Cora Staunton, and Mayo, back searching for the summit

It’s a Friday night in Breaffy House Hotel outside Castlebar and downstairs, a wedding is in full swing.

Cora Staunton, and Mayo, back searching for the summit

Apparently, singer Shane Filan is in the house, and due to perform for the guests later on. But there’s only one person in the hotel tonight who’s identifiable by her first name alone, and it’s not the former Westlife member.

We’re talking about Cora.

Cora Staunton has played in six All-Ireland finals, winning four of them, but she hasn’t had a September or October date in Croke Park since 2007. Along with goalkeeper Yvonne Byrne, she’s one of just two members of the current Mayo ladies football team who knows what it’s like to climb the steps of the Hogan Stand as a champion.

She’s been playing long enough to remember not just multiple manager changes, but internal division and even being pulled out of the Connacht Championship in 2010. The prospect of helping her side to ultimate glory is why she’s still playing at the age of 35.

“I suppose that’s why we’re there for so long,” she says with a rueful laugh, “and went through a lot of stuff in the process. Ultimately, the reason we went through all that was to get to here. I know a lot of the girls for a long time. A lot of them are club-mates of mine, and they maybe just came in [at] the wrong time, a year or two [after] we’d won our All-Irelands and got to play in one final [in 2007], but haven’t their All-Ireland medals in the back pocket.

“And I suppose that’s why we stayed on that little bit longer, to hopefully get them over the line, and ... get them the All-Ireland medal they deserve. The likes of Fiona McHale, Martha Carter, Marie Corbett, girls like that, that have been soldiering for a long time and really have been there when the times have been really, really bad … It was easier to walk away, but they stuck with it.”

Staunton’s first senior All-Ireland was unusual, to say the least. The week before the 1999 final, she broke her collarbone in training. The 17-year-old lined out for just 47 seconds of that game against Waterford before being withdrawn by prior agreement.

Mayo’s “brilliant win” made things easier, and she won three more medals on the field — in 2000, 2002 and 2003. Dublin, their opponents in next Sunday’s final, provided the opposition on the latter occasion. Cork, who replaced Mayo as the game’s powerhouse in the mid-noughties, beat them in their last final appearance ten years ago.

“Ladies football has changed dramatically,” confirms a woman who made her Mayo debut back in 1996. “I’m getting older. I’m probably not as quick as I was [laughs] but I probably have strength and my skills aren’t too bad ...

“Obviously, I’ve been the main scoring forward on the team for a long time, and maybe that burden, probably, has come off me a bit this year. That probably frees me up a bit more, gives me that bit of extra space.”

She’s double-jobbing at the moment, working with Mayo Travellers Support Group in health promotion, and with Sky Sports on a school programme called Living For Sport. In the latter role, she visits secondary schools telling students her story, outlining what the keys to success are, and trying to inspire the next generation. Relaxation involves spending times with her nieces and nephews, bringing them to the playground or the cinema.

“Physically, it takes you longer to recover after games, but the matches are quite mentally draining as well,” she adds. “We were back training on the Monday night after the semi-final against Cork but it’s probably only by Wednesday that you’re back to yourself. Recovery is huge for me, so there are plenty of physio, and ice-baths, and just looking after yourself in general, getting plenty of sleep, and having your downtime as well, getting away from it all, and looking after yourself.”

Club success with Carnacon means that her season often runs into mid-November or even early December, but inter-county ladies training at this time of year has been an all too rare phenomenon in Mayo in recent years.

“While it’s getting dark out now and the weather’s getting crap, there’s no better feeling than being out training at this time of the year,” she says.

“So it’s a great complaint, that you’re in September and you’re still in football.

“That’s where, ultimately, you want to be.”

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