Fighting to be recognised

If asked to name a famous ladies footballer the chances are your response will be Cora Staunton.

And yet for someone with such a high profile there’s so much we don’t know about her.

From her day job educating travellers on health, to the time she turned down a chance to play rugby with Connacht, the boot deals that came and went, her joust with Katie Taylor and the man who inspired her to play sport in the first place...

Growing up in the 1980s, sport was not the done thing for young girls, particularly in conservative rural Ireland. But her teacher Arthur O’Sullivan, whose daughter Aoibhinn became a Rose of Tralee, was a visionary. The girls could play anything they wanted. Stars were born.

“It’s much easier now. Back in my time we used to get strange looks because we were playing on the boys’ team,” Cora said, who started playing with fellow All-Star Michelle McGing in school.

“Teams might have one girl and that was it. Over the years more girls started playing and that’s when clubs started forming girls’ teams. When I started there were only U14s but now it’s U10s and earlier.”

She became a household name in 1999 starting her first All-Ireland senior final with a broken collarbone. It snapped the week before but her management and team-mates felt she deserved to start so they gave her 90 seconds. They won it and added three of the next four. She’s been anything but a spectator for the past 14 years.

A man would be turning down endorsements if they had her reputation. But the world of women’s sport is a backwater for ad revenue and when Puma and Lucozade pulled the plug a few years ago she looked around and realised something.

“I got them as we were going well and ladies football was seen as the up-and-coming sport but since I finished those deals went to Katie Taylor, which obviously has more of a draw. I know adidas sponsor Katie as well but you wouldn’t really see too many women with sponsorship deals bar Katie and she’s a different level altogether.

“People come up and ask you questions and you do a lot of functions and stuff like that but that’s the main side of it. Men’s sport is on a different level with viewing figures and attendances. There’s not many sports where they’re evenly balanced, even in professional sport they don’t get paid the same.

“Katie Taylor will be the first person to tell you that. She won the Olympics and got good publicity but, by the sounds of it, she should have got a good bit more. Unless you’re in a very big sport the media are only going to latch on to what’s good for them. GAA is high profile but it’s only the ones at the very top getting deals like Bernard Brogan, Henry Shefflin, the Gooch... if you talk to an inter-county footballer struggling to make the starting 15 they’re not getting the same opportunities.”

That sense of inequality doesn’t stop there. Ladies football has aped the men’s game’s professional preparations with strength and conditioning, nutrition and skills development. But that’s where the comparisons stop.

“You’re putting in more money than the men as we don’t get expenses. I’m not advocating it but girls are out of pocket playing. In these times people can’t afford that.

“A girl has to work. There’s not too many people with nine-to-five jobs. They’re working evenings and they can’t give the commitment to take time off. That’s up to the management of the club or county to work with. If you’re telling people on one hand that they have to be committed and on the other hand that they have to hold a job. It can’t come down to that because it’s very difficult.

“It’s not the same at the elite level in the male game. In these times everyone has to choose work so you’re depending on your employer for time off. Even in our Mayo senior team a lot are in college, or work weekends, so we’ve to come up with strategies to train around that.”

Her own employers and colleagues have been very understanding but she’s also been able to use her profile to gain trust for her job with the Mayo Traveller Support Group over the past five years. Tasked with improving traveller’s health she quotes stats from the All-Ireland Traveller Health study in 2010 about traveller men’s life expectancy being 15 years less than the settled population, and women 12 years less.

“When that study was done there were only three travellers over the age of 80 in Ireland. [We work on] things like mental health. Suicide is seven times higher in the traveller community.

“We employ traveller women on a part-time basis and have 11 between Ballina and Castlebar. They go out to their community, peer-led, and I co-ordinate that in Castlebar.

“If something doesn’t work we’ve to try it again. We don’t give up. We know we’re not going to change things overnight. We’re just looking for improvements. I did my post-grad in health promotion, I would have been working in coaching before that and you’d nearly be getting an overload of sport from it.”

While football is a release from the day job, the weekly grind is a liberation from football. There are pressures that come with being Cora Staunton. She’s had her fair share of abuse, the most vitriolic from the stands, but it comes with the territory of being the most marked woman in ladies football.

“You get a bit of mouthing but the first thing they’ll do is put two back on you so you’ll have one standing beside you and one five yards ahead. That’s a tactic they’ve decided to play so it’s up to us on how we counter it. Do we push one up? Do we play the same game? You get used to it.

“Players are bad but, at times, supporters are worse. The abuse off the sideline if you miss a free or hit a wide, they cheer louder than if their own team scores. It just gives you satisfaction the next time you put a ball over.”

Another thing that used to give her great satisfaction was the open, honest style in the women’s game. When the men started putting 14 men inside their own 45 the ladies gained admirers for their gung-ho approach. Sadly, though, that’s changing now.

“It is slowly creeping in. It’s all about winning and teams are packing out their defences only leaving three or four up front. It’s a nightmare [for a forward]. You could be getting ball into the forward line five or six times and you could have 13 or 14 around the ball.

“Do Cork do that? Not particularly so. Their midfield drops deep but they still play quite an attacking brand of football. You see up-and-coming teams looking for the edge and they’re doing it. It’s not as cynical as the men’s but it’s slowly creeping in.”

Today they meet that Cork side. Cora and Mayo football looked like building a dynasty once but a new manager every year and series of bust-ups which culminated in their own executive pulling them out of the championship in 2010 lost a generation.

“In 2004 we didn’t have luck when we lost to Galway after a replay and extra time. That would have been five titles. That year we lost our management as well and since 2004 I wouldn’t even want to guess how many managers we’ve had, probably nine.

“This is the first year we’ve had the same management as the year before. You look at Cork, why are they so successful? They have very good players but a lot of it is down to one hell of a good manager.

“We’ve had well documented problems and a lot of girls fell away very young. We were still capable of winning another two, three, four All-Irelands but the mess that was there when the county board came in didn’t help.”

That’s not anger. She’s at peace playing sport. From the day she lined up against Peamount and Katie Taylor in a cup game (“she was excellent”) to her new love.

“My cousin was the captain of Castlebar rugby team and she asked me would I come along. I decided I would and we won the Connacht League final the week after the [club] All-Ireland so I’m enjoying it.

“I like soccer but I know my limits. I like rugby and am looking forward to playing more. I was asked to go in with Connacht but it wasn’t going to happen as we were in the club championship.”

Will she win another title? Who knows, but you can be sure the next Cora Staunton will not be so anonymous.

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