IN a radio interview immediately after the 2015 All-Ireland ladies football final, Dublin manager Gregory McGonigle was measured and composed in the face of another devastating final defeat to Cork.
Dublin had coughed up a 10-point lead in the 2014 final before Cork closed out a tight and tense contest in that 2015 final by two points.
McGonigle said he could “definitely see Dublin back here next September contesting an All-Ireland final again”. But he was also “95% sure” that Cork would be waiting for Dublin when they got there.
“These Dublin girls are a proud group,” he said in that 2015 radio interview. “But they want to be more proud of themselves for winning an All-Ireland. Some day, Cork’s run is going to end. And we hope that we will be there when it does end.”
Dublin looked like they could finally be that team to stop Cork’s relentless and magnificent run but it didn’t happen. Dublin went close again last September but Cork won by one point to secure a sixth successive All-Ireland title, and an 11th in 12 years.
It was a hard defeat for Dublin, especially when they scored a point that wasn’t given. But it was even tougher to stomach for McGonigle because it was his fifth final defeat to Cork as a senior manager in six years. McGonigle was also manager of Monaghan when they lost to Cork in 2011 and 2013, both of which were also by defeats of just one and two points.
McGonigle walked away after last year’s defeat, worn out and frustrated by trying to push the boulder up the hill only for Cork to repeatedly keep rolling it down on top of him and his players. And the pain was all the more acute because if any team looked primed to halt the Cork machine, it was Dublin.
McGonigle had also doubled up as U21 manager for the three previous seasons, when Dublin won three All-Irelands in succession in the grade, two of which were secured against Cork. And yet they couldn’t crack Cork again during this year’s league. Neither could Donegal last Sunday.
The wonder of last Sunday’s win was that Cork did it with so many new players but the turnover of personnel is irrelevant anymore because of the culture the Cork ladies have created. It is so unique that it goes beyond medals and trophies and glory. They are all on a journey that none of them wants to end.
Similar to Kilkenny at their peak, this team have retained such remarkable standards over a decade that they now carry an aura of invincibility. They know how to win. They know how to get it done. They have beaten all-comers along the way, overcoming everything thrown at them. They have beaten seven different teams in finals during their All-Ireland crusade.
It also showcases their mental strength because winning clutch games is now their calling card. They won on Sunday by just one point but five of Cork’s All-Ireland wins have been by just the minimum margin.
In her recent Laochra Gael documentary on TG4, former Dublin goalkeeper Cliodhna O’Connor spoke about Cork’s 10-point comeback in the 2014 final, and the helplessness Dublin felt in trying to stop it. “What made it all the worse was that we knew it was going to happen,” said O’Connor. “We were waiting for it but we still didn’t do what we needed to do to stop it.”
Cork know that it is in the opposition’s heads so much that it often becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.
“Cork have won so many tight games now that I can understand the opposition often thinking, ‘Oh Jesus, here we go again, here comes the storm’,” said Juliet Murphy before the 2015 All-Ireland final. “To be honest, we never really felt we had a psychological advantage over a team when the game got tight. As a team, we would have actually thought the opposite.
“We would have felt that teams were catching up with or, or going to beat us. We would have always had that vulnerability but I think that vulnerability made us train harder and be more focused. It’s not a doubt, it’s more a fear of, ‘This could be the time it will end’.”
With the younger girls coming through, the older girls feel they have to stay on their toes. The younger girls feel they have to catch up. That competitiveness between each other is always going on internally. Despite all they have achieved, it has never blunted their edge, diluted their hunger or sated their desire. Just as importantly, success has never inflated their collective ego.
Cork have lost some big players in the last year but the machine keeps driving forward because of the legacy and collective experience those players have left behind. With Donegal running them to one point, plenty of other teams will think that they can catch Cork this summer. But Cork always seem to win by that one point.
The scoreline is always irrelevant to them anyway because, like Kilkenny at their peak, every performance, every win counts for something on this great journey. This team have achieved everything possible but their most important legacy lies not simply in the medals won or the glory gained – it is about the attitude that has been instilled. And the standards continually demanded.