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LONG READ: Martina O'Brien has the safest pair of hands in ladies’ football

December 19th, 2020 4:00 PM

By Kieran McCarthy

Cork footballer Martina O'Brien has held the number one jersey since 2014.

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Ballinascarthy woman Martina O’Brien will be between the posts for Cork in Sunday’s All-Ireland final so KIERAN McCARTHY decided it’s time we all got to know the Rebel number one a little bit better

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PETER O’Leary remembers the first time he laid eyes on Martina O’Brien. It was at the Newtown pitch in Rosscarbery, sometime in early 2007. Back then the current Cork LGFA PRO was part of the Cork ladies’ senior B football management team and they brought a 17-year-old Martina into the fold.

‘Like any good goalkeeper she wasn’t fond of running,’ O’Leary jokes, and as a former shot-stopper himself, who wasn’t a fan of physical exertion either, he sympathised.

‘I remember we were training on the old pitch in Rosscarbery and there was this girl struggling with the running. It was Martina. She was the youngest player we had on that panel and what stood out to me was her attitude more so than her football ability.

‘It’s very easy for me to say now that she had what it takes, considering what she has gone on to achieve, but her demeanour and her bravery were very impressive for someone who was so young.’

The Castletownbere man remembers one Cork B training session in particular. It was early on a Sunday morning in Carrignavar. A few members of the panel – not Martina, we’ll stress – had visited a well-known watering hole in Cork City the night before and they weren’t in the best form for this 9am session.

‘We put away the cones we had laid out and instead decided to put on a running session,’ O’Leary says.

‘There was a field behind the pitch, we ran them for 30 minutes with no break. Everyone struggled that morning but there was no way Martina would give up. She kept going and going. It was her attitude that stood out, she just had something about her.’

O’Leary was proved right. This young girl from Ahaliskey in Ballinascarthy was a bit special between the posts. Between 2007 and 2011, she won three Aisling McGinn medals with the Cork senior B team. From the start Martina

was already well used to success.

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Martina’s first football team was with Sacred Heart Secondary School in Clonakilty. It was 2006, she was 16 years old and in fourth year. She naturally gravitated towards goal.

‘It was going to be goals or nothing for me,’ she says.

‘When I started playing camogie with Ballinascarthy I was in goal. When I played with the boys I was in goal. When I played hockey for the school I was in goal, so when the football team started up I was in goal, too.’

The next step was to join a local GAA club. Her home club Bal had no ladies’ football team and the closest club who had were Kilmeen, 20 minutes over the road. Her friends from school also played with Kilmeen so it ticked a lot of boxes. Straightaway, there was success.

In 2006 she was between the posts for Kilmeen’s U16, U18 and junior football teams. That was the first year that Kilmeen fielded a junior team and they went on to win the county junior C title, defeating Fermoy in the final. The average age of that Kilmeen team was 16 years old.

Success seemed to follow Martina. In 2007 she was in goal as Sacred Heart won the All-Ireland post-primary schools’ ladies football senior B title for the first time.

‘I got called for trials for the Cork senior B team and that probably sparked more of an interest in football because I was playing it competitively and I was playing with a county team,’ Martina explains.

She’s never hidden that her first sporting love is camogie. She’s played that all the way up, since she was six years old with Ballinascarthy, but then football took over, helped by the success she was enjoying with the big ball and the inter-county recognition that followed.

‘The senior B competition was very important because Cork were so successful at All-Ireland level then, winning All-Ireland title after All-Ireland title under Eamonn Ryan,’ Martina explains.

‘It was very competitive at the time. There were players on the Cork B team that would have started on the first team in any other county. The B set-up was a natural stepping stone to the senior squad.’

Success on the club scene kept coming, too. When the Kilmeen ladies’ football team folded for a short spell, Martina and a number of players involved joined up with Clonakilty ladies’ team in 2009.

‘I wanted to continue playing ladies football and it was all girls I knew from school who were with Clon so it was the natural choice to make,’ she says.

Incredibly, Clonakilty swept up every trophy on offer that year. That Clon team won county, Munster and All-Ireland junior B titles. Again, Martina was between the posts. Still in her teens, her medal drawer at home was creaking under the weight.

But that success couldn’t last, and it didn’t.

The Kilmeen junior C football team - with Martine O'Brien in goal - that won the county title in 2006.

***

By early May 2013 Martina was living across enemy lines in Tralee and working as a massage therapist at Vitality Chiropractic. She was 23 years old and hadn’t played inter-county since finishing up with the senior B team in 2011.

‘Maybe I felt I wouldn’t get the call and that the Cork ship had sailed,’ she says.

One phone call from then Cork senior selector Justin McCarthy changed everything.

Regular number one and seven-time All-Ireland winner Elaine Harte had planned on taking a six-week holiday to Australia that summer so the Cork management were looking at options as cover.

‘It wasn’t an opportunity I was going to turn down,’ she says. With Harte taking a break and back-up goalkeeper Lisa Crowley injured, Martina was handed her big chance. She started in that summer’s Munster championship, including the final against Kerry.

‘Eamonn and the management really put their trust in me to step into Elaine’s shoes when she was away. I hadn’t a lot of experience and they were taking a chance with me to be honest,’ she admits.

Martina got a lot of game-time in 2013, more then she had expected. She held her place all though the All-Ireland championship, but was dropped for the final against Monaghan. That’s a moment that Elaine Harte remembers well because it’s also the moment she realised that Martina was a leader in waiting.

‘When I came back after my break in Australia, Martina was really putting it up to me in training. I was fighting for my place,’ Harte explains.

‘Martina started in the quarter-final against Laois and the semi-final against Kerry, and I assumed she would get the nod for the final.

‘When Eamonn named the team we were all sitting in the dressing-room, Martina was beside me. When he called my name I froze for a second because I felt for Martina. Of course I was delighted to be picked but Martina had played so well.

‘She was great about it and that took me back a bit. I was thinking if I was in the same position as her would I have been the same. It showed her true character. That whole All-Ireland weekend she was great, the attitude she brought, how upbeat she was and that showed me her leadership qualities – she put the team before everything else. It showed she’s a team player and a leader, and we’ve all seen that since.’

Harte wasn’t surprised to learn afterwards that manager Eamonn Ryan broke with one of his usual traditions.

‘I heard after that Eamonn had told Martina the news before he named the team, which was a strange one because he never did that, no matter who it was. But it shows the respect he had for Martina because he broke his tradition, and she deserved that,’ Harte adds.

Cork won the 2013 All-Ireland final with Harte between the posts, and she made an incredible save that day from Monaghan’s Catriona McConnell. In later years Martina agreed the Cork management made the right call.

‘At the time you are devastated, and your family and so on. But afterwards you look at the team that is there and who you are playing with, you want to win, it’s about the team, it’s not about you,’ she said, but her time as the undisputed number one was just around the corner.

Harte hung up her gloves in January 2014. Martina was the natural heir, she took over and she’s held her position ever since.

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Martina O'Brien reacts after Cork scored an equalising point late in the 2014 All-Ireland football final.

 

It’s surprising to learn that Martina struggled with her confidence in her mid-20s. On the pitch she’s vocal and commanding. Off the pitch she’s personable, outgoing and engaging. But her smile hid a lot.

The 2014 season, her first full campaign as Cork’s number one, was the toughest she’s had between the posts.

‘I would like to say I took it in my stride but I didn’t,’ she says.

‘It was a great season in that we won everything but I found the pressure hard to deal with. I was really new but I wasn’t that young, so I felt I should have handled the pressure better.

‘There were times when I came home from training or a game and was very critical of myself. I put myself under massive pressure. I wasn’t where I wanted to be, but you learn as you go and I got a lot of help from everyone.

‘This was a team that if you made a mistake, someone picked you up and you go again.’

Her family was a rock of support, too. Her dad Martin, her mom Frances, her older sister Maura and her younger brother James, they all helped.

A special word here for Maura. She’s three and a half years older than Martina and has been a huge influence on her younger sister. Maura motivated Martina, pulled her up off the couch to go for a puck around or to kick a ball. Martina hung on to her sister’s coattails. When Maura started playing camogie, Martina followed. Martina played football because Maura did. When Maura tried soccer, so did Martina.

‘Anything she did, I did!’ Martina laughs, and Maura was there too all through the 2014 season as Cork, miraculously, came from ten points down in the All-Ireland final to beat Dublin by 2-13 to 2-12. That was Martina’s first start in an All-Ireland final.

‘I gained a lot from that final because I felt a huge part of the team. I remember that day so well, knowing that I can do this, I can stand up to the pressure of inter-county football,’ she says.

‘I was calm enough that day. I even remember when we were ten down I still felt we would win it – and we did.’

She hasn’t looked back since.

***

Elaine Harte says what the rest of us are thinking: how has Martina not won a football All-Star already?

‘It’s incredible that she hasn’t won an All-Star. She has definitely deserved one, if not two. I’m biased here but she should have won at least one by now,’ says Harte, who is better placed than most to analyse the current Cork number one.

‘Her communication is excellent and that’s very important as a goalkeeper, she’s always talking, always keeping her defenders on their toes and always keeping them alert to the dangers,’ Harte explains.

‘She’s commanding. She’s a great shot-stopper. She has a presence. She’s a great reader of the game. And she’s a leader.’

We also asked West Cork ladies’ senior football manager Brian McCarthy to describe Martina in one word. He picked ‘leader.’ The first time McCarthy came across the Bal woman was on a soccer pitch. He was Drinagh Rangers manager. Martina was with Lyre. No surprise, she was in goal there, too.

For the past four years Martina has been the West Cork ladies’ goalkeeper and a leader of the divisional team.

‘She organises a defence better than anyone else,’ McCarthy says, and that’s why she’ll be such a huge loss next season. Because Clonakilty won the county intermediate title this year, they’re going senior in 2021, so the Clon contingent can’t line out with West Cork. When the divisional side finally won the county senior title in September, after losing the previous two finals, everyone ran towards Martina. They knew how much it meant to her and how instrumental she has been. Again, a leader.

That’s also the word Cork boss Ephie Fitzgerald uses to describe Martina: ‘She is the leader of our defensive unit.’

When she talks, people listen, Fitzgerald adds, while also pointing to her increased fitness levels in recent years too.

Martina is 30 years old now and still the best in the business. She has won four senior All-Irelands, six Division 1 league medals and four Munster senior championships between the posts with Cork. She wants to add to that haul this Sunday in Croke Park, and that’s a long way from the Newtown pitch in Rosscarbery in 2007 – but that highlights just how far the safest pair of hands in ladies’ football has come.

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