WHEN the Cork senior ladies footballers made the journey to Knocknagoshel back in February for the first round of the Division 1 league campaign, there was an air of uncertainty surrounding the squad.
A poor Munster championship campaign, followed by a first All-Ireland semi-final exodus for over a decade in 2017, had many speculating that it was the end of the Cork ladies football dynasty.
But since that opening day in Knocknagoshel, this Cork squad have gone from strength to strength.
Overall, Ephie Fitzgerald and his charges were disappointed with losing out to Mayo in the league semi-finals but a lot of positives could be taken from the campaign; wins were secured against Kerry, Monaghan, Westmeath, Mayo and Galway, while 11 players made their senior debuts.
Defeats came at the hands of Dublin and Donegal before Mayo pipped them by two points at the semi-final stages.
Although Cork lost to Dublin, this youthful side was beginning to show character and went toe-to-toe with the All-Ireland champions, staging a late comeback to reduce an eight-point deficit to one.
The loss to Mayo was certainly a major disappointment, considering Cork have dominated the National League in recent years, claiming the last five Division 1 titles in a row. But again, Mayo were All-Ireland finalists last September and Cork pushed them all the way.
Confidence was certainly beginning to build again and the so-called ‘end of an era’ was starting to look like the beginning of a new one for Cork ladies football.
Not competing in a Munster championship for the first time in 14 years was a massive setback for the group in 2017 and intensified the pressure on the group to at least reach this year’s decider.
You could sense the nervousness of the group coming into the opening game against Tipperary but despite a few shaky moments, Cork won that game by five points and the result really never looked in any doubt.
Cork have never lost two consecutive Munster finals and in 2018, reigning champions and age-old rivals Kerry stood in their way of maintaining this record.
A poor opening half performance saw the Rebels behind by four at the break, but they regrouped and blew Kerry away in the second half. For 13 of the panel, it was their first senior Munster medal.
This win was a key moment in Cork’s championship story, from there the side visibly grew with confidence and they laid a marker for the summer ahead. Saoirse Noonan was a revelation and announced herself to the senior championship with a bang, landing 2-2 on her debut.
The Munster campaign coincided with Noonan and seven other minors linking up with the panel. This injection of youth was a massive boost to the Rebel cause and brought depth to the Cork panel, something they were lacking in the league.
With the new All-Ireland qualifiers introduced this year, winning the Munster championship was more vital than ever. Clinching the title meant Cork were pitted in a group with an all-Ulster contingent. In truth Cork were never tested in the All-Ireland group series; they stuck eight goals past Monaghan, beat Armagh by 10 points and inflicted even more misery on Westmeath, winning on a scoreline of 8-18 to 1-6.
Donegal provided Cork’s first real test and even at that, the result was never in any doubt with the Rebels working their way around the Jim McGuiness style defensive set-up Donegal painstakingly inflicted. It wasn’t a pretty spectacle but semi-finals are there to be won, and the 2016 All-Ireland champions were back where every player wants to be on a Sunday in September, Croke Park.
Cork naturally entered last Sunday as underdogs. Many felt Dublin had too much experience built up and at the fifth time of asking, they were finally going to beat the Rebels in Croker.
The script played out as planned, Dublin retained Brendan Martin with five points to spare but up until Carla Rowe’s goal with ten minutes to go, Cork were well in the hunt.
It’s testament to Ephie Fitzgerald and his charges that despite only managing to convert 1-5 from play, they were still within touching distance as the final buzzer drew closer. Dublin frustrated Cork, they were physical, they gave Cork very little time on the ball and got the vital scores when they needed to but the Rebels never threw in the towel.
When the dust settles and the rawness of losing an All-Ireland final dissipates to a bearable standard, I think the Cork girls will be proud of their efforts and will already have their sights firmly fixed on dethroning Dublin in 2019.