Sharon Courtney playing a key role in Monaghan’s renaissance year

The top defender says the team is ready to face their old enemy, Cork, in the All- Ireland senior semi-final

Sharon Courtney after Monaghan beat Cork in the 2012 NFL Division One final. “Our big motto since the start of this year has been about hard work.” Photograph: Inpho

Just after Christmas, a team meeting was called for the Monaghan women's footballers. Last year's championship campaign dissolved at the All-Ireland quarter-final stage and their manager, Peter Clarke, was stepping down for health reasons.

So prospects for 2016 were already on unsteady ground. And when only five players showed up to the meeting, a crisis was on the horizon.

Sharon Courtney was on a break at the time, having recently achieved All-Ireland success with her club, Donaghmoyne. When word of the dismal crowd filtered through to her, she found herself feeling disillusioned about the future of women's football in the county.

“I was thinking, where do we go from here?” she says. “We haven’t won any silverware in the last two years with Monaghan Ladies, so it was actually scary thinking that maybe Monaghan Ladies was going down into Division Two. It’s scary to think for Monaghan Ladies, who have been so strong in the past 10 or 20 years, that we were heading that direction.”


For Courtney, the apparent disbandment was poorly timed. After debuting for Monaghan more than a decade ago, she had considered putting her intercounty duties on pause for 2016. But a sense of duty – to recover the situation and restore higher standards for the next generation – made the decision for her.

“I was half thinking last year that I was gonna give this year a miss,” she says. “But the fact that others were giving it a miss changed my mind because I didn’t want to leave Monaghan Ladies in a state. I was thinking about the younger players and my younger sister, and thinking, there’s no way I’m having her playing in Division Two.”

Just 11 of last year's panel are still involved, and Monaghan had some big name drop-offs to absorb at the beginning of the season. A trio of All-Stars, including goalkeeper Linda Martin and Catriona McConnell, decided to take breaks. Caoimhe Mohan cited work reasons for her withdrawal, but has since returned to bolster the team.

The rebuilding process looked insurmountable, but new manager Paula Cunningham has made elementary work out of it. Much of the panel believes their final league game against Mayo was the turning point.

Pushed to the limit

Still, Courtney points to a gruelling six- week training programme after the league. Physical limits were pressed, leaving players on the sidelines getting sick.

“Every session was just horrendous,” she says. “The training we’ve done this year is the hardest I’ve ever done. It kind of galvanised everyone. With the training we’ve done, I knew no one was going to beat us fitness-wise and in terms of having a team spirit. For me, those training sessions were the ones that made me believe.

“There’s 26- and 27-year-olds who haven’t played with Monaghan since they were minor. I suppose he [trainer Aide Little] thought he had to really push us to bring the new players up to speed and show them what county football is really all about – and he definitely did that.”

Even before Aide Little arrived in the Monaghan camp, the high quality of their training was turning heads.

“The men’s team would often be training in the Cloghan Centre of Excellence,” Courtney says. “They’d be chatting to us and saying that our trainings looked tough. I remember a couple of years ago, when the Monaghan men were being relegated, and they said it to us that the training we were doing was tougher than what they were doing.”

The last time Monaghan captured the Brendan Martin Cup was 1997. Courtney’s desire to represent her county wasn’t immediate, but the ambition and the drive developed over time.

Getting back to the All-Ireland final has never been a problem for the Farney women of this generation, having made appearances in 2008, 2011 and 2013. But the unfortunate reality is that they have been up against Cork in each of those showpieces.

Free lacking

The closest they came to unseating the champions was in 2013, but Catriona McConnell’s free in the dying moments lacked the legs to bring the game to a draw. Monaghan’s third All-Ireland loss was Cork’s eighth title win in nine years.

Courtney says the 2016 group’s inexperience could be prove to be a potent weapon in changing their fortunes. More importantly, it could be the key to exposing previously undiscovered deficiencies in the Cork attack when the teams meet in the this weekend’s All-Ireland semi-final.

“A lot of these girls have never played against Cork before and probably don’t know what to expect,” she says. “They’re going in not knowing, and that’s the beauty of a lot of our players, particularly our full-back line. They’re marking top players, but they don’t actually know that.

“I think that’s to our advantage because they’re not going in nervous of who they’re marking.”

That fearless character in the novices has already manifested: They have reclaimed their Ulster title and, in their quarter-final tie against Kerry, the full-back line restricted a much more seasoned Kerry attack to just six points from play.

At the other end, Monaghan put six goals away, including one from the boot of Courtney, who lined out at centre-back that day. By her own admission, she “wouldn’t often be up in the forwards, and I definitely wouldn’t be scoring”.

Her leadership role extends beyond the pitch as well. She currently holds a masters in nutrition and her team-mates routinely avail of the free advice. “It’s happened a good bit this year, where a good few of the players were coming up to me and asking what they should or shouldn’t be eating. I’ve given talks to the girls as well.”

There is a sharpness to the Donaghmoyne player. A quick glance at her most recent tweets reveal that she’s not a fan of Tom Carr’s co-commentary, and that she’s not afraid to criticise referees when she thinks they are being pedantic.

“There’s some things that would frustrate me,” she says. “You’ve ladies football on the television and you’re trying to promote it and you want to make a good spectacle of it. Sometimes when the ref blows for things during a game, it makes it hard to watch. I know they have a rulebook to follow, but sometimes they can be too pernickety.

Banter and slagging

“I was in the Croke Park hotel one time and there just happened to be a referee’s conference on,” she laughs. “And didn’t they all come in, and there’s me stuck chatting to them. There was a bit of banter and slagging going on. I was giving out about such and such a rule.”

When Monaghan travel to the Gaelic Grounds in Limerick this Saturday, Courtney’s focus won’t be on the officiating. She has unfinished business with Cork to settle.

Despite the heartaches Monaghan have suffered in previous encounters against Cork, 2016 has been a renaissance year. The progress they have made from such bleak beginnings is a measure of their ability to overturn adversity.

And it doesn’t have to end on Saturday.

“We’ll just go in and prepare as we have,” Courtney says. “We’re in bonus territory because of where we started this year. Our big motto since the start of this year has been about hard work and try to work harder than the other team.

“It’s stood us in good stead so far, so it’ll be the same going in against Cork.”