She’s five foot two inches tall off the football field but a giant on it, and Melissa Duggan has turned heads ever since she first kicked a ball in the school league at St Mary’s Senior School. Now an All-Star defender and current Munster Ladies’ Footballer of the Year, KIERAN McCARTHY charts her rise from Ballyboy to Croke Park
MELISSA Duggan got lost on the way to her first training session with the Cork senior football team on a dark night in January 2017. Her mother Anne was driving and her twin sister Michelle was in the car too, for company on the long spin from Ballyboy outside Dunmanway to Delaney’s GAA pitch in Blackpool.
Between the three of them, they couldn’t figure out where exactly the pitch was on the north side of the city. The end result: they were parked up at a petrol station with the three confused heads turning in different directions, but still none the wiser.
‘My mom didn’t want me to be late for my first training session and she was panicking in the car,’ laughs Melissa, who wasn’t in panic mode. It’s hard to faze her.
The Dohenys clubwoman wasn’t the only Cork footballer who had taken a wrong turn. Goalkeeper Martina O’Brien, from Ballinascarthy but then living and working in Tralee, was also trying to find her bearings when she spotted the Duggans sitting in their car.
‘I came across Melissa because I was lost too!’ Martina says, ‘but in my defence Google Maps actually takes you to a gate that is no longer used.’
They knew each from the West Cork football scene, so Melissa hopped into Martina’s car and eventually they found the pitch and were on time for training.
That was Melissa’s first night with the Cork senior squad, the beginning of a new chapter, but her football journey had started years earlier.
Even though she left St Mary’s Senior School in Dunmanway in the summer of 2009, Melissa still refers to Anne Healy as Mrs Healy – she was her first big football influence.
Mrs Healy is football mad. That’s her passion. It was a no-brainer for her to take charge of the school’s Sciath na Scol team. She organised a school league, divided into two: junior (second and third classes) and senior (fourth, fifth and sixth classes). Melissa was in sixth class at the time and her only football experience was kicking a ball about at home with her sisters – Louise, Aprille and her twin Michelle.
Melissa and Michelle actually played camogie with Enniskeane and won a county U14 title, but they soon swapped the small ball for the big one.
‘It was obvious from seeing Melissa and her sister Michelle that they were super little players,’ Anne Healy recalls.
‘That was Melissa’s first taste of football but you could see that she had a great football brain and was able to read the game. She was so determined and very willing to learn. Maybe she couldn’t solo a ball, but she could block and she could kick, and she improved as time went on.’
When Sciath na Scol arrived, Melissa had pinned down the number five jersey for herself.
‘No opposition could faze her or pass her, and even though she was small in stature she was a thorn in the side of any team we played.’
Mrs Healy encouraged Melissa to join the local football team, Dohenys, and her school friends were saying the same thing. So, she did. She was up and running in more ways than one.
Melissa undersells the years she spent in athletics with Doheny AC.
‘I wasn’t any good,’ she offers, but a little bit of digging unearths a different version of events, and also helps explain why the Dunmanway dynamo is blessed with such an incredible engine.
She ran both track and cross-country for years and rarely finished outside the top three. Melissa was a regular at West Cork Races and on the same day in 2008 she won gold in the sprint, silver in the 700m and bronze in the long jump. She could do it all. And she did in Doheny AC’s colours for several years, with the 400 metres her preference. The local athletics club has been a great stepping stone for young GAA players in Dunmanway, boosting their fitness levels. Melissa is the perfect example.
It meant Melissa, naturally athletic anyway, had a fierce burst of speed on the football field, and incredible stamina too – and she showcased all that in her first season with Dohenys Ladies’ Football Club in 2010.
Jerry O’Mahony, Niamh O’Donovan and Cathy O’Regan were the coaches of the Dohenys U14s, Melissa’s first team. She was new to this environment but made a huge impact in that first season.
Against the odds, they got to the U14 West Cork C final but they weren’t given a chance against Rosscarbery in the decider played in Drimoleague in October 2010. Melissa and Co turned the formbook on its head.
‘We had a plan worked out that if we got a 45, Melissa would step behind, it would be taken short to her and then she’d run through the centre, and we’d open it up for her,’ Jerry O’Mahony recalls.
They wanted to use her blistering pace, energy and drive. When that moment arrived, the 45 was chipped inside to Melissa and she drove right through the Ross defence and goaled.
‘You couldn’t stop her,’ O’Mahony says.
Dohenys won 3-6 to 1-5 and it was the club’s first underage title in 18 years. Melissa was now a Doheny and that’s a relationship that has worked out well for both.
Mark Farr was the manager that gave Melissa her first game with the Doheny junior ladies. She was just out of U14 and in her first season at U16.
‘When he saw the two of us (Melissa and Michelle) coming, and we were both as small as each other, he didn’t know what to do with us! He probably thought these two craters will never do in football!’ Melissa laughs.
Farr remembers bringing Melissa on in a game against Bantry in the West Cork League. He thought that maybe she was too young, but Susan Collins on the side-line vouched for Melissa.
‘She’s very good, just watch.’
So, Farr brought her on as a sub and, again, she hit the ground running.
‘As soon as she went on she stood out. She wasn’t afraid of anything, she was up and down the field, had bundles of energy, was very athletic, and you could see that she had something about her.’
Physically, she wasn’t big, and Farr admits that he was ‘half wary’ of putting her on, but she was well able to handle herself. That battling spirit is in her genes, from both her dad Michael and mom Anne’s sides. And again, she wasn’t fazed. She just got on with it.
‘She was dedicated. If you had training at 8am on a Sunday morning, she’d be there,’ says Farr, who wasn’t the first coach to be impressed by this bundle of energy, and he wasn’t the last either.
Brian McCarthy has coached Melissa with both the Dohenys juniors and the West Cork ladies senior football teams – and she’s never let him down.
He’s a big fan of hers. He has seen her develop from the quiet, shy young girl to become a leader now with West Cork with a strong voice on the field.
When he took over the Dohenys job from Mark Farr, Melissa was on the Cork minor panel. Her club had sent out a message that the trials were on nearby in Clonakilty, but she’d never gone to trials before and Michelle went along with her so she wouldn’t be there on her own.
Melissa impressed and was brought into the county set-up – and hasn’t left it since.
At the time Denny Enright of St Oliver Plunkett’s was involved with the Cork minors, and when Brian McCarthy took over at Dohenys, he rang Enright for the lowdown on Duggan. It didn’t take the Drimoleague native long to form his own opinion.
‘The first thought that came to my mind is that if this girl goes on a run then no-one is going to catch her; she was that quick with a great centre of gravity. She was a rough diamond, and was unique with her pace and balance,’ McCarthy says.
‘I remember in the early days, asking Melissa to kick the ball from A to B wouldn’t have been her greatest strength but she worked on it and worked on it. That’s the great thing about her, she is constantly working on all her game. She picked it up very fast. Even tactics-wise, where to be on the pitch, her positioning, she listened and learned.’
In 2014 under McCarthy, the Doheny ladies enjoyed a brilliant season, as they won both the county league and the West Cork championship. Again, Melissa played her part. It was noticeable already that she was a big-game player, right at home on centre stage.
‘We played Glanmire in the county league final that year. Midway through the second half we were winning but under pressure. I called Melissa over and told her that we needed a goal. The kick-out came from the Glanmire goalkeeper, Melissa caught it and she ran and ran, no-one could catch her, and she scored,’ McCarthy recalls.
When the need was greatest, she stood up. Like she had with the U14s four years earlier.
McCarthy spent two and a half seasons with Dohenys, and when he was asked to take charge of the new West Cork ladies’ senior football team in 2016, he knew he had to get Melissa on board.
‘I’ll be honest, I remember some of the Cork seniors at the time asking if Melissa was playing with West Cork. When they heard that she was, everyone was happy. That’s how high she was held within West Cork. Maybe outside she wasn’t as well known, but we knew we had a player that we could develop,’ he says, but not long after everyone knew about this five-foot two-inch tall footballer from Dunmanway.
Melissa was one of West Cork’s stand-out performers in that first season, 2016, as they made it as far as the county semi-finals, and it was no surprise that the Cork senior management came calling, asking her to come on board for 2017. Then-Cork selector James Masters issued the invite, and she grabbed it.
Thanks to Martina O’Brien’s intervention, Melissa was on time for her first training session in January 2017 and one of her other memories was the physicality of training.
‘I was so small and they were so physical!’ she says.
‘I remember going in to get the ball and being blown out of a tackle. I didn’t know what I was letting myself in for. But I quickly learned the ropes – and I avoided tackles as much as possible for the first few weeks!’
Twenty years old, she made her debut at corner back in a 5-17 to 1-11 hammering of Kerry in the Lidl Ladies National Football League.
‘Orla Finn was very encouraging and she told me to go out and win the first ball. I remember I did win the first ball so it was a good start and it eased me into the game. At that time I didn’t know who was good for Kerry, I was blissfully ignorant, whereas now you’d know all about the opposition,’ Melissa recalls.
Cork boss Ephie Fitzgerald was impressed and remarked: ‘She might be a player little in stature but she is as brave as a lion.’
That was the start of Melissa’s senior inter-county career and it’s got better and better ever since, as she has developed into one of the top defenders in the country.
She’s now 24 years old, and an All-Star defender after picking up that accolade last year – and the award takes pride of place on a new mantle-piece in the kitchen at home. She was named 2019 Munster Ladies’ Footballer of the Year, while last season, too, saw Tony White’s Dohenys finally win the county junior B football title after losing their previous three county finals. Melissa was also named on the Division 1 football team of the league last season and picked up a winner’s medal.
And this year she was a mainstay on the West Cork divisional team that won an historic county senior title for the first time, saving one of her best performances for the final against Mourneabbey. She was immense that day. Remember, she’s a big-game player. Brian McCarthy is better placed than most to note her development.
‘Melissa’s versatility is unbelievable. She has played midfield, all across the half-back line, has played full back, corner back for us, and she is also an attacking threat,’ he explains.
‘Her tackling was always exceptional, her speed and balance was at a high level, and what she has done now is physically become stronger so she can take the impact and keep going. Her game knowledge and game experience is very impressive, too.’
And what’s even more impressive is that Melissa achieved so much on the football field while studying pharmacy at the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin. Even when in the capital, she religiously made the trip back to Cork mid-week for training. Trains, taxis and automobiles, but that’s a glimpse of her commitment.
The good news away from football is that she is now a fully qualified pharmacist, and had her online graduation two weeks ago. On and off the field, she’s different class. And also an incredible role model for young girls in Dunmanway and across West Cork.
Melissa might not have known where she was going on that first night of Cork senior football training, but we all know exactly where she’s heading to now: the very top.