Valerie Mulcahy: I fulfilled all my Croke Park dreams with Cork, except one...

THIS Sunday? My favourite day of the year. The Ladies Football All-Ireland final. For the third year in a row, Cork will play Dublin for the All-Ireland title.

It’s more than that though. There’s history here. Have you been keeping up?

Here’s the backstory: Over the past 11 years, Cork have played in 10 All-Ireland finals, winning all of them. The year Cork didn’t make the final, Dublin won the All-Ireland. Until 2005, Cork had never reached an All-Ireland final, since then they have won five in a row, twice. Their double five in a row titles are divided by the Dublin victory.

For the Cork team, Sunday presents the chance to win a first six-in-a-row, to win against Dublin three times in a row and to extend the All-Ireland medal haul of Rena Buckley and Briege Corkery to 17 each.

For the Dublin team, there will be the opportunity to defeat Cork in Croke Park. I have been part of this very special journey to and from Croke Park since 2005. This year will be different - for the first time I’ll be watching instead of playing. I’m excited as a supporter, for my team, for my team mates… but I’m sad for the things I miss.

I miss putting on my boots, my friends, the buzz and excitement of everything we did together. The bus rides, talking tactics, being competitive, the Garda escort to Croke Park, the tunnel, the anticipation, the fight, setting up my team-mates.

Taking frees, scoring goals, the pain, the joy, the journey.

It will be a challenge to go from being so close to people you linked telepathically with to watching them from a distance set off on their journey. I know that as Friday turns to Saturday, I will remember more things I’ll miss. I will have felt how most of the girls are feeling, have had the same thoughts that will be racing through their head and experienced the same butterflies flying around in their stomachs.

I’ll want the same outcome but I won’t be running off my anxiety. I’ll be sitting and willing and supporting my team, my friends like all those who supported me and supported us over the years. I am going to watch with pride and excitement. I know what it has taken to get to this place again.

I can sit there, proud knowing I have been part of something truly remarkable and I can continue to be part of it in a new way by supporting the future of the Cork team.

A team that prides itself on many of the best characteristics and some of the most important qualities for a successful team. It takes an exceptional group of players to have achieved five in a row twice — a phenomenal team.

Irrespective whether they add one more to the haul Sunday, I will be immensely proud of the Cork Ladies team for the humility, hard work, determination, grace and style that comes to mind. And the relentlessness that made this the greatest team Irish sport has produced. A team I am proud to say I was part of for all of my adult life.

My greatest memory of playing with Cork is of that relentlessness. In 2014, we were 10 points down against Dublin with 14 minutes showing on the countdown clock. Dublin had dominated. I remember thinking I didn’t want our reign to end with a whimper. This wasn’t Cork. The week before, Deirdre Reilly, was asked what she’d say to our opponents. They resonated and revived, encapsulating that relentlessness: “We won’t die down, we will play to the bitter end and I hope that they are prepared for that.”

That 13 minutes always makes me smile. We got to showcase our relentlessness. We underlined on the biggest day the reason we are a special group, Even now it saddens me to say that I can no longer refer to that group of players as “we”, but as “them”. Maybe I will miss that the most — being part of the team.

I fulfilled every hope and ambition I had wanted as part of that team — except one. My hope for them now is they get to experience what it’s like to run out onto Croke Park, into a stadium full to the brim with 80,000-plus supporters roaring them on. Unfortunately, I never knew that feeling first hand and never will, but I really do hope that the next generation will have that opportunity.

It was the final dream of mine to experience it. I know I was somewhat setting myself up for failure — I am a maths teacher so I can do the sums. I can’t complain too much as many of my other ambitions were fulfilled. I got to play in Croke Park 10 times and maintain a 100% record with my team.

Although I am humbled and honoured to have had the privilege of playing in one of the most amazing and historic venues in Irish history, I won’t miss the disappointing feeling you get when you are kicking into an empty Hill 16. I always reckoned it would have been better kicking into a Hill, even one full of Dublin jerseys. The Cork players deserve to have that dream realised and I hope someday they do.

In the meantime, for all the fans who watch from a distance and cannot make the journey to Croke Park, let’s give the team an epic homecoming win, lose or draw.

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