LAURA O’Mahony’s love affair with the GAA began with a football and some imaginary friends in her back garden.
Like thousands of young footballers around the country, the current Cork footballer’s story started in familiar surroundings. A football and a garden at home in Skibbereen helped lay the foundations for what’s been a meteoric rise through the club, divisional and inter-county ranks.
But what makes O’Mahony’s ascension even more remarkable is the fact she didn’t start training or playing football competitively until 2010.
‘Gymnastics was the main sport I was interested in when I was younger,’ O’Mahony told The Southern Star.
‘I never had a huge love for any of the sports I was involved in and quit most of them back then. I’d always be begging for a football at home and began kicking it against a wall or back and forth with my Dad. That’s where my love of football began.
‘It was a case of practising in the garden every day. I was very imaginative and used to have imaginary friends that I’d be playing away with! I attended the local Cúl Camps too but didn’t start playing GAA properly until 2010.
‘I lined out for O’Donovan Rossa at U12 before my Dad started training the U14 boys. I used to go to those training sessions and that helped improve my skills as I got involved in all the drills and games.
‘Looking back, and for someone that plays football at a high level now, I was a late starter. Some of the Cork girls are shocked when I tell them I only began playing football properly about ten years ago.’
Three epic U12 county championship encounters with Carrigaline brought O’Mahony and O’Donovan Rossa on leaps and bounds. The sides couldn’t be separated after a U12 county semi-final and two subsequent replays went to extra-time. Heartbreakingly, Skibbereen lost in the third and final meeting by a single point. That loss still rankles but taught O’Mahony a valuable lesson.
‘Those (three) county championship matches really brought us (O’Donovan Rossa) on even though we were devastated to lose in the end,’ the 19-year-old remembered.
‘We knew we were in each of those games but, even at U12, the disappointment of losing by a point was hard to deal with. At a young age, we would have been watching Cork win all their All-Irelands and kind of expected that we were going to win ourselves at some stage. That wasn’t the case though.
‘Likewise, losing last year’s All-Ireland semi-final to Dublin just shows you all the hard work you put in, sometimes, does not mean you are going to win. You just have to come back stronger and work harder than ever.’
Every child needs a hero to look up to. Unsurprisingly, O’Mahony had plenty to choose from at a time the Cork ladies senior footballers were leaving an indelible mark on youngsters across the country.
‘I always looked up to Briege Corkery,’ she said.
‘I used to watch Briege closely because I played midfield for my club when I was younger. I thought Briege was an excellent player. I loved watching Bríd Stack and Valerie Mulcahy as well. Anyone I watched on television had an influence on me, but that Cork team was special.’
Life was good for the UCC student up until the Covid-19 outbreak. O’Mahony had moved to the city and established herself as one of the Cork seniors’ most consistent performers during the league campaign despite being deployed in an unfamiliar half-back role.
But the Covid-19 outbreak altered everything. Adhering to HSE guidelines, O’Mahony is currently back at home in Skibb along with her mother Deirdre, father James and older sister Grace.
‘I remember being in UCC’s Western Gateway campus building when Leo Varadkar’s speech came on television,’ O’Mahony commented.
‘Everyone watching realised the seriousness of what was happening. I went home that evening with my sister and her boyfriend. I hadn’t brought half of my stuff with me because I assumed I’d be going back up again. A month later and I’m still at home without half my stuff!
‘It is hard to be motivated to complete your college work at times because, up in Cork, there are less distractions. My course is more continuous assessment-based anyway so I’m lucky.’ Determined, hard-working and focussed, O’Mahony possessed all the necessary traits to become an inter-county footballer before making the breakthrough last year.
Cork boss Ephie Fitzgerald had been keeping a close eye on the attacking half-forward at minor level and gave O’Mahony her chance. She grabbed her opportunity.
‘Growing up, I was never the one relied on to get all the scores for my club or West Cork even though I mostly played half-forward or midfield,’ O’Mahony noted.
‘I was often complimented on my tackling ability over the years but never paid much attention to it. Last year, Ephie (Fitzgerald) said to me that he thought I’d be more effective as a half-back.
‘So, they tried me out there in a challenge game. Next thing, I see Orla Finn walking towards me (laughs) and I nearly had a heart attack! It was a 15 v 15 game, but Orla is normally corner forward, so I was running up and down the pitch after her for most of it. I don’t think I did too bad and it gave me the confidence that I could play in that position.’
Despite Covid-19, the signs in the opening rounds of the league were that O’Mahony is ready to make her mark at county level.
In 2017 she made history as the first player from O'Donovan Rossa Ladies GAA Club to win an All-Ireland medal following her success with the Cork minors and now she’s close to earning her spot in the senior team. The best is yet to come. Not bad for such a late starter to ladies’ football.