MARTINA O’Brien is privileged to be part of the Cork senior ladies’ football team that will make history when they face Westmeath in their Lidl LGFA National League Division 1 opener at Páirc Uí Chaoimh on Saturday.
O’Brien has won just about every inter-county trophy available to her during a distinguished career. Saturday’s visit of Westmeath marks the beginning of another, hopefully successful, season for the highly-regarded goalkeeper.
Yet this won’t be any ordinary, run-of-the-mill league encounter.
Cork begin the defence of their Division 1 title as part of a double-header with the county’s male senior team at Páirc Uí Chaoimh. The Westmeath fixture represents the first time a Cork senior ladies’ football team will play at the county’s redeveloped stadium, an important step forward for ladies’ football on Leeside.
‘Our squad is not back together that long so we haven’t really thought about playing at Páirc Uí Chaoimh too much, to be honest,’ the West Cork senior admitted to The Southern Star.
‘It should be a really nice feeling though. We had trained there a couple of times in the past before the 2018 All-Ireland final. I think it will be nice for the players to get out on the pitch and play a competitive game.
‘There has been so much talk over the years about the Cork senior ladies’ football team never getting to play there, it will be great to actually just finally go out and do it. It is a privilege to have the opportunity when you consider so many great Cork players that never got to play at Páirc Uí Chaoimh. It should make for a special occasion and the fact that it is a double header with hopefully draw a decent crowd as well.’
Against the backdrop of such an historical moment, O’Brien and her team-mates must focus on the job at hand, namely getting points on the board at the expense of an always difficult-to-beat Westmeath.
Ephie Fitzgerald’s return as senior manager represents a timely boost and there’s little doubt that the Nemo Rangers man will have emphasised the importance of Cork adopting the old adage of playing the game and not the occasion.
‘The players haven’t really been speaking about it too much and Ephie has made sure our focus is completely on trying to win the match and nothing else,’ O’Brien added.
‘As I’ve said, it is great that we will be the first Cork senior ladies’ team to play a competitive match at Páirc Uí Chaoimh but at the end of the day we are there to try and win a game of football. It is the start of a new season and everyone just wants to get up and running.’
Whilst the senior squad's focus will be zoned in on their league opener, there can be no denying the positivity surrounding the decision to play a competitive Cork ladies’ football game at the Páirc. It’s an opportunity to help grow the game around the county as well as capturing the imagination of young supporters in attendance.
‘Playing there will give a lot more people the opportunity to come and watch the Cork ladies team in action and that’s a big positive,’ O’Brien admitted.
‘The Cork players always love playing in front of their supporters. Going to Páirc Uí Chaoimh gives us an opportunity to showcase what we are all about. We want to promote the game. We have played in Croke Park a couple of times and in fairness to the LGFA, they have given us the opportunity to play games there as often as they can.
‘It is becoming more of the norm with each passing season. We have been at the forefront of that along with the likes of Dublin, Mayo and Galway. The Cork players just see it as a natural progression to play at Páirc Uí Chaoimh.
‘I believe the game has come on so much over the last few years. As an (LGFA) association and for all the young girls that play ladies football, we have shown that we are worth the effort and what our game has to offer.
‘We train extremely hard and do all that needs to be done to prepare ourselves to be inter-county footballers. The Cork players have very high standards so playing in stadiums represents another step in the right direction and not something I think we need to dwell on.
‘Things have definitely improved for us (players) over the last couple of years, going from absolutely nowhere to a proper inter-county standard.’
O’Brien lifted the Division 1 trophy as Cork captain last year. This year’s league will be a lot more competitive however, as the format has changed where the only the top two ranked teams going into the final. As a result, the margin for error has never been slimmer when embarking on a league campaign.
‘Every team in Division 1 has a realistic chance but obviously, you would be looking at the likes of Dublin, they will be the standard-bearers once again,’ O’Brien said.
‘It is a cliché but there will be no easy games. I think Cork has enough experience, as long as we take it one game at a time, to have a good run at the league once again this year. Starting off at Páirc Uí Chaoimh gives us an opportunity to hopefully, get off to a positive start.’