knock-on effect on other counties’ chances of success.

The first battle was won this week. Now let’s hope West Cork win the war ahead.

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