Back when Cork were winning 11 All-Irelands in 12 years, and the same number of National League titles in 13, the most common refrain about the team was that they never knew when they were beaten. And few counties were more a victim of that resilience than Dublin.
But the reigning All-Ireland champions had to show plenty of pluck themselves during this season’s Lidl National Football League Division One campaign with four of their eight games en route to Sunday’s final against Mayo (Parnell Park, 4.0) decided by just one or two points.
And in last month’s semi-final against Galway, Dublin were mere seconds from defeat. The first time they led in the game was when Nicole Owens scored a stoppage-time goal, one that gave them victory by a single point.
So, do Dublin now never know when they’re beaten?
“Ha, that’s definitely something Cork have always been famous for, and we’ve been on the wrong end of it more than most,” says Dublin captain Sinead Aherne.
“It’s certainly a quality you want your team to have, to possess that belief that you can dig yourself out of any situation, and I suppose against Galway that’s what we did.”
“It was edge of the seat stuff. They’re a really good team and they really put it up to us. We didn’t reach the levels we would have hoped for in the game, we made too many mistakes, gave the ball away too often, but it wasn’t the first time this year that we found ourselves in a tight situation and managed to find a way of winning.
“Maybe it’s something that has come from the success of last year, a victory like that can propel you, give you real belief. I think winning is definitely a habit, Cork managed to do it year in, year out, and of course we’d like to do the same.”
Aherne, though, is certain that Mayo have the ability to punish Dublin on Sunday if they’re allowed build up a lead like the five-point advantage Galway had after 40 minutes in the semi-final.
“We need a big improvement on Sunday, we just can’t afford to give Mayo that kind of headstart because they have the quality to see it through. They’re flying at the moment, they’re coming off the back of a couple of really good results so we need a big step-up if we’re going to beat them.”
Mayo had a shaky enough start to the campaign, losing three of their first five games (although one of those defeats was overturned after Kerry were found to have fielded an unregistered player), but they’ve since been on a roll, beating Donegal and Monaghan before ending Cork’s hopes of a sixth successive National League title by getting the better of them in the semi-finals.
While they had plenty of close calls, Dublin only suffered one defeat in the campaign, losing by two points to Galway back in March – but 10 of their players had just returned from the All Stars trip to Bangkok, so they weren’t at their sharpest.
“The league was really strong this year, despite the fact that teams were changing week to week, they were trying new things, but there was still a good consistency across the counties.
“There’s so little between the top five teams, we were all taking points off each other, nobody ran away with it. You can definitely see the standards improving year on year, which is great for the women’s game – and should make the championship really competitive too.”
Having been on the losing side in three successive All Ireland finals, Aherne knows better than most how hard it can be to dust yourself down and start all over again, a challenge Mayo faced after last September’s 12-point defeat by Dublin at Croke Park.
“It’s definitely not an easy thing to pick yourself back up, we know how hard it can be to get over the disappointment of losing an All-Ireland, but if anything Mayo seem to have used it to drive themselves on and they look well set up now.
“They found a few new players along the way too, and in the absence of Cora [Staunton], Martha Carter and Yvonne Byrne, the others have really stepped up. Teams change, older players move on, you need the younger ones to take on those leadership roles. But they have a really good core group of players there, they have quality, they’re playing exceptionally well. I’m sure they’ll be gunning for us on Sunday again.”
For both counties the championship remains, of course, the priority this year. But Dublin have never won a Division One league title and Mayo last enjoyed success in the competition in 2007. There’s no lack of motivation, then, for either side.
“It’s a big prize, a national title, one we haven’t won, so it’s something we’d love to scratch off the list,” says Aherne. “It would be a nice way to kick off the summer too and to keep the momentum going. But if we’re going to do it, we have to play a lot better than we have so far this year.”