(One of) my favourite sporting moments: On the pitch as Cork ladies win the big one
Joanne O’Riordan: Picking one was impossible so I’ve divided it into men and women
We have been absolutely blessed down in Cork with our plethora of sporting stars and sporting moments that so naturally follow. From gallant footballers across both genders who shatter glass ceilings, hurling and camogie players who consistently blow up records to re-energise a game, soccer players who go to various leagues throughout the world and become their team’s most valuable players (or in some cases split a nation, but we don’t need to recall all the facts).
Shockingly, when I was younger, I did not have the sitting ability to watch these heroes change their sports forever and carve in legacies in history books. I actually never really sat down properly to watch Roy Keane play. Sinfully, and I hope the good Lord that is Sonia O’Sullivan forgives me, I used to tell my parents to call me for the last few minutes of a race. I can only apologise for disgracing myself.
In fact, I hated watching sport. I didn’t get the obsession. Peak millennial, I like quick and snappy bitesize highlights. But, I much preferred participating in it. Having a friend or sibling kick a ball into my face was far more entertaining than sitting down and pretending I could influence my team via television.
Eventually, my parents had had enough of me coming home semi-concussed with a crooked nose. They brought me to see my sister play Junior B ladies football for Dromtarriffe, our nearby ladies club. I was transfixed. Add to that Dromtarriffe had Cork stalwart Geraldine O’ Flynn playing with them once upon a time, so it definitely helped my fix for sport.
And then, the golden tickets to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory arrived at our home.
Initially, when the 20x20 Can’t See Can’t Be campaign came about, a part of me felt it was a tad bit tokenistic and it didn’t really serve a purpose. And then my mind flashed back to my greatest sporting moment.
The year was 2006 and Cork were playing Armagh in the Ladies Football All-Ireland Senior final. For context, Armagh had sprung up from junior about 12 months before that so to reach a senior final was a massive achievement for them.
Somehow, my parents wrangled four tickets, which at the time was unheard of given how a wheelchair user can really only get one extra ticket. It was official: Joanne’s First Big Trip To Dublin That Wasn’t A Hospital Appointment™.
Google Maps was not a thing at the time, and my father got my cousin, my aunt, my mother and I to Crumlin, but somehow we could not get any further. It didn’t matter we got up at some ungodly hour to see 60 minutes of football, we were all in.
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After getting lost in Crumlin for quite some time, my father did what all good culchie dads do. Throw the window down, ask the local guard and pray there was a solution. This guard’s solution was to escort us over because we had wasted precious time circling the children’s hospital.
Garda escort in tow, we set across the R110 for about 20 minutes. That’s probably where I got the taste for wanting to be president because beating that city-centre traffic was absolutely glorious.
Everything about Croke Park felt more significant and better and just more emphatic. It’s incredibly hard to describe, but to use the exhausted cliché, it quite literally took my breath away. Little did I know it would be the same crew going into that Croke Park elevator a whole decade later and even weirder, little did I know my best friend security guard Francis would appear at all the milestones in life and sport throughout.
There was one thing that I was itching to do but didn’t want to push my luck. The game was always looking to be in Armagh’s favour until my, at the time, favourite club-mate and hero Geraldine O’Flynn was tackled and Armagh were reduced to 14. Add to that, in peak ladies football fashion, controversy seemed imminent when an umpire told a bemused 25,000-plus crowd that a point was wide from Valerie Mulcahy.
I can remember Cork were super wasteful, but seeing Nollaig Cleary, Briege Corkery, Juliet Murphy and Rena Buckley with their athletic and dynamite prowess was, dare I say, quite inspiring. Mary O’Connor, completing a double-double along with other dual stars, started and finished an All-Ireland Senior Football final, the first time ever.
Although the 25,000 in the stands were all probably perplexed as to how Armagh lost it, a 10-year-old limbless kid was plotting her next moves as my beloved rebels won and, like I usually would at all games, I told my father we were pitch invading.
One massive problem: my chair is 120kg, and I expected to be carried like Cleopatra from the back of the Lower Cusack Stand . . . the Garda escort really swelled my ego. My father, with choice words that won’t be printed in a national newspaper, shot me down.
I pouted, fake cried, pouted some more until he gave in. The security guard was told to mind my chair (as if wheelchair thieves were rampant in Drumcondra), and my father scooped me up and sat me on his head while we raced to the pitch. Health and safety, I can only apologise for our reckless behaviour.
As Juliet Murphy hoisted the trophy over her head, my father raised me over his, a tradition we kept until I err, grew, and he got weak (it barely lasted two years, but for the romance let’s pretend).
Being on the pitch surrounded by such euphoria, comradery and celebrations sparked something in me, something my father externally regrets, but I know internally he’d join me in sacrificing his left arm to experience it again.
That day, ladies football was not the roaring success it was today. Apart from TG4, a few folks who got on the women in sports train early, it wasn’t really that interesting or cool to follow. And ironically, the games were a lot tighter and better.
Although Cork won an astronomical number of titles, a lot of them were won by the most minimal margin at a time when it was deemed that they were all-dominating, all-powerful and all-glorious.
But going to that All-Ireland final, it kickstarted my bizarre thing for Cork teams and following sports throughout my life, something which I can’t imagine my life without.
Sport is a humongous part of my life and excuse the cliché but even working in sport is the best thing I could ask for.
Really, sport does so many things that, in a way, few aspects of our society can. It can unite us, divide us, inspire us, belie us, make us fall in love, fall out of love. It cuts through the cynicism and quite literally stops your heart sometimes. It is why we play it, watch it, talk about it, and why we write about it.
Few games resonate, and even fewer games live long in the memory, but standing in midfield with my dad really did inspire so many generations to achieve various things in life. And as John Spillane once gloriously wrote, will we be brilliant or what?
You can read Joanne O'Riordan's other favourite sporting moment here: Sergi Roberto's right leg completes a miracle