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LONG READ: The rise and fall of the West Cork senior ladies' football divisional team

April 26th, 2022 4:09 PM

By Kieran McCarthy

The West Cork team celebrates after beating Mourneabbey in the 2020 Cork LGFA county senior football final at CIT. That was the last game this divisional team ever played. (Photo: Tom Russell)

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KIERAN McCARTHY chats to Brian McCarthy and Anne O’Grady about the now defunct West Cork senior ladies football team. They were the good old days, but no-one knew that at the time

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THERE was just something special about the West Cork ladies senior football divisional team. 

From Aisling Judge’s heroics between the posts in their first game in July 2016 to Daire Kiely’s county final-winning goal in their last game in September 2020, this was a proper adventure. It really had it all.

The exciting football. The county stars. The local club players. Shared ambition. The big dream. The opportunity to play senior. Setbacks. Tears. Hurt. Begrudgers and naysayers. An attempted coup in 2019. The constant rebuild. Highs. Drama. The 2020 county final triumph. Dethroning Mourneabbey. Celebrations. Camaraderie. Friendships. The bond. The journey. 

Fans of The US Office will be familiar with the work of Andy Bernard, the character played by Ed Helms. In the series’ final-ever episode, Andy, in a wistful mood, reflected, ‘I wish there was a way to know you were in the good old days before you actually left them’. Those five seasons (2016 to 2020) where West Cork entertained are now the good old days. Players, management and fans lived in the moment and enjoyed the rollercoaster. It’s only now, with the finality of it all, can the journey be really appreciated.

This tale is book-ended by notable wins. The first, against North Cork on an otherwise normal Friday evening in the summer of 2016, signalled the beginning. The last, the Cork LGFA final triumph against mighty Mourneabbey in September 2020 and a first county senior title for West Cork, was the end – but no-one knew that at the time.

Eighteen months after their greatest day, the guillotine fell on the West Cork ladies’ senior football team. 

The West Cork management team of, from left, Michelle Dullea, Anne O'Grady, Brian McCarthy and James O'Mahony celebrate the 2020 county final win.

 

At the Ladies Gaelic Football Association’s (LGFA) Annual Congress in March, the Cork motion to amend Rule 190 and allow divisional teams – like West Cork – compete in their county senior championship was defeated. That’s the end for the West Cork we all knew. (West Cork sat out the 2021 campaign, waiting on the result of this motion to Congress)

‘We were extremely disappointed with the news,’ says West Cork selector Anne O’Grady, the Bantry woman involved in the division’s senior set-up from the start, as was manager, Clann na nGael clubman Brian McCarthy. Little did he know when he answered a call from Bantry Blues’ John McCarthy, the man behind setting up the West Cork senior football team, in 2016, that he was setting off on the adventure of his coaching career.

‘There is disappointment, there is frustration and there is anger,’ Brian says. 

‘Questions have to be asked to the people who make these decisions and how they can’t see the benefit of having divisional teams involved in ladies’ football.’

O’Grady agrees.

‘Anyone who has been involved in, or even just watched from the sidelines, saw what this divisional team did for ladies’ football in Cork. The other teams too will have seen how West Cork upped the intensity in the championship and made a big difference. I think this is a big loss to the championship itself,’ she explains.

They made their mark on the pitch for five seasons and across 23 senior championship matches, but West Cork’s faith was decided in a room on the opposite side of the country – the recent LGFA Congress was held at the Europa Hotel in Belfast – by many who don’t understand the benefits of what this divisional team added to the Cork championship. Or what a divisional team can add to a county championship. 

It gave junior and intermediate club players right across the vast West Cork division the chance to play senior football; an opportunity some would never have got otherwise. It exposed club players to the highest level within the county – and some, like Dohenys’ Melissa Duggan, now an All-Star defender, grabbed it in 2016, made her name, got called up to the Cork senior panel and hasn’t looked back. It made the Cork LGFA senior championship much more competitive. That raised the profile of the competition: more media interest, more exposure, more fans at games and more general interest. 

Captain Fantastic Áine Terry O'Sullivan lifts the cup.

 

West Cork certainly raised standards. Dominant club side Mournabbey now had a realistic rival and they improved from that. Steeled from regular battles with West Cork, they won All-Ireland senior club titles in 2018 and ’19. In 2018 Mourneabbey boss Shane Ronayne said they had ‘to play the best football they’ve played in a long time to win’ the county final, while Bríd O’Sullivan admitted that the challenge posed by West Cork in the 2018 Cork decider ‘made us realise that we needed to work a little bit harder if we were going to get over the line.’ Mourneabbey went on to win the All-Ireland senior club crown.

It created a buzz and raised standards in West Cork, too. Between 2016 and 2020, Kinsale, Bantry Blues, Clonakilty, Castlehaven, Dohenys, Valley Rovers and O’Donovan Rossa all won Cork LGFA county titles. Coincidence? No. 

The West Cork team also gave girls in local clubs a target to aim for – to play with West Cork and represent their club at senior level. Not every footballer will make it to a county level, but this divisional team offered players the opportunity to play at the highest level they could. Now that’s gone. As Brian McCarthy lamented, it’s a hammer blow to ladies’ football in West Cork. A step backwards when the game wants to move forwards.

The issue lies in the LGFA rule book. The West Cork team is made up of more club teams than allowed. Rule 190 covers amalgamations; it states that players from three junior clubs or one junior and one intermediate club can join forces to form a senior team. West Cork drew players from more clubs than allowed, but they weren’t in the wrong here. Cork LGFA chiefs gave West Cork the green light to compete, season after season. 

There was an attempted coup in 2019 when a letter from a senior club, outlining their concerns over West Cork’s pick of players and questioning their legitimacy in the championship, was sent to the Cork LGFA Board. The worry was that West Cork, who hadn’t won a county title then, were too strong for the competition. Other senior clubs shared the same view. But at a meeting of the county board in May 2019, West Cork were given the thumbs up to go again. And they did in 2019. And they lost the county final, again to Mourneabbey who won the six in a row. 

West Cork’s day did come 12 months on when Brian McCarthy’s team, after losing county finals in 2018 and 2019, reached the Promised Land in September 2020 when they dethroned Mourneabbey, 4-9 to 2-13, on a magical day. That was the year it all came together; a jigsaw that took five years to piece together was, at last, completed.

‘It is important to note that it did take five years,’ Anne O’Grady outlines.

‘You can have all the talent you want on paper, but it took time to get the players to think like a group and act together as a team – and it did take us that long to beat Mourneabbey and get it all together. I think that shows the power of a club over a division. 

‘All the girls will say that the last year, 2020, did feel like a club, but it took us five years to reach that stage.’

Aghada's Christine Moran tries to stop West Cork's Melissa Duggan in the 2020 semi-final.

 

While West Cork did have a huge pick of clubs – 65 players from 14 clubs featured across the five seasons – there was a constant turnover of players. They were without Kinsale and Bantry Blues when both moved up to senior level. If West Cork still existed, they would also have to plan without Clonakilty and Valley Rovers, who have gone up senior since the divisional team last played in 2020. The pieces were always moving. Bantry’s Emma Spillane, Dohenys’ Melissa Duggan, and Sarah Hayes and Cliona Maguire of Rosscarbery are the only four players who played in both the first game against North Cork and the final game against Mournabbey. Try to build a team and culture and style when each year is a fresh start.

West Cork weren’t the only divisional team formed in 2016. North Cork and East Cork were there too. But only the West survived. 

‘It was by some act of God that we defeated North Cork in that first game; it could have been the other way around, that North Cork was the division that survived for five years,’ says O’Grady, who also feels that many people – inside and outside the county – haven’t grasped the benefits of divisional teams.

‘I don’t think, besides that first year in 2016, that Cork have fully grasped what divisional football can bring. We were the only ones who survived beyond 2016,’ she says.

‘When you look at the likes of Waterford and Clare, when you have Ballymacarbry (40 county titles in a row) and Banner (13 titles in 15 years) cruising to title after title, you’d say surely a divisional side would be an option there, to put it up to them, to create some competition and to put that bite in their championship as well. 

‘I really don’t think people see the merit in a divisional football team, which is strange because it’s there in camogie, hurling and football. It’s ladies’ football that seems to be behind the curve.’

The lack of consistency with divisional teams in the various GAA codes frustrates Brian McCarthy. In Carbery GAA, there are men’s football and hurling divisional teams and a Carbery camogie team competing in their senior championships – but there will be no ladies’ West Cork football team to represent the division.

‘If you want equality for all players … but you have a player whose club, for whatever reason, can’t get to senior level. This door was open for them to play with a divisional team at that level and strive to be better. If it’s in men’s football, hurling and camogie, why don’t we have the same opportunity in ladies’ football?’ McCarthy queries – and he’s right to do so.

Bantry Blues' Rachel Murphy played her part in West Cork's 2020 county final win.

 

After the ruling at LGFA Congress, the Cork Ladies Gaelic Football Board issued a statement to The Southern Star, confirming what all in West Cork feared ahead of the 2022 season: ‘The West Cork divisional team cannot compete in the Cork county senior championship.’ The door has been shut. Unless an amalgamated team emerges under the current rules: players from three junior clubs, or, one junior and one intermediate club can amalgamate to form a senior team, without losing their junior or intermediate status. McCarthy points out the immediate flaws in this, especially as West Cork always insisted that clubs come first.

‘That rule is nonsensical. If you are asking a person to go to three clubs and get eight players each, and that’s a minimum to form a panel to play senior, that’s not realistic at all,’ he says.

‘I would hope, and I am always an optimist, that down the road, a new management might have a conversation to start up West Cork under a different guise, but under the current rules it’s not realistic.’

It really is the end of an era. An adventure told over five years in five parts. The build-up to the huge climax. Think Stairway to Heaven by Led Zepplin. The best saved until last. But there were so many moments in between. The semi-final loss to Mourneabbey in 2016. Áine Terry O’Sullivan’s hat-trick as West Cork hammered Mourneabbey by 5-12 to 0-13 in the 2017 group stage. Then the shock semi-final loss to St Vals. A first senior county final in 2018. Sarah Hayes’ dramatic late equaliser to set up a replay. The traffic jam in Cloughduv ahead of round two. More West Cork heartbreak as Mourneabbey grabbed their second chance. On to 2019 and back in another county final, but Mourneabbey won, again; their four first-half goals decisive. Sleeves rolled up, West Cork went to work for 2020. Fiona Keating’s five-goal haul in the semi-final. A third county final in a row. No fans as Covid gripped. But no slip up this time. Libby Coppinger’s two goals. Dáire Kiely’s match-winning strike. The historic 4-9 to 2-13 triumph. West Cork were county senior champions and captain fantastic Áine Terry O’Sullivan took the cup west to Allihies. 

‘Now that it’s over, and on reflection, even though people said we should have won it in year one, year two and so on, I’m glad it took five years. I really enjoyed being part of it and I’ll miss it, but I am glad that we got five years to create a real bond,’ Anne O’Grady says.

‘The highlight is the friendships, be it managerial or with the players, and the bonds created between the girls in West Cork; they are genuine friends and would do anything for each other. We have left West Cork as friends. They might be rivals on the pitch but they will always be united by the county medal and what we did for five years. It meant something, certainly for me anyway.’

It meant something to the players, too. Club players like Lisa Harte of O’Donovan Rossa (pictured on page 10) and Castlehaven’s Siobhan Courtney. County stalwarts like Martina O’Brien and Libby Coppinger. Players from across the division came together for a shared dream that they realised. There are now county senior football medals in St Colum’s, Bantry, Beara, O’Donovan Rossa, Castlehaven, Valley Rovers, Clonakilty, Courcey Rovers, Rosscarbery and Dohenys. There are friendships, too, that will live long as well. Like Anne O’Grady says, it meant something. It certainly did. 

‘It’s the friendships that  you make,’ West Cork goalkeeper Martina O’Brien told The Star Sport Podcast in 2021, having played her last game with the division as Clonakilty went senior in 2021. 

 

‘It really did feel like a club team. I felt like I played with two club teams (in 2020), my own club Clonakilty and West Cork. You went into training and it was banter all the time, you got to enjoy your football and we all really got on so well. 

‘We mixed really well and when you bring clubs together, sometimes you might not get that, but we did. I will honestly miss the craic we had. The training and games were great, but it’s the time you spend together and the hard work you do to get to those days that I’ll miss.’

West Cork, as they existed for those five seasons, are gone, never to be forgotten, but will a new-look West Cork team rise from the ashes in the years ahead? Or maybe when the GAA, LGFA and Camogie Association amalgamate, consistent rules will govern all three and West Cork will rise and rule again. 

Whatever the future holds, the five seasons West Cork lit up and energised the county senior football championship will live long in the memory. They began in 2016 as an idea and they bowed out in 2020 as the best in the county. 

They were the good old days, but we just didn’t know it at the time.

 

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