O’Sullivan and Cork ready to unleash bottled-up frustrations
After missing out last year, Rebel County women keen to face champions Dublin
Cork’s Ciara O’Sullivan takes on Dublin’s Lauren Magee during the sides’ league clash at Croke Park this year. Photograph: Oisín Keniry/Inpho
September 24th last year wasn’t quite a unique experience for Cork captain Ciara O’Sullivan, but it was close enough.
She sat down in front of her television, turned on TG4 and watched Dublin and Mayo contest the All-Ireland final. For eight of the previous nine years she’d been out on that Croke Park pitch every September, winning all eight finals, captaining her county in two of then. This time she was just a viewer, sitting on the couch back home.
‘Bottle this feeling,’ she said to herself.
And she told herself the same after Cork’s semi-final defeat to Mayo last year which denied the team their nigh on annual trip to Croke Park. It was only the second time since 2005 they hadn’t made the final, Tyrone having stunned them in the last eight of the 2010 Championship.
They bottled the feeling then too and came back to win six All Irelands in a row, to add to the five they’d accrued before Tyrone so rudely interrupted their run.
There is, then, little more dangerous in Gaelic Games than a Cork football side unleashing its bottled feelings.
“And that’s how you have to use those defeats, to drive you on,” says O’Sullivan. “It was heart-breaking losing to Mayo, although we had no one but ourselves to blame. And then watching the final on telly, yeah, it was definitely a strange one having been involved on the day all those years.
“We didn’t want a repeat of that feeling this year, so when you’re training through the winter and you’re trying to remember why you’re doing it, you remind yourself of how you felt on days like that. That pushes you on.”
The notion that it would take Cork time to rebuild before being a force again was always a doubtful one, not least because they retain a core of hugely experienced players – nine of the team that started last month’s semi-final against Galway featured in previous finals, winning 33 medals between them – and have a wealth of talent coming through, their U-18s reaching the last four minor finals, winning three.
“We’ve been very lucky in Cork,” says O’Sullivan, “we’ve had a conveyor belt of successful minor teams with two or three of those players coming in to the senior panel every year. And while we have lost some really big players it was never in one clean sweep, it was gradual, so we’ve been able to adjust.
“And the younger girls coming in are fearless, really, they have no history with any particular team, they’re going out fresh and that helps the whole team. It keeps the rest of us on our toes too, definitely.”
Then there’s that culture of winning, the younger crew of players knowing little else but Cork success at senior and minor level.
“But it’s about never taking that for granted, it’s about instilling in players the realisation that you have to work hard for the right to pull on that senior jersey, and even harder to keep it – the same as everyone before us had to do. And it’s thanks to the years of hard work that those girls put in that we have that record. It’s up to all of us to keep it going, everyone knows the high standards and the expectations when you come on the senior panel.”
O’Sullivan, a three-time All Star who will line up alongside her sister and Mourneabbey team-mate Doireann on Sunday, has been part of a prolific Cork attack this season, her tally of 6-7 the highest from play of any player going in to the final.
“We’ve had a good run in the championship alright, but we know we’re going to have to up it from anything we’ve done this year to be in with a shout against Dublin. As the current All Ireland and league champions they’ve earned the title of favourites for the game, although when the ball is thrown in I’m not sure that will count for much.”
“We’ve had a massive rivalry with Dublin over the last five or 10 years, and after they lost to us in those three finals (2014 to 2016) I don’t think anyone would have begrudged them winning last year. We have huge respect for each other, it’s a healthy rivalry, but it does add something to the game given the history between us.”
After completing her training as an accountant last year, O’Sullivan went on a two-month trip to South America, her first break from senior Cork duty since she made her debut in 2008. She returned to the team that summer, but before then she’d had to follow their progress on Twitter as she travelled around Peru, Columbia, Brazil and beyond.
“Much as I loved the trip, being away for a while does make you realise how much it means to you and how much you miss it. And I discovered it’s definitely much easier playing than it is it keeping track of the games on Twitter, which was way too nerve-wracking – at least when you’re on the pitch you can try and do something about it.”
Like unleash those bottled feelings.