BY JACKIE CAHILL
RIVAL captains Niamh Kelly and Doireann O’Sullivan have both highlighted the significance of tomorrow’s crucial Lidl Ladies National Football League Division 1 clash between Mayo and Cork
The stakes couldn’t be higher as the counties prepare to meet in a competitive fixture for the first time since the 2018 Lidl NFL semi-final, which Mayo won. The Westerners lost the top-flight decider against Dublin at Parnell Park and now face a real battle to make the last four this time. They’re on six points in the table – three behind Cork, who can seal their safe passage to the knockout stages with a victory at Elvery’s MacHale Park (12.0). A big crowd is guaranteed for this game, which is another ‘double-header’ outing for Mayo alongside their male counterparts, who play Monaghan.
And travelling skipper O’Sullivan, a 2018 All-Ireland senior club medallist with Mourneabbey, has described this game as Cork’s ‘most important’ of the season.
In an interview which features in Sunday’s official matchday programme, O’Sullivan reflects on Cork’s campaign to date, which has been them hit form in recent weeks. The Leesiders recorded big victories over Ulster counties Monaghan and Donegal – and appear to be finding real rhythm at the best possible time. Cork suffered home reverses against Galway and Tipperary earlier in the campaign but now appear to be very much on the right track, as boss Ephie Fitzgerald blends hungry young players with the more experienced stars.
O’Sullivan says: ‘It took us a while to get a few things together. We are trying to develop players, and get a team and a game plan that suits us. That does take a few weeks and we have very young players as well, like the two Kielys (Daire and Eimear), Sadhbh O’Leary and Laura O’Mahony.
‘They’re playing senior inter-county for the first time and it is a step up and it does take time to adjust.’ O’Sullivan, who’s teaching at Pobalscoil na Tríonóide in Youghal, has been impressed by the maturity shown by those former All-Ireland minor A winners to date. She said: ‘Definitely, they have success behind them and they did win a good bit at underage.
‘That brings its own confidence as well – they’re scared of nothing and that’s an added bonus.
‘They do bring an air of freshness and in training they’re going in hard for every ball, regardless of who they’re up against.’
And O’Sullivan can’t underestimate the importance of Cork’s latest meeting with Mayo. She added: ‘It’s probably the most important game of the League for us. Both teams are in a similar situation. We need the points, they need the points. Dublin, Donegal and Galway are pretty much guaranteed semi-final positions and there’s one left. It’s going to be an unbelievably competitive game and regardless of whether it’s a challenge match or an All-Ireland semi-final against Mayo, it’s always competitive and there’s an extremely high rivalry between both teams. We’re sell used to playing them and with that familiarity, it does bring an extra bite to it.’
Mayo captain Kelly said: ‘At the beginning of the year, the aim was to maintain our Division 1 League status. Now that we’re safe, we could get to a semi-final and we’re going to push on against Cork.
‘We go out to win every game and we’ll try to win against Cork.’
An opening day victory over Tipperary was followed up by three defeats but Mayo were back to winning ways against Westmeath last weekend. Kelly says: ‘There was a very strong breeze, we were with it in the first half and we got off to a good start.
‘We were lucky to get the win in the end, we won by a goal but it was good that more girls got playing again. That’s 32 in the panel that have played.’
Mayo’s players have been exposed to a high standard of fare and this is the third ‘double-header’ that Leahy and his players will experience this year. Mayo played Dublin at Croke Park, while they also hosted Connacht rivals Galway at Elvery’s MacHale Park recently. Kelly smiles: ‘It’s brilliant and we’re lucky that we have the double-headers.
‘It creates more of a crowd and I’d notice it in the support that we’re getting this year and last year.’