A COUPLE of weeks back we wrote about the All-Ireland semi-final comeback against Dublin in 2010 being the greatest memory of a lot of Cork football fans from that time.
Well, what if we said it wasn’t even the best comeback win over the Dubs by a Cork football team in Croke Park of that decade? What if there was an even more remarkable, more era-defining last quarter comeback by a Cork team?
It’s the ladies football final 2014.
And sort of like the 2010 football rewatch, this is basically relevant for 15 minutes. Before that, well it’s fair to say Cork weren’t Cork.
They were late arriving to Croke Park that afternoon with a delay in traffic, their warm-up was cut short, and generally they were thrown by Dublin’s tempo so much they couldn’t settle into any rhythm with the ball or especially in front of goal – their finishing was awful for 45 minutes and beyond. Even in that late unleashing of hell, they still missed goal and point chances.
So, yeah, 15 minutes left, 10 points down, game and more importantly, era over. It’s important to know the context here of course and the history. A year earlier in the quarter-final Cork had been nine points down and blitzed this same Dublin for 1-7 in a mad seven minutes to go ahead and win.
Dublin were coming though and there was this sense that perhaps Cork were coming to the end of something after eight All-Irelands in nine years. Doubts around the team had come home to roost.
And then, well first Valerie Mulcahy happened. And look, Valerie Mulcahy happened to pretty much every team in this period.
Point of note part one. We’re written here before about how Mulcahy, and this entire Cork team to some extent, but her in particular, changed the narrative on ladies football, how up to this point you were always more or less aware that you were watching ladies football specifically, but how watching Mulcahy play made you forget this element. How you could just as easily have been watching Colm Cooper or Stephen O’Neill with the technique and striking and movement and pure scoring instinct.
Point of note part two: We read an interview with her afterwards where she remarked on how much she was drawn to excellence in watching teams, how where many people wanted the underdogs to win, she always loved seeing the best teams in full flow – you can see this kind of detail is important.
Mulcahy did her bit again here, first by creating a goal for Rhona Ní Bhuachalla where a goal was the only thing that could have saved Cork and where a goal wasn’t completely on for most people but she spotted the chance and went for it. Then her two points, she ended with 0-6, 0-4 from play, were game-changers that she produced so many times, that only she was capable of really.
And then, well, Cork happened to Dublin, this overwhelming surge of wave after wave of attacks and runners at a sudden increase in speed, everything being done at savage tempo. Nollaig Cleary kicked in two long passes, the first one dropped to Ni Bhuachalla, who was also a massive influence, who turned inside and out and then popped a score.
The second again dropped to Ní Bhuachalla, who managed to have enough composure to spot Eimear Scally had ghosted in behind the Dublin defence. Scally had the awareness and confidence to cut back past the corner-back and bury the shot past the keeper and two chasing defenders; then again she had had the confidence to ask the Cork management to be put in corner-forward with the promise of a goal.
It’s still stunning to watch this spell of play and see a Dublin team just completely powerless to stop the flow of attacks and scores, to see Cork create chance after chance with runners and red jerseys blitzing the scoring area.
If any player dominated the last few minutes it was Geraldine O’Flynn. First, a run forward to carry ball down the left wing, an offload while falling that suggested legs were running out, but Cork still worked the ball to Ciara O'Sullivan for another equaliser.
The lead point managed to combine the kicked ball inside, this Eamonn Ryan team had athletes and ball-carriers everywhere but they liked kicking the ball and did a lot of it, the physical presence to win the ball, the patience and awareness of Nollaig Cleary to know the left wing was the place to find space to kick the winning score, the sheer energy of O’Flynn at that stage to make the run up the wing again and then the composure to kick the score.
She’d missed shots at goal that day, easier ones, yet took this one again. And then, just when she’d done enough, she did more. Dublin had an attack to level, O’Flynn got sort of knocked to the ground onto her knees, Dublin managed to work just enough space for a shot and just as the Dublin player gets into her swing, there’s O’Flynn coming into shot again to get a hand in and distract the shooter – the ball dropped short.
Cork won, like they always did. It was part of what made that team great of course.
Along with savage basic skill levels from Eamonn Ryan’s repetition of the basics, pure leaders in the group, some of the best individual players that football has seen, and so on, they had that ability to keep going, relentlessly playing their game their way and inevitably over that time, they ended up winning. They changed ladies football.
Here’s the thing on lookbacks, where sometimes it can be hard to get back into the pure drama and emotion of a game that happened 10, 15 or 20 years ago. But I remember fully watching that game and just being sucked into the match completely, where at one stage it looked like you were watching a team you loved coming to a sad end and where even on the sideline Eamonn Ryan was just hoping they wouldn’t fall apart without some kick in them.
That last 15 minutes was impossible to watch then without getting caught up in the meaning of it – Paudie Palmer was in tears in the stands, Juliet Murphy was working with TG4 and ran onto the pitch afterwards – and without realising you were watching one of the great teams of all time in Cork and feel proud of that.
Even now it feels like a really cheesy sports movie ending, a ridiculous comeback. We can reel out all the stats in history – eleven All-Irelands and all that – but anybody who saw the game will remember. It happened, one of Cork football’s feelgood moments.