SIX years ago there were signs that Mayo’s grip on Ladies Football was about to loosen and it looked as if Dublin, not Cork, were the side best positioned to assume their mantle.
Everything was going according to plan for the Leinster side in that 2003 final. Leading the Connacht outfit by a point on the cusp of injury-time, they were undone by a dramatic Diane O’Hora goal.
Twelve months later, they returned to Croke Park but finished seven points adrift of a Galway side that looked as if they would be the ones to embark on a period of dominance. Not so.
In 2005, it was Cork’s turn to claim the Brendan Martin Cup for the first time. Four years on and here they are again, looking to secure five in a row. And it will fall to Dublin to try and stop them.
A dozen of that 2004 team are still soldiering on with Dublin and, like all players in such situations, Mary Nevin shakes her head and admits she never thought it would take this long to earn another stab at the title.
The one consolation to waiting this long is that her appreciation has grown. On Tuesday she walked around the Croke Park pitch during the captain’s day and sucked in every moment. A win this weekend would be the “icing on the cake” in an inter-county career that has spanned 11 years and banish the memories of those two painful defeats.
“I’m trying to put it to the back of my mind,” she said of those losses. “There is a lot of hurt at those memories. If anything, it is a driving force. Any sports person will probably say they remember the defeats more than the wins.
“It’s the reason I am still playing today. I half thought of hanging up the boots a couple of times but I felt there was an All-Ireland in this team. The management came in three years ago and they have set up a fantastic system here and, with the calibre of player we had, I didn’t doubt three years ago that this team was going to get back here.”
The game Nevin is playing now is light years removed from her early days when she was looking to fill in the gaps left by the end of the camogie season. Seventeen at the time, Nevin and some others set up the first ladies football side at their club “because we had nothing better to do” and, by 2002, she was facing an either or situation.
Mick Bohan was football manager and the level of professionalism he brought persuaded Nevin to leave her hurley in cold storage. Others followed.
“The standard in the inter-county ladies game over the last four or five years just doesn’t compare to when I started playing for Dublin. We spend five, six days a week training.
“We are in the gym, have special diets, you name it. We have a world-renowned guy, Jim Kielty, looking after us from that point of view.”
How far they have travelled will be measured against the champions this Sunday. Dublin won when the sides met in March Cork exacted revenge by winning handsomely in the league semi-final further down the tracks. So what makes Cork so good?
“A lot of the work in Cork is done at juvenile level and they were ahead of the rest of the country in that aspect. They put in fantastic structures and were very successful from young ages. They have reaped the rewards at minor and senior level over the past few years. While we lost those All-Irelands in 2003 and 2004 a huge amount of interest was generated and those structures started to happen.
“We have been very successful at U14, U16, (winning a minor All-Ireland (last) year and it’s feeding into the senior team. The county board has set up great juvenile and development squads and we are seeing that now.”
The biggest step has yet to be taken.
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