There was no silverware at the end of the rainbow for the Cork ladies’ footballers this season but as the dust settles on another year, KIERAN McCARTHY highlights five reasons for optimism ahead of 2019
YOUTH GIVEN ITS CHANCE: It might only have been two years since Cork’s last All-Ireland final appearance before this season, but the team has undergone a massive transformation. Only seven players that started the 2016 decider were on the first 15 against the Dubs two weeks ago, namely goalkeeper Martina O’Brien, Róisín Phelan, Shauna Kelly, Áine Terry O’Sullivan, Ciara O’Sullivan, Doireann O’Sullivan and Orla Finn. That means there were eight All-Ireland final debutants and that’s not counting the subs. Gone, for example, are Briege Corkery, Rena Buckley, Bríd Stack, Annie Walsh, Deirdre O’Reilly and Vera Foley, all brimming with experience and medals, and in their place has come a new wave of young Rebels who have taken their chance.
There were four debutants alone in defence, and this season Máire O’Callaghan has been excellent, Dohenys’ Melissa Duggan is one of the most under-rated players in the country, Bantry Blues’ All-Star Emma Spillane continues to improve, as does Eimear Meaney.
Further up the field, Hannah Looney, Libby Coppinger, Eimear Scally and Saoirse Noonan are all young, talented and making their mark. Hannah Looney and Libby Coppinger are two more young guns now part of the starting 15. It seems like Doireann O’Sullivan has been around for years, seven to be exact, but she’s still only 23 and was another to catch the eye in attack this year.
Boss Ephie Fitzgerald has had no choice but to turn to youth considering the number of players who stepped back, and for this new Cork side to get back to an All-Ireland final so quickly, and to be as competitive as they were, is very encouraging.
There was always going to be some pain replacing the calibre of players that left but Cork have minimised the damage better than anyone could have imagined.
YOU HAVE TO LOSE ONE TO WIN ONE: Losing an All-Ireland final isn’t easy, but it’s not the end of the world either, especially for a young team like Cork that is still in the early years of its development. Like we said, getting back to an All-Ireland final so fast given the turnover of players is a feat in itself, but they then pushed a Dublin team – that is being heralded as the game’s next dominant force – all the way. If Eimear Scally’s shot wasn’t cleared off the line, a score that would have put Cork ahead in the second half, who knows what would have happened next, so the Rebels can take plenty of encouragement from their performance against this lauded Dubs outfit packed with experience.
Dublin have been involved in the last five All-Ireland senior finals, losing to Cork in 2014, ’15 and ’16 by a combined four points in total. Remember, this was the great Cork team and they only had one point on two occasions and then two points to spare over this Dublin side, so for a new Cork team to come within five is a big positive.
To further highlight the gulf in experience, in the recent final Dublin named 14 of the team that started their 2017 final win against Mayo. The Dubs have all that experience, know-how, cuteness, and they have lost finals before and that has driven them on to where they are now. Cork will look to do something similar.
This might have been Cork’s first defeat in an All-Ireland final – a record that had to go sometime – but in the grand scheme of things, the experience of playing in front of 50,000 in Croke Park will stand to this team.
THAT WINNING FEELING: Don’t forget, Cork have finished the season as Munster champions, reclaiming the crown against Kerry in late June, winning 5-13 to 2-10.
This was a very important piece of silverware to win as in their three previous competitions, Cork had finished empty-handed. There was the disastrous 2017 Munster campaign, losing the All-Ireland semi-final to Mayo, and then the 2018 league semi-final, again to the westerners. Given Cork’s prior dominance, losing wasn’t a familiar feeling, and it was important for this young, new team to sample success and whet the appetite.
Ahead of the Munster final, goalkeeper Martina O’Brien said, ‘This year, especially for us, when we have a new panel and a new dynamic going on, it would be great to win something to get started. For the girls to taste success too, it’s always good to drive you on for the rest of the championship.’
Cork tasted success that day and for several players it was their first silverware with the seniors. They won’t forget that feeling and they’ll want it again and again and again.
FIREPOWER: You’ve gathered by now that the Cork team is relatively young but very talented. Ephie Fitzgerald says the average age in the All-Ireland was around the 21-, 22-years-old mark. In attack, Cork have a powerful blend of youth and experience, with captain Ciara O’Sullivan and Orla Finn very much in the experienced category as they share 13 All-Irelands between the two of them. O’Sullivan and Finn drive this team on, especially the former, but they’re not alone.
Áine Terry O’Sullivan had her best game for Cork in the All-Ireland final, scoring 1-2, and Ephie Fitzgerald feels there’s more to come from the Beara woman.
‘She has got herself really fit this year and there is more to come. If she continues that and keeps herself fit over the winter she will be an even better player next year. That was her best game, she was a real leader, phenomenal, and there is more in her,’ Fitzgerald said.
Then there is newcomer Saoirse Noonan, the Irish soccer international who scored 6-11 off the bench in five championship games, and while this bright spark was held scoreless when she came on in the final, the 19-year-old was one of Cork’s outstanding players this season.
Noonan announced herself with 2-2 on her debut in the Munster final. She’a a real talent, Fitzgerald has called her ‘unbelievable’. Hopefully she’s here to stay.
Eimear Scally’s only 21 but already experienced with three All-Ireland senior medals to her name, and she helped the Rebels kick an astonishing 24-81 in six championship games. Ciara O’Sullivan kicked six goals, so did Noonan, Áine Terry helped herself to three goals, as did Scally, while Hannah Looney and Doireann O’Sullivan scored two goals apiece.
There is huge potential in this Cork attack to wreak havoc for years to come.
A TEAM ON A MISSION: Can Cork topple the Dubs? That’s this Cork team’s challenge – to stop this blue juggernaut building more momentum in 2019 when they go for three in a row. That’s the incentive.
Just like for years Cork were the team all others tried to knock off their perch, now the Rebels want to dethrone Dublin, and the success of the Dubs will drive Cork on, both on and off the pitch.
‘Even since I became involved, the difference in physicality and levels in preparation have gone through the roof, so other teams now have to reach the standards set by Dublin,’ Fitzgerald said.
‘Technically we have very good footballers, and this year will bring them on even more. It takes time, like it took Dublin their fair share of heartache to get to where they are now.’
Fitzgerald doesn’t view the All-Ireland final defeat as a setback. It’s the opposite, it’s progress. Cork have shown enough this year to suggest there’s a lot more to come next season, provided this squad stays together.