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LONG READ: Cork All-Star footballer Orla Finn does her talking on the pitch

February 21st, 2021 6:00 PM

By Kieran McCarthy

Cork footballer Orla Finn is a two-time All-Star (2016 and 2019)

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Two-time ladies’ football All-Star Orla Finn is rated as one of the best forwards in the game. For both Kinsale and Cork she’s been a stand-out performer who does her talking on the field. KIERAN McCARTHY takes a closer look at her rise to the very top

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RUTHLESS. Absolutely ruthless. Still to this day Aisling Judge reckons it’s right up there as one of Orla Finn’s best performances.

‘I’ll never forget that match. She was on a mission, like I’d never seen her before,’ Judge says – and she’s in a stronger position than most to piece together Orla’s highlight reel.

They’ve soldiered together in the same teams since their days at Kinsale Community School. Judge (29) is one year older than Orla, and was one year ahead in school, but they have played together all the way up, for school and club.

Judge, so, has had a front row seat as the girl from Tisaxon More, a few miles outside Kinsale town, grew into one of the best forwards in the country. One match stands out above all others. It was in Kinsale colours. A home clash on a miserable night against the Dohenys. Finn was around 17 or 18 years old. Judge can’t remember the competition, but other memories of that game endure.

‘We were winning at half time but not by much,’ Judge recalls.

‘In the first half Orla, being Orla, had these silky runs through their defence, got clean through on goal two or three times and popped the ball over the bar.

‘At half time our coach challenged her, he called her out. “I want to see you score goals. I want to see that ruthless streak.”

‘Orla was sitting next to me at the time. She didn’t say anything back. She didn’t react, but it was like someone flicked a switch on her in the second half and she went out to prove a point. She had a chip on her shoulder for that 30 minutes.’

Poor Dohenys didn’t stand a chance.

‘I can’t remember how many goals she scored but wherever on the pitch she got the ball she went straight for goal and scored,’ Judge says.

‘We were in awe of that performance. I still am. She didn’t say a word after the game either. She had proved her point.’

Ruthless. Clinical. Competitive. Relentless. Orla did her talking on the pitch.

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Charlie McLaughlin has had a huge influence on Orla’s career. Still now, he’s like a proud uncle when he chats about her. They first crossed paths when he was in charge of the Cork U14 and U16 ladies’ football teams.

The Donegal native knows talent when he sees it – and this young girl from Kinsale, so quiet off the field, was so expressive on it with a ball in her hand. She was a natural. Had that star quality. So when McLaughlin heard she wanted to give up football when she was 13 years old, he – along with her parents, Ger and Eileen – encouraged her to keep at it.

‘Orla had that bit of shyness about her and she didn’t want to play on, but with that ability we couldn’t let her go and walk away. I spoke to her parents and we got her to stay on,’ McLaughlin explains.

Orla was a shy child. She found it hard to go to Cork trials when she was 13 years old, but she had great support at home in her parents.

‘I was very quiet when I was younger but mom and dad really encouraged me. Only for them I wouldn’t have stuck at the football,’ Orla says.

While she has always preferred to let her football do the talking – and it has, in volumes – there’s always been a steely competitiveness behind the Kinsale woman. It’s an innate determination. And single-mindedness. Her dad Ger saw it in her when she was seven years old and competing in U10 relay races for Riverstick/Kinsale Athletic Club in Tullamore or when she was battling her brother Gearoid, two years younger than her, for possession of the ball at home.

‘When I was seven years old running in an All-Ireland I remember that I went out and wanted to win that day. Even then I would never be happy with second or third – and I’m still not now,’ Orla explains.

‘I always want to improve. I always want to be the best that I can be. I would always review the past year and ask myself what can I do to make me better the next year. That’s the same for all people who compete at a high level in any sport, you need that drive to go out and better yourself.’

As the seasons ticked by, from U14 up along, Orla got better and better on the football field. This fleet-footed forward with an eye for the posts was terrorising defences. She picked up two All-Ireland U14 medals. And two All-Ireland U16 medals, including a nine-point haul in the 2008 final against Galway. She was a star by then, Charlie McLaughlin explains, and as her football career skyrocketed, her athletics career was starting to wind down.

Orla ran with Riverstick/Kinsale AC – under the guidance of coach Kathleen Marble – before she ever kicked a ball for Kinsale GAA Club, as the ladies’ section didn’t get up and running for another few years.

That background in cross-country and track & field helps explain the serious engine she still has now and that burst of speed she uses to get away from defenders. She ran at All-Ireland level and even represented Ireland abroad in an international schools’ event where she finished second in the pentathlon (that event consists of long jump, high jump, hurdles, shot putt and 800m).

‘I’d always be fairly fit with football and I do put it down to being involved in athletics from a young age. I was competitive there too,’ she laughs – and that competitive streak is there for all to see in highlights of the 2001 Sciath na Scol final.

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Orla Finn (front row, right) pictured in her Sciath na Scol days with Summercove NS.

Summercove National School teacher Rose O’Regan has a claim to fame: she was Orla Finn’s first coach.

O’Regan also has a video cassette recording of one of Orla’s first-ever football matches – the 2001 Sciath na Scol football decider between Summercove and Ballinadee.

Orla was nine years old and in third class, but she looked at home on centre stage. Brought on as a sub she put herself about in the Summercove attack, looked for the ball, used her speed to get away from her marker and also scored a late goal to seal a 3-2 to 2-0 win. Her older sister Ciara was on that team, too.

The footage is a little grainy but Orla’s quality is undeniable.

Three years later, when she was in sixth class, she captained Summercove NS to a 6-14 to 3-3 win against Berrings in a Sciath na Scol decider. That day she kicked 2-8, and in the Irish Examiner report she was marked out as a ‘certain star for the future’, along with team-mate Vivienne Maher.

‘I remember my dad watching the video of that game and he couldn’t get over her accuracy with her shooting,’ Rose O’Regan says.

Already, Orla was turning heads. And turning defenders inside out. And she just got better and better and better.

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What makes Orla Finn such a good forward? She’s got it all, Charlie McLaughlin explains.

There’s her anticipation to move at the right time, her vision as she plays with her head up, her speed and engine to cover the ground, her movement and balance at pace, her body swerve to wrong-foot defenders, that ability to score off left and right feet, her composure and, McLaughlin adds, her kicking style.

‘Orla is a very unique kicker of the ball. She kicks the ball very fast but is very accurate,’ he says. Her free-taking is immaculate, too, in rain, hail or shine.

Then there are those inbuilt characteristics that elevate her from a good footballer to a two-time All-Star forward. She’s ultra competitive, determined and driven, but all behind this humble and understated exterior. She’s not one for the trappings of centre stage, the hoopla and the fanfare that go with being one of the best footballers in the country, and that modesty can be traced back to home and the support of her parents. Whatever sport Orla wanted to dabble in as a kid, they supported her, and likewise for her siblings, Ciara, Gearoid and Shona. Athletics. Badminton. Basketball. Tennis. Horse-riding. But football pushed itself to first in the queue, and in 2011 she was brought on to the Cork senior panel, just after her Leaving Cert exams.

Cork forward Orla Finn from Kinsale is one of the top footballers in the country.

 

The Kinsale woman had to bide her time, though. She walked into a dressing-room packed with All-Ireland winners, living legends and big personalities. That was daunting for Orla but an important step in her development.

‘I went into a group of girls who had a mind-set of winning, of never giving up, of never wanting to lose. I’m competitive myself but that really helped to drive me and push me,’ Orla says.

She found her feet fast in that first season. There was the All-Ireland quarter-final against reigning champions Dublin when the Dubs led by six at the three-quarter stage before Cork stormed back to win by 2-14 to 3-10. Finn was brought on for the last 14 minutes and scored a point. That day stands out for two reasons – Orla made an impact in a senior championship game and she also ran in her last athletics’ meet hours earlier.

‘It was a clubs’ competition in Tullamore that morning and we left there to go straight down to Birr for the football game. The girls were nearly on the pitch warming up by the time I got there,’ she recalls, but she arrived on the main stage that day, and later in the year too.

‘I was brought on in the All-Ireland final against Monaghan, was fouled for a penalty and Rhona (Ní Bhuachalla) stepped up and scored, and we won.’

For several seasons Orla was in and out of the starting team. That side was a machine, snaffling up All-Irelands, so it’s easy to understand why Eamonn Ryan stuck with his tried and trusted lieutenants. Orla had to wait. And wait. And wait.

‘I was lucky I had a part to play in that team, but it was difficult at times. One year I started every championship game and got dropped for the All-Ireland semi-final and final, and that was hard. The following year I was a sub in the games before the All-Ireland semi-final and final, and then I started both,’ she explains.

Charlie McLaughlin remembers driving to Kinsale town on a wet night in 2015 to chat life and football with Orla. She was thinking of packing it in.

‘She wasn’t getting a break, was in and out of the Cork team, and there was talk she might take a year out and maybe go travelling,’ McLaughlin recalls, but, similar to her Cork U14 days, he felt she was too good to step away.

Stay on, give it one more year, he suggested. They shook hands that night. She never looked back because in 2016 Orla took off.

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There was a changing of the guard in Cork football after the 2015 season. Legendary manager Eamonn Ryan stepped away after leading Cork to their tenth All-Ireland senior title in 11 years. Valerie Mulcahy followed suited. Suddenly, there was an opening in the Cork attack.

Ephie Fitzgerald came in as the new boss. Cork didn’t enjoy the best start that year, losing their opening Division 1 league games to Mayo and Kerry. Then Tyrone came to Mallow.

Even now, Orla remembers the date of that game: February 14th, 2016. That’s the day she found her feet. She had started on the bench, again, but came on at half time to kick 1-9 in the second half. That huge haul included two frees, and from then on she was Cork’s number one free-taker, benefitting too from the expertise of then Cork selector James Masters.

‘She was outstanding, she’s a fabulous footballer and her kicking was exemplary,’ Cork boss Fitzgerald gushed afterwards.

Ger Finn wasn’t in Mallow that day, but Orla rang him straight after the game. He could hear it her voice. That day was the trigger, he feels. It was the boost she needed.

‘I just needed a bit of confidence, like any player. Once one or two things start going right for you, you feel more confident,’ Orla says.

‘I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time that day. We got a free, they told me to take it, I popped it over. And I just got huge confidence from that game.’

Ephie Fitzgerald’s trust and belief in her was key, too. Orla went on to score 3-48 in that Division 1 league campaign. She hit 1-6 against Dublin, 1-8 against Galway, 0-7 in the league semi-final victory against the Dubs and then 0-6 in the final win against Mayo, and also picked up the player of the match award. She was the standout player in the league, carried that form into the championship as Cork won the All-Ireland and she picked up her first All-Star award later that year. She had arrived on centre stage. Now everyone knew who she was.

***

Nemo Rangers footballer Eoin Nation hasn’t forgotten the day when he was told to mark Orla Finn.

The future Cork minor and U20 was on the Nemo U16 team that played the Cork senior ladies in a challenge game a few years back. Finn started at centre forward, Nation was centre back. She never stopped running.

‘Well, how did you find her?’ Charlie McLaughlin quizzed Nation afterwards.

‘I didn’t,’ he replied. ‘Every time I moved to where she was she was gone somewhere else!’

Even when Finn was moved in corner forward, Nation was told to follow her.

‘I’d never marked someone who ran so much in a game,’ he says.

***

Orla Finn pictured with her family after a great day out at Croke Park. From left, Ciara, Shona Gearoid, Orla, and her parents, Eileen and Ger.

 

Micheál O’Connor says Kinsale GAA Club has never had anyone like Orla Finn and he doesn’t know if they ever will again. She’s that good, he insists. He’s been manager of the club’s ladies’ team that has risen from the junior ranks to senior level in a glorious few years – and their Cork star, Orla, has been front and centre, spearheading the adventure.

The Tuesday night after Cork’s 2016 All-Ireland final win, Orla helped Kinsale win the county junior football final against Dromtarriff. They won the Munster title, too, before losing the All-Ireland junior final to Dublin outfit St Maur’s. In 2017, now in intermediate, Kinsale dominated again, and won both county and Munster titles, before more heartbreak when they lost the All-Ireland final by a single point to Meath team Dunboyne. Still, they had risen to the senior ranks, and Orla’s fingerprints are all over that team. She's the ideal role model.

‘Orla has been an example to everyone on the team,’ Aisling Judge explains.

‘If you want to be an elite sportsperson there are sacrifices that you have to make and she showed everyone what’s needed to get to the top, in terms of commitment and application and hard work. She was an example for us because we’d seen her hit the heights in a red jersey.’

Orla, too, has grown because of Kinsale. As one of the older players on a predominantly young team she had to step up and become a leader. She doesn’t shout and roar, she won’t raise her voice, but when she talks everyone listens. It’s why too that Micheál O’Connor asked her to captain the Kinsale ladies last year.

‘She’s a leader, she’s a real club person and she gives Kinsale everything she has. If I ask her to take the forwards for half an hour, she’ll do that and everyone will listen because she’s been there and done that at the highest levels,’ O’Connor says.

‘Everyone can learn from her dedication and determination, the high standards she demands, and she’s a great example for everyone in the club.’

And she’s not finished yet. Orla, who picked up her second All-Star award in 2019, is only 28 years old, and she still feels there’s a better version of her to come. That’s enough to give defenders’ some sleepless nights.

‘I often think that I would have had such a different life if it wasn’t for football. It helped me in every way. Making friends. In college. My career (Orla is a national school teacher at St Joseph's NS in Cobh). I’m a lot more of a confident person because of football and I’m very thankful for that,’ Orla says, as she gets ready for another year of doing what she does best. Again, her football will do the talking.

 

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