First Thoughts: Relentless

“The women are doing it now — the men can’t.”

This was part of a conversation between two old friends and lifelong GAA supporters I recently overheard in Mary Ryan’s bar in the North Main Street. It was a pithy summary of the current state of affairs in Cork, with the ladies triumphant in football and camogie at senior level, while their male counterparts languish in limbo.

The story of the string of successes of the Cork ladies in the football sphere has now been brilliantly told by Mary White, one of the leading women sports journalists in the country. No team deserved it more.

And Malachy Clerkin of The Irish Times was surely right when he said: “It would have been disastrous if the best team in Irish sport had passed into history without their story being told.”

Theirs has been, in the words of the great Kilkenny coach/manager Brian Cody (who penned the foreword), an “amazing journey”.

Just consider the statistics: Prior to 2004, the team had never won a senior Munster or All-Ireland title — since then they have won an incredible 10 All-Irelands.

But those of us who witnessed their victory over Dublin in 2014 final were left with a true measure of their greatness — they were 10 points down with 16 minutes to go.

In hurling, that’s a mountain, but climeable; in football it’s Mount Everest.

I watched that unforgettable game in a crowded pub, where 90% of the customers were male. Interest in the game had been intermittent, but when the gap reached 10 points it faded altogether. Then something incredible happened — Cork were fighting back. The gap narrowed as the Leesiders surged forward relentlessly.

Suddenly there was silence in the bar — all eyes were on the television. Could they do it? The silence was finally broken by a shout from the back of the bar: “Come on Cork!” And come on they did in great style, to achieve what the author has described without an iota of exaggeration as “the best comeback ever witnessed in Croke Park”.

In the bar there were celebratory shouts and cheering but also something unusual in a bar — applause.

The Leesiders’ feat was given special recognition later in the year when the Cork squad won the RTÉ Team of the Year Award — 27% of the vote went to the Cork ladies footballers — 11% more than the Irish men’s rugby team. In doing so, they became the first female team to win the award.

Two members of that team established their own record: Rena Buckley and Briege Corkery, who played starring roles in the Cork teams that won both the the All-Ireland and women’s football titles in 2015. In doing so, they wrote their names into the annals of Irish sporting history. It brought their individual All-Ireland medal tallies to 16 — six each in camogie and 10 each in football — more than any other GAA player. They passed the record of 15 held by Dublin camogie player Kay Mills — a record that has stood for 54 years.

The book is also a fitting tribute to the role of their coach/manager Eamonn Ryan and his philosophy. The chapter in White’s book devoted to him is simply called ‘Mastermind’. Only time will tell what effect his decision to switch this year to the men’s team will have on the women’s game. His is a hard act to follow: He was the team’s guiding light.

There remains the question that comes up again and again — why does the women’s game not attract bigger attendances and get such a poor show in the media? And it isn’t just camogie and football that lack appropriate media coverage; ask Katie Taylor or go back to Sonia Sullivan’s glory years, or ask the Irish women’s rugby team who won the Six Nations in 2015.

In a recent interview, the Mayo All-Ireland winner, Cora Staunton, the holder of 10 All-Stars, said something that would surely have the wholehearted support of the Cork squad: “I would love to sometime see the day when an All-Ireland women’s final is played before the men’s. If more people even happened to see our game before one of the men’s game, they might actually look at it and think: ‘Jeez, this is not bad’”.

Mary White has told an enthralling and inspiring story of self-belief, commitment, dedication, determination and indomitable spirit.

Relentless: The Inside Story of the Cork Ladies Footballers

Mary White

Currach Press, €14.99


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