By Mary White
With 10 minutes to go in the 2009 All-Ireland final, Mary O’Connor signalled to Eamonn Ryan to take her off.
At 33, and having played senior inter-county football and camogie for 16 years, her legs were gone.
Dublin were two points in front, but O’Connor knew it was the right thing to do. Although it was the first time she had captained a Cork team to an All-Ireland final in her career, she knew she had to sacrifice her pride if they were to have a chance.
O’Connor’s replacement at corner-forward, Máiréad Kelly, changed the game and Cork went on to defeat Dublin by a point (1-9 to 0-11), and with it win their fifth All-Ireland title in-a-row.
Two weeks before, Kilkenny hurler Michael Fennelly climbed the steps of the Hogan stand as the Cats won their fourth in-a-row, and O’Connor’s humour shone through during her turn to accept the Brendan Martin Cup.
‘Kilkenny, we see your four and raise you one!’ she said to the masses, during a speech that famously lasted more than 10 minutes.
“It was tongue and cheek but the adrenaline was going and it was just a bit of craic. In terms of it being the longest speech ever, my family gave me a bit of slagging after alright!” she smiles.
“The one thing I do regret though, is that I left it very late to acknowledge Dublin. In fairness they waited until the end. It was most definitely not intentional, but it’s something I regret that I’d didn’t do sooner to let them go off the field because I’ve lost five camogie All-Ireland finals in Croke Park and it’s a very lonesome place. All you want to do is get out of there. If I’d my time again, they’d be the first people I’d thank because they made it the great final it was.”
On Sunday, Cork will bid for their second fifth in-a-row, and it’s Dublin they’ll face again. O’Connor will be watching this time in the stands, and although a lot has changed since then, she believes a lot hasn’t either.
Best wishes to Cork Ladies Footballers from Donal Óg Cusack and others.
Video by David Keane.
“There’s been a lot of retirements, but the way Cork play football, the way they play until the end and with such determination and hunger, that hasn’t changed. That’s not flowery language either, that’s to be lauded. The players all have their own stories to tell, but ultimately the story is Cork ladies football because they come back, year-on-year, raising standards and proving people right, or wrong, whatever way you want to look at it,” said the former dual star.
Since 2005, Rena Buckley, Deirdre O’Reilly, Valerie Mulcahy, Geraldine O’Flynn, Bríd Stack and Briege Corkery have been competing, with the latter two incredibly on course to play every minute of every All-Ireland final.
“Whatever about all the training and dedication, it’s their resolve to keep that hunger in them and keep coming back every year. Cork I think are taken for granted in some ways because people just expect them to be in finals, but having been involved with the set up, the one thing I can say is that it was never taken for granted by the players. They never took for granted that they were going to win a game. They just knew they had a good chance and a great opportunity because they’d a great coach and were really, really dedicated to what they wanted to achieve.”
When O’Connor lifted the Brendan Martin Cup in 2009, today’s captain Ciara O’Sullivan started at wing-back, aged 18. On Sunday, she’ll lead Cork into battle. A battle O’Connor believes the Rebels will win.
“They’re in a better place than they were last year in terms of what they’ve come through, and regards the players they’ve lost. Mentally Dublin might be fragile if Cork get a run at them at the start.
“Given last year’s comeback too, Cork are so wary now and they won’t want to chase the game because it’s not their style. I expect them to dictate things and it’ll be interesting to see how Dublin start, whether they’ll go all out from the off last year, or sit back and absorb the pressure.”