The inside story of the Cork ladies’ football team’s remarkable decade at the top
How a county who had never won a senior trophy turned into the best team in Irish sport
2014 TG4 All Ireland Ladies Senior Football Championship Final, Croke Park, Dublin 28/9/2014Dublin vs Cork Cork Manager Eamon Ryan celebrates with his team after the game Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Ryan Byrne
Cork’s Rhona NiBhuachalla and Valerie Mulcahy celebrate at the final whistle. (Photograph: INPHO/Ryan Byrne)
Cork manager Eamon Ryan
Cork’s Valerie Mulcahy celebrates a late score (Photograph: INPHO/Ryan Byrne)
“I do think we appreciate all the moments. Even this year before the All-Ireland, we were waiting in the car park of the Red Cow getting ready to leave for Croke Park. I was sitting up the front of the bus. There was a bit of a hold-up – some barrier wasn’t working. And this woman in a wheelchair who had cerebral palsy passed in front of us with her dad helping her across the road. I presume it was her dad.
“And I was sitting there in tears, just thinking of how fortunate I was to be able to play first of all and then to be able to play in Croke Park with my friends in an All-Ireland final. I had this total appreciation for what we have and for the good times we’ve had together over the past 10 years and everything we’ve done.
“Jeez, I was very emotional before this year’s All-Ireland!” – Valerie Mulcahy, Cork forward
OneCork ladies football team
In the 30 seasons since the Munster championship was founded, Kerry had won 14 titles, Waterford had 10. Tipperary had five, Clare had one. Cork had none. They’d been to seven finals over the years and their average margin of defeat was 13 points. Actually, it was 13.4 but counting the decimals feels like bullying.
Cork were a mess. It often happened that they played Munster championship games where they met for the first time in the dressing room. Mortified, they’d quietly ask a new face for her name and whisper one back and roll their eyes at the shambles of it all. Someone would open a bag of jerseys and only then would they find out if they were playing in red or white.
Juliet Murphy tells the story of a challenge match between them and her club Donoughmore in 2002. Donoughmore turned up with 30 players. Cork couldn’t scare up a 15. The club side had to give the county side a lend of some bodies to fill out the field – Murphy’s sister got her one and only run-out in a Cork jersey as a result. The following week, Waterford beat them 1-20 to 2-8 in the Munster final.
“There was no sense of what could be achieved,” says Murphy. “The vision wasn’t there. There was no sense of Cork ever going to that level. I remember watching All-Irelands on television and never even imagining that I would be there with Cork.
“I never thought it would happen. That was something that people like Sue Ramsbottom did. You played in All-Irelands if you were from Waterford or Mayo. It was just not in our mindset. Because really, what was Cork? We weren’t sure. What was it to play for Cork? There was no entity there.”
She likes the management. A lot of them do. On a personal level, they get along. What the players are about to do – what she’s about to do – is going to hurt some good people. But it has to be done, she knows that too. There hasn’t been a change for seven years and the thing is going nowhere and Harte is sick of it.
She was the first girl in her school to play on the boys’ team. She played underage soccer for Ireland. She won junior and intermediate club All-Irelands with Rockbán. At every step, she has been about getting better. Cork should be about that too. She takes to her feet and starts to read.
At 1am, Juliet Murphy’s phone beeps with a text from Evening Echo reporter Mary White. The meeting was long but the letter did the job. Mary Collins from Rockchapel is the new manager. She aims to appoint a coach early in the new year.
1) A man in a wheelchair asked me.
2) I think I was after being in hospital and I was at a loose end.
3) I was a GAA games development officer at UCC and one of the students asked would I come in and give a hand.
4) Mary Collins rang and asked would I come in and have a look at them.
5) It was only supposed to be a for a few sessions.
Take out your needles, knit those strands of yarn together and the truth is in there somewhere.
However accidental he claims it to have been, Ryan’s appointment made all kinds of sense. At a time when the club scene was so fractious that players were wary about who they sat beside, he came with no baggage. He had no background in women’s football beyond the bits and pieces he’d done as a teacher before he retired. But he knew how to coach and had All-Irelands with the Cork minors from the previous decade to prove it.
In the beginning, they were overawed. He was 37 years older than the eldest of them. He’d coached the men’s team to a Munster title before most of them were born. He’d played in an All-Ireland final when most of their fathers were climbing trees and skinning knees. They couldn’t believe he’d have any interest in them.
On the first night, he handed around a sort of manifesto, a vision of the journey that would take them to an All-Ireland. And they didn’t really know what to do with that. This was the Cork ladies’ football team. Hadn’t anyone told him?
She can’t stand to look at the photos even now. It’s not vanity. It’s that she hadn’t thought ahead and reasoned it out. That it was their first final is no excuse. She was never caught out like that again.
Murphy played senior basketball for Ireland. She is a national champion road-bowler. Over a 17-year career for Cork, she was never booked, never got sent off and never missed a game through injury. She was managing two fitness centres by the age of 25. Any serious coach would gravitate towards her. But so beaten down by life were they that when Ryan did just that, she was thrown.
“He’d come up talking to you. He’d say, ‘What did you think of that drill?’ And you’d be thinking, ‘What the hell’s he asking me for? Sure the drill’s great. Of course the drill’s great – sure he’s giving it to us.’ But that’s the way he continued. Everything he did, he engaged us on it.
“He gave us a sense of belonging. This was ours. It suddenly became something that we owned. It wasn’t Cork run by the county board, it was us, a group of players and this was ours. He was almost a life coach as much as anything. And we were like kids. Honestly, just like kids. Our confidence began to soar because of it.”
Kerry beat them in Killorglin in the preliminary round of Munster but they dusted themselves off and came back to beat them in the final in Páirc Uí Rinn a month later. It was their first Munster title. They did a mass Klinsmann dive across the pitch in celebration.
Ten of the team that started in Killorglin would go on to win eight All-Irelands. All but Harte and Murphy would win nine. Cork had never won a league, provincial or All-Ireland title at senior level before Ryan took over. In 11 seasons since, they’ve won 27 trophies. That’s 27 out of a possible 33.
Ask them for a game that stands out though and they all say the same word.
Problem was, they knew they were untouchable. They had got to the point where whatever happened, they figured they’d figure it out. So as the summer festivals came around, a few of them figured it wouldn’t hurt to go just one year, just for one weekend.
A few others booked a holiday during the season – nothing major, just a week away. Not everybody did their injury rehab to the letter. Not everybody did their gym work to the last rep. Tick, tick, tick.
“We went away from what was acceptable,” says Mulcahy. “We had this subliminal thing, this feeling that it will be okay, that we’ll make it in the end. It wasn’t that our commitment dropped hugely, just one or two sessions here and there. But when everybody does it, that adds up. And even though it’s not blatantly obvious, you definitely sensed it.”
Tyrone caught them in the All-Ireland quarter-final, squished them like they were nothing to the tune of 3-11 to 0-13. Two Cork players were sin-binned for the closing stages. Two more went down with cruciate injuries. Bad moon rising.
“The night before the match, I said to my dad that we were in trouble,” says Murphy. “Training had been poor. We all had made decisions through the year that were different to other years. We all would admit that people were acting out that year. We just weren’t right. We weren’t firing on all cylinders. And when the pressure came on, we cracked.
“We missed a goal chance and then they came down and got a few points. But the game was level near the end, it was there for us. But we couldn’t get the ball out of our own half. It was like a wall. They absolutely deserved it. I wouldn’t for a second say that if we were right we would have won. I’m just saying that we were careless, we were lackadaisical and we deserved to be beaten.”
For a few months, nobody knew what came next. The gang of 10 who had been there from Ryan’s first game – Harte, Murphy, Mulcahy, Briege Corkery, Rena Buckley, Bríd Stack, Nollaig Cleary, Angela Walsh, Ger O’Flynn and Deirdre O’Reilly – were a single organism by this stage. They wouldn’t all have quit if one of them – or Ryan – had. But they wouldn’t all have stayed either.
It was like the end of Reservoir Dogs, except nobody wanted to shoot first. A meeting was called for Larry Tompkins’ pub that December, by which time everyone was supposed to have their minds made up. But because they were all waiting to see what everyone else would do, hardly anybody had.
“It was a desperate mess really,” says Murphy. “We were still in the same disarray that we had been in leaving the dressing room whatever it was, three or four months beforehand. There was despair in the room. I think people thought that this was the natural end.”
Ryan didn’t want to make the decision for them. He could have given a straight yes or a straight no and that would have simplified everything, but everything great they’d ever done, he’d left in their hands. He wasn’t about to go making up their minds now.
“There’s no half-doing it,” says Mulcahy. “I think that’s what was behind the indecisiveness. Because you knew that if you were going again, you were saying that it would be done properly and that we’d be getting back to the commitment that won us All-Irelands in the past. That’s why there was so much deliberation.”
The meeting ended with nothing agreed. But over the following days, some gentle politicking on the phones did the needful. Ryan stayed, the rest of them stayed and training started in January. By September, they were All-Ireland champions again.
The comeback win against Dublin this year made it the sweetest final since the first one. Ten points down with 16 minutes to go, the precision which they snipped off each dangling inch of Dublin’s lead made for a masterclass. No panic. Just pass, move, pass, move, score. Repeat to fade.
Juliet Murphy was on the sideline working for TG4 that day. Her first year of retirement had gone okay but she was glad of the gig at the final because it gave her something to concentrate on. Something to be responsible for. She’d have been a wreck sitting in the stand. When it was over, a young kid called out to her from the crowd and asked for her autograph. “So I signed away and as I was signing it I said, ‘I’d love to go out there and hug them’. And this little girl said, ‘Sure why don’t you? Go on!’ And I said, ‘Ah no, I can’t, I can’t. It wouldn’t be right.’ But she just said, ‘Go on! Go on! Don’t mind them!’ And I didn’t think about it. I just dropped my headphones and ran on. It was brilliant.”
It was. Every bit of it.