Cork’s Niamh McCarthy: The hardest part was just not playing

There was a time, even as she had barely entered her teens, when it seemed inevitable that the Niamh McCarthy would play for Cork.
Cork’s Niamh McCarthy: The hardest part was just not playing

Littlewoods Ireland Camogie

League Division 1 Final

Cork v Kilkenny

Today: Gaelic Grounds, Limerick, 1.30pm

Referee: O. Elliott, Antrim

There was a time too, when it appeared certain that the youngster would never pick up a hurley again.

That McCarthy is lining out for the Leesiders in today’s Littlewoods Ireland Camogie Leagues Division 1 Final is a testament to her bravery and character, to her love of playing and of scoring goals.

She was a prodigy. In 2011, McCarthy was playing a central role as Inniscarra reached the All-Ireland senior club final. She was just 14.

But a fortnight before the decider she suffered her first cruciate knee ligament injury during a game of basketball.

The thought of missing an All-Ireland was dreadful but it wasn’t one game itself that stood out in the ensuing months, and indeed years.

“All I did was play sports. Every evening would be a training session on two. I loved it. So it was terrible but I thought I’d get my knee right and be out a year. But it wasn’t like that at all.”

The healing process was torturously slow. She was out for more than two years before she finally got the green light to return.

After two months, McCarthy was starting to feel good about her game again. She was just turning 17 when disaster struck the other cruciate. The rehab went smoothly this time but the psychological scars would prove more problematic.

“I knew if I didn’t try to come back that I would always wonder what could have happened,” says McCarthy.

“I was an up-and-coming player when I was 14 but I never got the chance to see what might happen. When you’re sporty, and you’re 15 or 16 and can’t play on the team with all your friends, it’s hard. When you’re on a team, you’re all in it together.

"The recovery is something you have to do alone. No-one else is going to do it for you. But the hardest part was just not playing. You’re on Facebook and people are talking about games…”

Her recollection of the first day back is vivid.

“I was terrified. I wanted to play and I wanted to be part of the team but I just didn’t want to have to go through any of that again. I hadn’t played since I was 14, apart from when I was back for two months before my other knee went. I’m delighted now.

"I’m delighted to be back playing with my club, with UCC and with Cork. I never played underage for Cork apart from U14. It was something I always wanted to do. When I was brought into the panel, there were a lot of girls my age but I didn’t know any of them because I had missed out on so much.”

They only knew her as “that poor girl” she laughs. It was her form with UCC in the Ashbourne Cup last year and then as Inniscarra ended the Milford monopoly in the county championship that convinced Paudie Murray she was worthy of the step up, and she has carried that through the League.

Having clubmate Rena Buckley around proved a tremendous comfort and still does.

“It’s been easier for me to transition in with girls I didn’t know, knowing that Rena is there. When I was playing with Inniscarra first, I was the baby and she wouldn’t have been one of the older girls then but she’d have been good like that, talking to you.

"And she looks after my knee as well, she’s a physio and she understands that there are times when maybe I can’t train. She’s also good to speak to you before a match.”

She has done well, scoring goals as she had always done. But sometimes her expectations get the better of her.

“I put pressure on myself. I expect it to be like when I was playing U14 and U16, to be able to win every ball but you’re not because you’re playing against the top players. I also feel like I want to make up for the time I missed. But I’m still learning.

"I missed out five years; I’m only back playing a year and a half. Even through the League, I have learned so much from playing against top players and alongside top players.”

Given that she lost out on such two or three complete phases of development, it is quite remarkable that McCarthy is flourishing so quickly.

It is only reasonable to assume that she will improve further but the learning curve is steep.

Cork beat Kilkenny by a point at the beginning of the month but it was an illuminating experience. Meanwhile, the culture within the squad cultivated by the likes of Buckley, Gemma O’Connor, Aoife Murray, Ashling Thompson other long-serving members is one that appeals.

“They want to win so much. Everyone has bought into the way we’re playing. Training is going good, there are new players there and everyone is pushing each other forward. When the Championship comes, even after the League Final, there’ll be some fight for places. You have to perform in training. Anyone could start.

That makes training very good. The physicality that Kilkenny brought, I don’t think any other team that we had played against had brought it. It was way more physical than any game I had played before. So I’m looking forward to it. It’s exciting.”

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