When it was over, when they had lifted the cup and made the speeches and settled into their first ever evening as county champions, Knockmore manager Cormac Reape was cornered by his wing-forward Sarah Mulvihill. She wanted to know what the plan was. Not for the homecoming, not for the long night ahead, not for bringing the cup around. No, she wanted the plan for the next four weeks, building up to whichever Galway team they’d be meeting in Connacht.
Reape couldn’t help laughing. They had just beaten Carnacon, who had been Mayo champions every year since 2000. They had ended the longest title run in Gaelic games, male or female. They had knocked the Berlin Wall, toppled Saddam’s statue, ransacked the Bastille. And still the players wanted to know what they’d be doing at training on Tuesday night.
“I said, ‘relax, Sarah,’” Reape laughs now. “’We’ll enjoy this first.’ But like, that’s who they’ve been all year. There’s a lot of disbelief around the area that they’ve done this because they were fighting relegation the last two years.
“There’s a lot of good players there but I don’t think anyone really thought they had it in them. And around the county, I think there’s just general disbelief that somebody finally brought down Carnacon. Nobody thought it would be us, definitely not.”
It really isn’t possible to overstate the stranglehold Carnacon have had on the Mayo championship since the turn of the century. In some counties, the biggest beasts affect the weather for spells here and there; Carnacon have controlled the climate in Mayo for two full decades.
Here’s how long they have been champions. Of the Knockmore starting 15 who denied them the 22-in-a-row last Sunday, seven weren’t born the last time Carnacon didn’t win the title. Virtually none of the subs were born either. Reape himself was only 18 months old when Hollymount won the 1999 title.
And it isn’t as though Carnacon have suddenly fallen off a cliff. They won last year’s final against Moy Davitts by 10 points. The last time they played Knockmore in the final was 2018 - the margin that day was a brutalising 33 points, with Cora Staunton kicking 2-9 from play. Most of those players fielded again last Sunday. Anyone claiming this week to have seen this coming was notably discrete about it beforehand.
“They have some of the best players who will ever put on a jersey in women’s football,” says Reape. “That meant there was always a bit of invincibility about them. People were kind of scared of them. Even outside of Carnacon, there would have been a lot of talk that people didn’t like them.
“I put a lot of that down to jealousy, really. I think it was because they were always ruthless in games, they never let up, they couldn’t beat you by enough, they were always trying to get the next goal, the next goal. So I think over the years an awful lot of teams were beaten before they went out against them.”
So how do you go about taking them down? Well, it’s like eating an elephant, the only way to do it is one piece at a time. Knockmore started the year in good form and felt just a little envy at the fact that the club’s men’s team won the county title in 2020. They trained in Kiltoom in Roscommon one night a week to facilitate their players who have moved away. Katie Munnelly is in college in Letterkenny but did the seven-hour round-trip all the same.
But all that stuff only gets you on the pitch. When you’re there, the 21-year wall still has every brick intact and you still have to find a way over it. One of the ideas they came up with was to take the names out of it. So they didn’t make a plan for Cora Staunton, they made a plan for Number 14.
“We didn’t mention them all year until we were facing them, that was the first thing,” says Meade. “And then when we sat down to plan in the week of the game, we kept it to numbers instead of personalities. So it was Number 9 instead of Fiona McHale, that kind of thing. We didn’t want to overshadow the preparation by using these names all the time.
“We sat and had chats together and put things on paper to build belief in the squad. That was always going to be the biggest thing for whatever team it was that was going to finally beat Carnacon. They had to have huge belief in themselves. And you could see it in them in the build-up. The nerves were there but the fear that’s usually involved playing Carnacon wasn’t.”
In the end, Knockmore handed down the sort of thrashing on which Carnacon have made their reputation. Shauna Howley was rampant in the opening stages and had five points to her name after just six minutes. They led by 0-8 to 0-3 after a wind-assisted first half and scored the game’s only goal on 50 minutes to skate clear. Staunton was kept to five points, four of them frees. Carnacon only scored two points from play all day and gave up their title(s) on the back of a 12-point defeat.
“They were very sound about it,” Reape says. “They were very gracious and they’ve been great champions. Even as the week went on, Fiona McHale texted some of the girls to congratulate them and tell them to kick on now. You have to admire them.”
Admire, yes. Fear? No longer.