Last Word Column by Sports Editor Kieran McCarthy
THE first time I met West Cork ladies senior football manager Brian McCarthy in person was in Ballyvourney on Friday night, July 22nd, 2016.
That game sticks in the memory for two reasons: 1) I couldn’t find the pitch, and 2) it was the first-ever match for the West Cork ladies’ senior football divisional team.
I’d spoken to McCarthy on the phone a few times in the run-up to the game. He was both enthusiastic about the creation of the West Cork team and optimistic about its future. What he said then is still relevant now.
It’s a chance for players to showcase what West Cork ladies football is all about, he said. It’s an opportunity for players from junior and intermediate clubs to come together and test themselves at senior level against the best players in the county, he added.
West Cork won their first-ever game by 3-8 to 0-15. They beat North Cork. Twenty-nine players togged out that night. There were players from Rosscarbery, Kinsale, Bandon, Bantry Blues, Castlehaven, Dohenys, Keelnameela and Clann na nGael involved. Since then players from Clonakilty, O’Donovan Rossa, St Colum’s, Courcey Rovers and Valley Rovers have all made their mark. This divisional team covers all of the West Cork division.
In that year’s county senior football championship there were four divisional teams: West Cork, North Cork, East Cork and Beara.
In 2019, only West Cork are still senior. Those North Cork and East Cork teams don’t exist anymore. Beara are intermediate – and are now part of a West Cork team that has grown, in its short life, into genuine championship contenders.
Clann na nGael man McCarthy has been at the helm from the very start. So too has Anne O’Grady of Bantry Blues. Denny Enright was involved too for those first three seasons as the team improved and soaked up the losses of both Bantry Blues and Kinsale who both went senior on their own. (Bantry have regraded this year and are now back in with West Cork)
West Cork lost county senior semi-finals in 2016 and 2017. But they were improving. The talent in the division filtered through. Last year they reached their first county senior final where they faced reigning champions Mourneabbey. The club side won after a replay. Both games were terrific spectacles for ladies’ football in Cork – and received more media coverage than any ladies’ county final had before.
West Cork has been a breath of fresh air in the county championship. They are genuine contenders to five-in-a-row winners Mourneabbey who have bossed this competition in recent years.
Mourneabbey manager Shane Ronayne told the Star ahead of last year’s county final that his side needed to ‘play the best football they’ve played in a long time to win’. They have had to raise their level because of the West Cork threat. Competition is good. It drives standards. What no-one wants is a one-horse race.
If West Cork weren’t allowed compete in this year’s county championship, it would be a one-horse race.
Mourneabbey are All-Ireland champions. They’re Munster champs. And the best team in Cork. They’ve also added Dublin forward and 2017 Footballer of the Year Noelle Healy to their ranks this year. They are the team to beat.
Eire Óg under John Cleary are certainly improving, are a team on the rise and probably are the pick of the chasing bunch of club sides. West Cork beat them 2-10 to 1-6 in last year’s semi-final. The sides were level after 48 minutes.
St Vals aren’t the force they once were. You also have Aghada, Fermoy, Bride Rovers and Kinsale.
2018 beaten finalists West Cork are a real threat. Ironic so that it’s now that the legitimacy of their involvement in the Cork SFC was queried. When they were viewed as fodder in their early days, nothing was said, apart from a few digs at their huge geographical pick.
Brian McCarthy heard the news before most. There were mumblings that this was in the offing. But this was real. A letter from a senior club, outlining their concerns, was sent to the Cork County Board ahead of the April 29th meeting.
The letter recommended that the 2019 Cork SFC ‘be confined to senior club teams and teams made up from the amalgamation of three junior clubs or one junior and one intermediate club as per Rule 188 official Guidelines 2019.’
It added that the current West Cork team that draws from four intermediate teams and numerous junior clubs is now too strong for most of the senior club teams in the county. (To be fair, West Cork is very strong. The panel includes many Cork seniors including Martina O’Brien, Melissa Duggan, Aine Terry O’Sullivan, Clare O’Shea, Libby Coppinger, Emma Spillane, Niamh Cotter, Eimer and Daire Kiely and Laura O’Mahony. But all are within their catchment area and none play for senior clubs. And even with these talents, West Cork has never won a county senior title.)
The letter wasn’t discussed at the April meeting. It was too short notice. But it was to be brought up at the May meeting, held last Monday night at the Rochestown Park Hotel. In the meantime, there was support from several other senior clubs that felt West Cork are too strong for the competition. Mourneabbey, St Val’s, Eire Óg, Kinsale and Aghada all shared the same view.
It’s important to note here that this letter didn’t take the form of a proposal to remove West Cork from the competition – but it did query the legitimacy of the divisional team taking part.
Rule 188 of the Ladies Gaelic Football Association official guide was quoted. That rules says: ‘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.’
That rule addresses amalgamated teams that go forward into the provincial and All-Ireland series. If West Cork won a county title they won’t advance to Munster. The county board can also run a competition as they see fit. The executive of the county board also met in advance of last Monday night’s meeting and unanimously backed West Cork staying in the senior championship.
On Monday night it was recommended that West Cork should remain in the competition. Various speakers for the division spoke passionately and impressively, including West Cork LGFA PRO Brian Cotter. There was no resistance. West Cork were given the green light.
Áine Terry O’Sullivan is from Allihies. She’s a Cork senior. She’s also a West Cork footballer. Áine told the Star last year: ‘Beara is a rural location and with the lack of numbers over the years we have struggled in the past. When you have girls representing junior clubs, reaching a county final (with West Cork) will be a huge boost to those areas.’
The West Cork divisional team has added new life to the county championship – but it’s also very important for the development and ambition of players in clubs in West Cork. It is a target for young players to reach; they want to play for West Cork seniors. It’s the chance for players from junior and intermediate clubs to play senior football, some who will never get that opportunity with their clubs.
The good work on the ground at clubs in West Cork that is now being highlighted by the West Cork team has to be welcomed at county level too. This divisional team is giving players the chance to play at senior club level and the Cork management team is watching on. It’s polishing the gems unearthed by their clubs. Look at Dohenys’ Melissa Duggan. After her first year with West Cork she was called into the county panel and is now regarded as one of the finest defenders around.
While other senior clubs are well within their right to raise concerns over West Cork – and it’s huge geographical spread will always lead to detractors – what the division has achieved should be used as an example to other divisions.
There is a lot of football talent across the county. But we have only seven senior clubs. The other divisions need to be encouraged to get their house in order and follow the template West Cork has set.
Brian McCarthy is staying on as West Cork manager. He is joined on the management team by Anne O’Grady and James O’Mahony. The groupings for the championship have not been ratified yet but West Cork will start as second favourites, behind Mourneabbey.
‘It’s going to be a big challenge this year,’ McCarthy says. ‘We’re not a club side and we don’t get together as often as clubs do.’ After Vals beat West Cork in the 2017 county semi-final, manager Simon Foley said, ‘Over the last few weeks we have been working on unity because at the end of the day we are a club and when it comes to the crunch in a championship game it’s hard to beat that heart and determination.’
West Cork are a threat this season. But they have a lot of work to do yet.