SATURDAY was the second anniversary of the official announcement of Henry Shefflin’s retirement.
It was an occasion befitting the career of a man who had won ten All-Ireland medals and been honoured as an All-Star on 11 occasions – a press conference was arranged in Langton’s, that hub of Kilkenny hurling activity, and the media came from far and wide to fete one of the greatest players of all-time.
Contrast that, then, to how news of the retirement of someone with 11 senior All-Irelands was circulated just over a week ago. Cork ladies’ football manager Ephie Fitzgerald was on RedFM’s Big Red Bench last Saturday week, chatting to Lisa Lawlor, when he mentioned the fact that Deirdre O’Reilly had decided to depart the scene.
In one way, you could say that one of the greats of the sport deserved more fanfare, but in another, it perfectly summed up her 15-year career – hugely important contributions delivered in a quiet and efficient manner rather than seeking to hog the limelight.
As ladies’ football expert Mary White wrote, Deirdre made her senior debut for Cork at the age of 15, summoned from the stand at Fraher Field ahead of a clash with Waterford. Both she and Cork ladies’ football would embark on an incredible journey from there.
It is the nature of sport that it is the players who get the scores that receive the adulation while those charged with preventing them are left to carry out much unseen work. An attacker can miss all day only to get the one important chance and be lionised for it; a goalkeeper or a back can be impeccable for all but one minute and then have one costly slip which is remembered. It’s the pact they enter into.
Had she been from almosy any other county, Deirdre O’Reilly – an outstanding camogie player with Milford when football commitments allowed, winning All-Ireland club camogie medals – would probably have been played at centre-forward, the fulcrum of the whole team. She would have been well able for it too, but the presence of so many other stars in the Cork side meant that she was able to be deployed where she was of optimal value to the set-up.
Imagine being a corner-forward or centre-forward walking in to play against her, knowing that you were in for a day of no rest, with every single ball contested as if the future of the human race depended on it. Her competitive nature shone through in every single game and in a team where absolute dedication was expected rather than lauded, she stood among the very best of them.
When a hip problem manifested itself a few years ago, her strength of character was such that she wasn’t embarrassed to sit in the River Allow in Newmarket as a form of therapy.
“I’d park the car and get in. I used to make my boyfriend [Pa O’Brien], who is now my husband, come with me in case someone took me away, stole me or I floated down the river,” she told Eoghan Cormican of the Irish Examiner in 2015.
“People are going to think I’m absolutely mental when they’re reading this. It was all good for my complaint, even if it wasn’t the most conventional method.”
The greats are generally defined by their refusal to blindly follow what has been done before and to instead explore new, and possibly better, ways. Consider that box certainly ticked for Deirdre O’Reilly.
The general expectation might be that Cork will be a poorer team without her, but league results without Deirdre, Bríd Stack (until last Sunday), Briege Corkery and Rena Buckley have shown just how strong an outfit they are.
We said after last year’s All-Ireland win that Eamonn Ryan’s greatest achievement as Cork coach was to create a structure strong enough to survive without him, and players like Deirdre, Juliet Murphy, Elaine Harte, Angela Walsh, Nollaig Cleary, Norita Kelly, Anne-Marie Walsh and Valerie Mulcahy, to name but a few, have helped to create standards which are then maintained by the newer breed.
The wheel keeps turning and Cork remain strong. It’s a far cry from having to summon 15-year-old girls from the stand down on to the pitch.