WHEN Cork ladies’ football manager, Ephie Fitzgerald, looks around the pitch tomorrow, familiar faces will be missing.
Cork play Kerry in the opening round of the national league, as they bid to retain the title and to win back the All-Ireland championship.
Missing last season were Rena Buckley, Deirdre O’Reilly, and Briege Corkery, and now, in addition, Bríd Stack. Bríd is currently not available, but Ephie is hopeful she will be back in action later in the season.
She is the last link to the squad that started out on that great journey in 2005, which won 11 senior titles, the last in 2016, Ephie’s first season in charge.
His strength and drive to win was shown that year, as it wasn’t easy to take over from Eamon Ryan, but he did so and Brendan Martin made its way south again.
Last season, the league title was won and Cork were a little unlucky to lose to Mayo in the All-Ireland semi-final. However, that’s all in the past now and Ephie’s concentration is on this year and team rebuilding.
He will still have the experienced Ciara O’Sullivan, Orla Finn, Marie Ambrose, and Martina O’Brien to call on, but, overall, this will be a young side, made up of former minors and possibly some current ones.
Ephie is delighted to be back for another year and his hunger for the game is undiminished.
“I always have the hunger for the game. We have a new squad, a very young squad, and I think, trying to build another team really is the big challenge for all of us, not just me, but all the management team.
“Early on in the season, we will probably be a bit disjointed, as we have a number of players sitting the Leaving Cert and they won’t really be available until the summer.
“We have a lot of talent, but there is a big jump from minor to senior and I am looking forward to the challenge of, overall, building a new team.
“It’s just a case of trying to build again and that’s the challenge for me and the lads, and we are certainly looking forward to it.
“It has brought a new vibrancy to the job for us, as we head into another season, and that helps to motivate me and all the lads with me.
“Of course, we have the likes of Ciara O’Sullivan, Martina O’Brien, and Orla Finn, but they are relatively young. But they are the leaders of the team, now, and they are the ones who will be driving it on.
“Ciara is our captain, again this year, and Martina is our vice-captain, so there is a good atmosphere there. We have brought in some players and we are having a look at a few others.
“But we won’t really have a settled panel for the league. It will be an ongoing thing and, in six or seven weeks’ time, we will have a look at it and have a more definitive knowledge of our panel, going forward for the rest of the year.
“As well as changes in the panel, we have freshened up the backroom staff, as well, and I have brought in Diarmuid Vaughan, from Bishopstown. I wanted a bit more activity on the pitch, in terms of giving a hand with the coaching.
“I’m a little bit restricted with my knee and can’t do as much as I would like. James Master, Kevin Tattan, and Con O’Sullivan are there from last year. I want to acknowledge the contributions of Bridget O’Brien, Frank Honohan, and Pat O’Leary, over the years, and thank them for all they have done for Cork ladies’ football.
“We are all going to do all we can to ensure that Cork is competitive into the future and be challenging for the league and All-Ireland titles. With the old team, it was almost an annual thing to win the All-Ireland and, of course, we want to keep the traditions and values of that era alive.
“There is still massive motivation and competitiveness in the squad and we will be taking the league seriously. It’s a national competition and we like to win everything. The Munster championship, last year, was disappointing, particularly the Kerry match. We were well-beaten in Waterford, but mistakes cost us against Kerry. We won the league, afterwards, and had a good run in the All-Ireland series, then.
“Things didn’t go our way in the semi-final, against Mayo. We had opportunities, but it just wasn’t our day. We didn’t have that bit of luck you need, but, at the same time, it was an All-Ireland semi-final and we were very competitive.
“We have a lot to work to do, going forward, and it’s probably a bit of a shock to the system for some of them, when they come up against the better teams, the physicality and the amounts of strength and conditioning the likes of Dublin and Mayo would have done.
“It takes a little bit of time to get to that level and I am particularly grateful to Kevin, our S&C coach, in that regard.
“In fairness to all the players, they have bought into it, so, hopefully, it will bear fruit later on in the year.
“For some of the girls, the Leaving Cert is far more important than playing football and, once that’s over, hopefully, we will have a full panel and have a crack off the All-Ireland series.
“But, for now, we will be concentrating on the league and we’re not looking beyond the Kerry game on Sunday,” said Ephie.