Cork ladies football warrior Deirdre O'Reilly walks off a winner

Cork ladies football warrior Deirdre O'Reilly walks off a winner

From left, Cork’s Deirdre O’Reilly, Annie Walsh, and Roisin Phelan, after a league game in Galway in 2016. Picture: Sam Barnes/SPORTSFILE

A 16-time All-Ireland medal winner, Deirdre O'Reilly, speaks to Mary White about retirement and her journey from New York to Newmarket...

AS Deirdre O'Reilly turned left onto Templeogue Road hitting the 18-mile mark of the 2016 Dublin City Marathon, the penny dropped - long distance running wasn't for her.

As those around her vacuum-packed into lycra hit the dreaded 'wall', O'Reilly couldn't fathom the boredom. She finished in under four hours, with close to zero training done, officially ticking 'marathon' off the bucket list. As blissfully as that.

Four weeks earlier in Croke Park, she had lifted the Brendan Martin Cup for the 11th time in 12 years. Now she was crossing the line at Fitzwilliam Square, awaiting the arrival of her older sister, Eileen, with whom she kept her promise. And, apart from the boredom, there weren't any signs of mental fatigue.

Cork’s Deirdre O’Reilly, with Carla Rowe and Lyndsey Davey, of Dublin, in the 2016 All-Ireland. Picture: INPHO/Tommy Dickson
Cork’s Deirdre O’Reilly, with Carla Rowe and Lyndsey Davey, of Dublin, in the 2016 All-Ireland. Picture: INPHO/Tommy Dickson

But that's O'Reilly to a tee. Nothing fazes her. She doesn't see the point. It's wasted energy.

Without question, she was the most adaptable player in Cork's ranks, spanning her 17-year career. For a start, she's the only player to have won All-Ireland medals with three different cohorts - the forwardline, the backline and in midfield.

The running joke was that goalkeeper Elaine Harte had better watch her back. Not only did O'Reilly play in multiple positions - corner-forward, centre-forward, wing-forward, midfield, wing-back, corner-back and full-back - she's the only Cork player to have won All-Stars both as a forward (2005 and 2007) and as a defender (2011, 2013 and 2016).

Eamonn Ryan once called her a warrior, and he was right. A fearless warrior.

Growing up in Rockchapel, from a family of six, O'Reilly was a sturdy as they come. As to where her incredible strength and mental determination come from, she's not quite sure.

"I think we were just born with it," she laughs, slightly embarrassed by the question.

"I was probably stubborn and determined, but I just don't like to lose. I'd do anything not to lose."

O'Reilly would put her head in the way of a football boot's flight path if it meant stopping her opponent, and when they speak on bar stools of the Cork ladies' never-say-die attitude, know this, it was O'Reilly's DNA that was the blueprint for it all. She didn't like losing, and by God would she do everything legally in her power to stop others getting the better of her.

Unlike Juliet Murphy for example, it wasn't so much the fear of losing that made O'Reilly yearn for victory, it was her unbreakable desire to win. That fire rubbed off on her teammates every time the chips were down, and multiple times she'd fly forth from the depths of the defence and sling over a point. Many forgot the two-time All-Star-winning forward had it in her repertoire. But, when she let fly, she let fly - and that meant in training too.

"I just play hard, and play to win," she says, oblivious to the fact that every forward has breathed a sigh of relief since the news of her retirement broke last weekend.

"I don't know about other teams, but maybe at training alright... I'd say Ciara O'Sullivan probably wasn't my biggest fan!"

It's followed by a chuckle, and an acknowledgement that by giving their best each night, it made them the players they are today. The team they are today. Hard work.

O'Reilly was there when it was almost embarrassing to declare that you played for Cork. An annihilation against Waterford in Pairc Ui Rinn stands out. The scoreline she's banished to oblivion, but the decision was made to end the summer mortification and head on a J1 to San Francisco to play ball.

Her older sister Sinead had been there the year before, and O'Reilly gladly togged out for Fog City Harps alongside the likes of Down's Michaela Downey and Tipperary's Edel Hanley. The following summer, in 2004, it was New York - playing football by day and working in an Irish bar by night.

But while she was away the wheels had turned in Cork's fortunes. Mary Collins, the woman who had coached her as a child in Rockchapel along with her husband Jessie and Bridie Murphy, became the new manager of the Cork senior team.

Donoughmore’s Edel O’Sullivan and Rockchapel’s Deirdre O’Reilly in the 2005 county final. Picture: Cillian Kelly
Donoughmore’s Edel O’Sullivan and Rockchapel’s Deirdre O’Reilly in the 2005 county final. Picture: Cillian Kelly

The phone call came in early 2005 with Collins knowing exactly what O'Reilly was capable of. Together they would win three All-Irelands, but an incident in 2005, would change O'Reilly's perception for the next decade.

"I didn't start the All-Ireland final against Galway. It was disappointing. Now, it made sense because I injured my ankle and missed the Munster final, and only played half the quarter-final and semi-final, so I should have been expecting it. But, I swore then I'd do everything in my power to start every game, whether I was injured or not."

She never once had a run-in with management, and 'blessed' is how she describes the arrival of Eamonn Ryan.

"It was his consistency with training that made him so good. You never went to training and had a bad session. It was enjoyable, but really hard. He just brought the best out of everyone."

But she's quick to acknowledge too that the glory days didn't boil down to just one thing.

"There was a great development squad and great work done by Charlie McLaughlin and Fr Kelleher, and you had the likes of Brid (Stack), Angela (Walsh), Briege (Corkery) and Rena (Buckley) who were all brought up with really good training. They won everything possible along the way so they set a good platform for the seniors to work eventually.

"And then Eamonn was just brilliant with organisation and keeping the skills going, so there was a lot of factors."

The bond she shares with those she's won All-Irelands with is special, and incredibly, despite being the winner of 16 All-Ireland medals herself, the humility is hard to comprehend.

"It's easier to keep going when you're winning. If we hadn't been winning, I wouldn't have played until now, so it helps.

"It didn't go to our heads because Eamonn wouldn't be long bringing us back down to earth. He never got excited about stuff. If we won, the year was over, and that was it. We could have won one and gone wild, but we'd never of been heard of again."

Her final wish is to thank the supporters who've followed her and Cork's journey for more than a decade, and her parents Charlie and Ann, but her hopes too are for the future of Cork ladies football.

"It's in a really good place at the moment and I hope it would stay that way; getting to finals and being up there with the best.

"Attitude is a big thing, and we can't forget where Cork ladies football was 15 years ago, or where it could be in another 15. I just hope players will have the same attitude as those gone before them, but I think they do."

Aside from working seven days a week as a fitness instructor at her own premises, Agility Fitness Studio in Kanturk, and delivering pilates and yoga courses to GAA teams across the county, O'Reilly is still dabbling in a little bit of football, playing and coaching junior B with Newmarket. A trip to Spain with her husband Pa in the coming weeks should ease the transition into retirement somewhat too.

A shining example of how to do your talking on the pitch, O'Reilly has walked away with everything left on it. Her time is now. She owes us nothing.

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