Another big day arrives for Rebel star Cleary

Nollaig Cleary leans against the dressing room wall in Caherlag, joking that a full year has passed since a dictaphone was last thrust in her direction.

Not that she has been out of the spotlight in the ensuing 12 months, mind you.

Ms Nollaig Cleary, as she was then, is now Mrs Micheál Ó Cróinín, a picture of the newlyweds on the steps of Timoleague church, flanked by several members of the Cork ladies set-up, appearing on the front page of this paper last December. “I don’t know how it wound up there, and the front page and all,” she grins. “Certainly I wasn’t going around telling newspapers the date of my wedding.”

It would prove not the only picture to catch her by surprise in recent months. In the moments after the All Star exhibition game out in Hong Kong last March, Cleary and Juliet Murphy were carried shoulder-high by their Cork teammates. Murphy had, then, retired from the game, Cleary undecided on her future, having withdrawn from the Cork set-up indefinitely. The touring photographer interpreted the gesture as the Cork players paying tribute to the supposedly retired pair, captioning it as such. The following morning the image did the rounds in several daily newspapers. “The main difference between my story and Juliet is that she did officially announce her retirement before coming back for one last hurrah in 2013. I never did announce my retirement, though that Hong Kong picture was telling the world I had.”

Prior to any All-Star photograph, prior to any wedding picture, the 33-year old had informed Eamonn Ryan she would not be returning to the fold in 2014.

The half-forward skipped last year’s league campaign, returning along with Murphy for “one last hurrah” in the championship.

All-Ireland glory followed, an eighth Celtic Cross collected. It was the perfect conclusion. With her wedding to former Cork footballer Ó Cróinín looming, it was a case of one chapter ended, the first page turned in the next.

There are many adjectives that befall and befit Eamonn Ryan — intelligent, wise, philosophical, shrewd — persuasive rarely featuring.

But the long-serving Cork manager, just as he had roped Murphy back into the frame last summer, would not accepts Cleary’s departure.

The pair decided a final decision would be delayed until May, Cleary afforded the entirety of the league to embark on further reflection.

“I was reluctant going back last year, as in 2012 I had picked up a number of injuries. I had trouble with my hamstring and different things on top of that. I had been out for a period of time during the season. I did think last year was my last year. Married life was not so much a factor, if I’m being honest. Sure how could it, in fairness, didn’t I marry another footballer? Micheál is just as fanatical as I am about the game.

“I had made up my mind, I wasn’t going back. I then spoke to Eamonn and a couple of girls during the winter and I agreed to leave my decision until after the league. I would wait and see how I felt when the league was over.

“I didn’t think I would be returning. You need hunger and enthusiasm for this gig and I didn’t have that over the winter.”

The spring dragged on. Husband Micheál was off training with Naomh Abán every second night and so the North Presentation primary school teacher found herself at a loss in their Ballincollig home.

“When I left the game and Micheál was out training three nights of the week, if anything it half encouraged me to go back. Sitting at home as a housewife drinking tea wasn’t for me. Even making tea wasn’t for me.”

Cleary attended the league final in Parnell Park in early May, Dublin providing the opposition. Cork secured an eighth league title in 10 seasons. The championship loomed. The pull was too strong. Back she went.

“Watching the league final, you’d miss it, you’d miss the girls, you’d miss the camaraderie.

“I went and spoke with Eamonn again and I felt if I had something still to offer to this group, no matter how small, that I would give it one final go.

“I returned to the fold in June and said I would give what was left of me. Whatever role Eamonn wanted me to play, I would play.”

The return of the 2006 All-Ireland final player of the match didn’t go unnoticed, and with welcome arms, she was accepted back.

“It was a massive boost to see her coming back,” said Bríd Stack, currently a resident of the newlyweds as she awaits the keys of her new home.

“Aw t’was brilliant,” remarked Eamonn Ryan. “She brings an awful lot. We are thrilled to have her back.”

So, how was the fitness, bearing in mind the Easter holidays were spent along the Amalfi Coast in Italy?

“Fitness, yeah,” bursting into a fit of laughter. “The first couple of weeks were fairly tough, and that’s putting it mildly. Thank God I eventually got back my form.”

Still, she was unable to regain the number 10 shirt she lay claim to for the better part of a decade. First off the bench in almost each game this summer, Cleary put her hand up for final selection when kicking 1-3 in the second half of their semi-final win over Armagh — the team’s top-scorer from open play despite seeing only 25 minutes of action.

Again tomorrow she has been held in reserve. “Those 37 girls have been there since January slogging through the muck and the rain. I wasn’t there for that and the management can’t overlook that. Your reputation means nothing in this set-up. Definitely sitting on the bench returned the hunger. You can take for granted making the team when you are a regular starter for however many years. Being a substitute puts that extra bit of bite into training. You are more determined to get your fitness back to the level where you have something to offer. You are more determined to win back your place. Whatever my role on Sunday, I will give my all.”



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