Game-changer: How the Cork Ladies footballers stood up and shaped a glorious future

They were selected as the nation’s sports team of the year, and exist on a Ladies Football plateau of their own making. But as this extract from Mary White’s new book ’Relentless’ shows, before there was serial All-Ireland success, there was a Rebel rebellion...

Game-changer: How the Cork Ladies footballers stood up and shaped a glorious future

GOALKEEPER Elaine Harte has solid hands, but tonight they’re shaking. So too are her legs.

Sitting on a rickety bar stool in the back lounge of Murray’s Bar in Macroom for the 2003 county board AGM, she’s waited nearly two hours to hear who’s been selected to oversee the county management teams for the following season. Aged just 22, she’s the only senior inter-county player present.

It’s a poky old function room with faded upholstery and from behind the empty bar a grumbling old ice machine interjects every now and then during the meeting.

Club delegates are crammed in, knowing sparks may very well fly over the course of the next few hours. For the first time in seven years, the senior manager’s job is up for discussion, and strong personalities should add some drama on what would otherwise be a boring December night.

Charlie McLaughlin is the man who’s been in charge of the Cork senior ladies football team since 1996, but not one piece of provincial silverware has been won in his seven-year reign. That, a few weeks previous, three Cork clubs — Donoughmore, Naomh Abán and Gabriel Rangers — won the senior, intermediate and junior All-Ireland club titles isn’t helping McLaughlin’s cause either. What is in his favour is the fact the underage county teams he’s involved in have been going well. Senior success, however, is what the mob is baying for.

It’s a number of months since McLaughlin oversaw Cork’s one-point loss to Kerry in the 2003 Munster senior championship semi-final, and the board made him aware in advance of tonight’s meeting that a task group of five club delegates was appointed to put in place the 2004 senior and junior county management teams. This is no coup.

Stephen Mullane of Liscarroll, John Thompson of Naomh Abán, Liz Ahern of Carrigtwohill, Ger Walsh of Donoughmore and Rockbán’s Marie Mulcahy, mother of promising young player Valerie, have been tipping away in the background in the lead-up to tonight’s meeting, searching for the reasons as to why the Cork senior team isn’t progressing despite all the county’s club success.

‘THE POTENTIAL WAS THERE’

Mulcahy signed up for the committee in a heartbeat.

“I was sick of it. We all knew the potential was there, if there was any bit of organisation. It was time to do something. We were tired of being hammered by the likes of Kerry and Waterford. The players weren’t turning up to training, and what could you do with the four or five that did? How could you even win a match with that kind of carry on?’

Mulcahy established Rockbán LFC and was its secretary for 10 years. Her eldest daughter, Valerie, had won two All-Ireland club medals at the turn of the millennium, and she knew Cork had it in them if they got their act together.

The task group met once a week in the Commons Inn in Blackpool on the outskirts of Cork city. They were aware of the difficulty of the job, but something had to give. They knew what McLaughlin had achieved in his roles with the underage, but most senior club players in the county weren’t willing to wear the jersey for him.

They approached Mossie Barrett, who just weeks previous had coached Donoughmore to a second senior All-Ireland club title. Barrett wanted his own selectors, but the committee couldn’t agree with that stipulation. Cork dual star Fiona O’Driscoll was also approached, but having recently retired, it was too soon for her to take up an inter-county coaching role.

A few others were in the mix, but as the committee delved further they realised the need to put in place someone who had no connections to Cork ladies football. Someone with no baggage, and no agenda. It narrowed the pool of candidates considerably, and as the weeks drew closer to the AGM, their mettle was tested.

Committee member Liz Ahern confided in a friend at work in University College Cork about the group’s dilemma. Maurice McNamara listened closely as Ahern queried the possibility of former Cork GAA stars such as Jimmy Barry-Murphy and Larry Tompkins getting involved.

McNamara was a shrewd Kerryman and a serious sports fan, with strong ties to the GAA teams in the university.

“I’ve someone in mind,” he told Ahern within minutes of the conversation commencing, “but I can’t tell you until I talk to him first.” The following day, McNamara returned with a sheet of A4 paper, upon which sat a modest, five-line coaching biography. It read:

Eamonn Ryan (GAA Development Officer, UCC)

Trained Cork minors through the 90s.

Selector for the Cork senior men’s football panel for the last four years.

Coached UCC seniors.

Retired headmaster.

Has all coaching badges.

Ahern was delighted with McNamara’s proposal and the committee wasted no time in trying to meet with Ryan. It was now a week or so before the 2003 Cork ladies football board AGM, and Ryan agreed to at least hear them out at a meeting in the Powder Mills in Ballincollig.

He knew Charlie McLaughlin well, having worked with him on management teams before, and he was aware the Donegal man was at the helm for Cork’s last senior championship match a few months earlier. He listened, but under no circumstances would Ryan take the job with another manager in situ, despite the fact that McLaughlin had yet to be reappointed by the club delegates. Instead, Ryan thanked the committee for their time and they headed their separate ways.

They were at a loss for what to do. With no names on the shortlist, all the task group could do was compose a statement with their recommendations to read out at the AGM.

‘TIME FOR A CHANGE’

In Murray’s Bar, committee member Liz Ahern takes to the floor to explain their findings. As the youngest member, AGMs and board meetings are relatively new territory, but Ahern’s got bottle. She stands, and begins to read: “This committee was set up with the stated objective of nominating a management structure for the Cork senior and junior teams.

“At our first meeting, the decision was taken to have discussions with a number of people nominated for the various positions, i.e. coach, selectors, liaison officers, etc. It became obvious in quite a short time that there was a large degree of dissatisfaction with the current structures and personalities involved. In fact, the more people we spoke with, the more this impression was compounded.

“A number of former officials stated they would be more than willing to give their services to Cork ladies football but would not allow their names to go forward if the current management team was to remain in place for yet another year.

“This has placed the committee in a very invidious position, i.e. we believe that we can put an excellent management team in place but there is no possibility that this can happen at this time. We regret to have to report that it is our unanimous feeling that most, if not all, of these problems stem from the current senior management.

“After seven years, the state of our senior county ladies team is deplorable.

“The senior Cork team’s record is: All-Ireland championships: nil. Munster titles: nil. Despite having teams (Naomh Abán, Gabriel Rangers and Donoughmore) playing in all three All-Ireland finals, we contested no Munster final this year at either junior or senior level at county.

“We feel that the time has come for change. We would appeal to the current management team to step aside for the sake of ladies football and allow us to nominate a new management structure which would be free of the politics and dissension that has become a feature of the current structure.

“We feel that it is incumbent on us to put football first and to put our own petty differences to the side.

“The unanimous decision of the committee is that we would like to be allowed to finish the job that we were elected to do and, to enable us to do so, we would ask the delegates at this AGM to encourage the senior management team to resign and not seek re-election.”

There’s an intake of breath as Ahern folds over the page and sits down. Delegates shuffle in their seats and mumble at the enormity of what’s just been asked of them. Is this really happening? Is the man who dominated Cork football at every level for more or less seven years being asked to step aside?

A vote is taken on the committee’s recommendation. Club representatives know it’s time for a change, and the result is primarily in favour of the senior management team stepping down. The delegates have spoken. But McLaughlin refuses to step aside.

Charlie McLaughlin was born in the small village of Creeslough in Donegal. From a family of seven, it didn’t take him long to learn how to fight his corner, becoming a feisty centre-back, and lining out for Donegal at minor, U21 and senior level.

In 1969, as the Troubles kicked off in Northern Ireland, he left home aged 16. As a child, the political and religious unrest was never something explained to him, but instinctively he knew there was a divide. Years later, that divide would affect his family first-hand when his sister was badly injured in the Dublin Bombings on 17 May 1974 in which a series of coordinated car bombings took place in both the capital and in Monaghan. Three bombs exploded in Dublin city centre during rush hour traffic, and a fourth exploded in Monaghan ninety minutes later. A total of 33 civilians, aged from five months to 80 years, were killed between all the bombings, and 300, including McLaughlin’s sister, were injured.

At 5.32 pm, while walking home from school on South Leinster Street near the railings of Trinity College, not far from Leinster House, a bomb hidden in a blue Austin 1800 Maxi — which was hijacked earlier that morning from a taxi company in Belfast — exploded. Despite being blown across two lanes of traffic and through a glass window, McLaughlin’s sister survived.

Those difficult days made him the resilient man he is, and he quickly learned life was too short to mince your words. Some folks don’t like that about him, but it’s never bothered him.

He sought adventure first in Dublin, where he lined out with the Crumlin-based St Enda’s team for three years. Soon after he made his mark in the senior domestic championship and was asked onto the Dublin inter-county panel, but being a proud Donegal man, McLaughlin declined. Emigration had been playing on his mind, and the plan was to move to America, but in 1975 he found himself playing football with Nemo Rangers in Cork, and four decades on he’s still floating around the clubhouse in Trabeg.

A plasterer by trade, McLaughlin went on to win a Munster club championship with Nemo, but injury cut his career short. First he broke his collarbone, then his leg in a challenge match, before damaging his cruciate. He would never play again after that, but he’d do the next best thing and coach.

In 1996, the chairwoman of the Cork ladies football board, Esther Cahill, had heard of a football-mad Donegal fella who was coaching day and night across Cork, including the Ballygarvan and Cill na Martra junior football teams, Valley Rovers’ intermediate footballers and the UCC Sigerson team, while also being the masseur for the Cork senior and U21 footballers.

He must be good, Cahill decided and phoned McLaughlin to ask if he would coach the Cork senior ladies football team.

“I laughed at first to be honest, and then I said no,” McLaughlin remembers. “But she pleaded with me to take just one session and show the girls what to do. It was on a pitch out on the Lee Road and there was about seven of them standing on the field waiting for me. They didn’t have much talent, but they had a lot of heart, and that’ll win out every time.”

Under the persuasive powers of Cahill, McLaughlin was reeled in with the offer of £30 a session. Three times a week, £90 was hardly worth his while, but he accepted.

Two years later, and with as much skill now as heart, Cork won the 1998 intermediate All-Ireland final against Laois, with McLaughlin and Pat O’Sullivan on the line. It was an emotional day. It was the first piece of silverware 17-year-old Karen Con O’Sullivan had won since her mother’s tragic passing the year before.

On 18 May 1997, her mother, Joan, was driving Karen from their home in Castletownbere on the tiptoe of Ireland to Cork minor training in Donoughmore. It was a six-hour round trip for young Karen and her team-mates, Susan Power and Emma Holland, but just minutes from arriving at the pitch, they were involved in an accident at Crean’s Cross —100 yards from future Cork captain Juliet Murphy’s house.

Sitting in the front passenger seat, Karen Con O’Sullivan was knocked unconscious on impact but survived. Holland performed CPR on Karen’s mother, but sadly to no avail. A year later, O’Sullivan and Power both lined out at wing-forward, winning the All-Ireland intermediate football final in Duggan Park, Ballinasloe.

In 1999, McLaughlin was at the helm again when Cork won the Division Three league final against Kildare in Boherlahan, Tipperary. A few weeks later, he would oversee the first Cork victory over Kerry in the Munster senior championship, defeating the 11-time All-Ireland champions in the provincial semi-final in Fitzgerald Stadium by a point. But it was a freak win. In the final, Waterford drilled them by 16 points, 6–12 to 2–8.

McLaughlin though was seeing progress. The previous year, Waterford had beaten them by 24 points. His vision now was to create a Cork Ladies Football School of Excellence and so took up a development officer role with the county board and set about making the dream a reality with the help of Fr Liam Kelleher, Mary Power, Ted O’Donovan, Christy O’Sullivan and Sheila Quinlan.

At the very first session, 98 girls turned up to the sports hall at Coláiste an Chroí Naofa boarding school in Carrignavar, and for the likes of future senior stars Rena Buckley, Geraldine O’Flynn and Bríd Stack, it was to be their university of football.

McLaughlin’s School of Excellence would produce a conveyor belt of stars and underage All-Ireland and Munster titles for Cork. But with the underage set-up beginning to dominate priorities, the senior players began to have serious doubts about their importance, and the importance of the quest to win the county’s first senior All-Ireland title.

Elaine Harte rises from her rickety bar stool, her legs like jelly. She isn’t one for putting her head above the parapet, but she knows this is what it’ll take because there’s no other senior player in the room to do the talking. She’s only attending the meeting as a club delegate, but she knows she cannot hide.

Harte was the first girl to play on the boys’ football team at Upper Glanmire NS. She played in goal for Ireland in soccer at underage level on an international stage, and won two All-Ireland club medals with Rockbán LFC — one in goal and one at full-forward. Taking her game to the next level is something she strives for. But, that growth as a player has been stunted with Cork for the past number of years, and she’s frustrated.

Softly spoken, Harte wasn’t raised to make noise for the sake of it. She was raised to stand up for what she believed in, and the time is right.

“Look, I’m not here to speak on behalf of the players,” she begins. “But, what I can say is we totally respect what Charlie has done with the under age teams and all the success he’s brought them, but, after seven years at senior level, it’s time for a change.”

All eyes are on McLaughlin, gauging what his reaction will be.

“How can you give out about things when you’re one of the players who won’t even come training?” he bellows towards the back of the room, his finger pointing with rage at Harte.

“Hang on a second, Charlie,” she replies, her voice shaking from the unexpected response.

“You knew I was working evenings and that I wouldn’t be able to make some sessions. You’d arranged for different sessions with me and some of the backs, and that was the deal. I’d explained my work situation to you and that was the agreement we’d made.”

Someone in Harte’s vicinity comes to her defence by saying McLaughlin has just made this personal, and Harte’s eyes begin to fill up.

“Well, all I’ll say is, if you’re there next year, Charlie, I certainly won’t be.”

It’s all kicked off as predicted and the tension is excruciating.

The chairman calls order as everyone grapples with what’s just happened. It’s nearing midnight and the meeting is entering its fifth hour. The delegates are reminded of the recommendation, that the present senior management set-up move aside for the good of Cork football. McLaughlin reiterates that he’s not bowing to the committee’s recommendation and instead announces that he’s putting himself forward again for the position of manager.

The five tasked with finding the new manager look at each other. They didn’t expect that card to be played, and now they’re caught in limbo, with no name to counteract McLaughlin’s.

As it transpires, the committee members are sitting at the back of the room next to the Cork junior ladies football manager, Mary Collins, who arrived late to the meeting having been held up at a funeral in Millstreet. Collins oversaw the juniors’ first Munster final win in seven years the previous year, and the chairman of the task group, Stephen Mullane, knows how sharp she is.

“Mary, you’ll go up against him?” pleads Mullane.

It’s the first Collins hears of it, and she’s no more ready for what’s being asked of her, but the seconds are ticking.

Desperation is spilling out of Mullane’s eyes, and Collins knows that the right thing to do is to say yes. Nothing will change otherwise, and so Collins raises her arm.

“Through the chair, I’d like to put myself forward for the job too,” she says.

Not for the first time that night, things take an unexpected turn. Collins’ proposal means a second vote must be taken. It’s her versus McLaughlin, and pieces of paper are being frantically cut and distributed around the room.

The votes are collected, and Collins lands herself the top job in the county at approximately 1.30am — six hours after the meeting commenced.

For McLaughlin, it’s a kick in the gut.

“I felt rotten. Betrayed even. At the time, Cork ladies football was only going in one direction, and that was up. If we kept doing the same thing all the time, only changing the drills as the players came up along to suit the physical aspects of the game, then we’d have got there at senior level.

“But, looking back, my communication with the older players was part of the problem. I know that now, but the thing was that the county board never looked at where we were coming from, only where we were going. You can put a very good roof on a house, but you’d be nowhere without a good foundation underneath it.” But, the players were part of the problem too.

Mary White’s ‘Relentless’, published by Currach Press, is a contender for Setanta Sports Book of the Year, and is now available nationwide at €14.99.

More in this section

Sport Newsletter

Latest news from the world of sport, along with the best in opinion from our outstanding team of sports writers

Sign up

Discover the

Install our free app today

Available on