Nollaig Cleary had plans. Grand, grand plans. The 32-year-old signed off on a most demanding, yet enjoyable chapter last January and was more than ready, more than willing to live life outside the red and white of Cork.
The Castlehaven native had given over a decade service in the number 10 shirt, but it was time to move on and pen the opening lines of her next chapter. There would be changes, significant gaps to fill of course, but Cleary, much like compatriot Juliet Murphy, felt centre-stage had been occupied long enough.
No more would she make the drive up to St Michael’s pitch for those gruelling winter sessions, no more league final excursions to Parnell Park, no more clashes with neighbours Kerry in their favourite hunting grounds of Cahersiveen and Castletownroche, no more afternoons to savour in Birr and most of all, no return to Croke Park. Sure, Cleary would keep September’s final Sunday free, as has always been the case, but this time it would be to lend support to her former team-mates.
The wing-forward weighed up her options and still arrived at the same outcome. Retirement it was.
“When I stood out initially I had it in my mind that I wasn’t coming back,” said the primary school teacher.
“This was January when the team were getting together for the league. I decided I didn’t feel like I wanted to go back. I portrayed this to management. Eamonn and the lads, luckily at the time, didn’t take no for an answer and they gave me time to think about it. They always made me feel that the door was open anytime I wanted to come back.
“After a couple of months the rest did me good. I went to one or two of the league games and it is very hard to stay away from it. There is a tremendous bunch of players there, a really special group. I felt if I could contribute anything I would go back.”
Winter moved into spring, the evenings began to pick-up and with Cork motoring through the early stages of the league Cleary felt a sense of isolation, doubt started to creep in. Was the correct decision made.
“When the evenings got a bit brighter, and a bit longer, it rankled with me. It is hard to fill the void. I thought I would have time to do everything, do this and that. I could do anything I wanted. It is hard though to fill the void.
“I missed the camaraderie with the girls. I missed the training. I have friends who are slogging it out in the gym, doing spinning classes and I am privileged to have this and to be able to enjoy it with my friends. They are a great bunch of friends, Eamonn is a fantastic manager and when you are away from it for a short period you realise how privileged you are. I haven’t had a single regret since coming back.”
The Gabriel Rangers forward returned for the league semi-final win over Laois and while Mayo were comfortably dismissed for the side’s seventh league title in nine years, rough waters lay ahead. Cork had lost just one championship fare since their run took flight in 2005, but in the month of June, they were twice gunned down. The Rebel juggernaut was in danger of derailing.
Cleary was one piece of the puzzle returned, but a larger one remained detached.
“I spoke to Juliet before she came back and she wasn’t sure if she still had the desire for it. I said to her one night back and it will be like you never left. That desire instantly comes back. Eamonn didn’t take no for an answer with me and there was no way I was taking no for an answer with her,” laughs the Glanmire basketball player. “I probably kept on at her more than I should. Juliet is still a fantastic player, still has the fitness and I think the hunger and desire just weren’t there for a while. From the first training she came back she gave a great boost.
“To be fair, she was straight up when she announced her retirement. She told us she did not intend on coming back. As much as we tried at the start to convince her, we then had to respect her decision. I think maybe when she had a bit more time to think about it and we had lost twice to Kerry, I think she felt that if she could come back and give us a help, she would give us a lift. The losses definitely got her thinking and then we just hounded her.”
Tomorrow her focus is on the county’s bid for an eighth All-Ireland in nine years, the sub-plot however, runs far deeper. For Cleary, Murphy and probably a few more the game with Monaghan represents one final push for glory.
“Possibly this is it. For the older crew, as we call ourselves, at least. There are a group of us who have been there for a long time. Injuries are starting to creep in and you know you can’t stay going forever. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I didn’t even think we would get here given we were nine points down to Dublin in the quarter-final. I thought it was beyond us. ”
“We kept thinking over the last number of years this was our final year and yet we kept coming back. There is a sense if we can get this eighth All-Ireland it would crown it all.”
Recently engaged, you get the feeling if Cork prevail tomorrow Nollaig Cleary will finally follow through on those grand, grand plans.
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