CORK may have come up short in their 2020 TG4 All-Ireland ladies football championship bid but the future remains as bright as ever on Leeside.
Ephie Fitzgerald’s charges were denied a first All-Ireland since 2016 by a superb Dublin outfit that claimed their fourth senior title in a row at Croke Park last Sunday. Yet, in the most unusual of years, Cork remain one of the country’s top senior ladies football teams despite failing to lift the Brendan Martin Cup.
Sunday’s final was decided during the third quarter when Dublin outscored Cork 1-3 to 0-2. The reigning champions’ greater physicality and Mick Bohan’s tactical switches turned the tide in Dublin’s favour despite a spirited Cork effort.
Accruing a mere two points in the second half was never going to be enough but Cork emptied their bench and stayed the course right up until the final whistle. What Sunday’s All-Ireland tells us is that a gap remains between Dublin and the rest of the country when it comes to winning All-Ireland titles.
Yet, what last weekend’s outcome also underlined is that Cork, although naturally disappointed at the outcome, are Dublin’s biggest threat next year and beyond.
A young squad will be back challenging once again in 2021 when you consider the age-profile of Erika O’Shea (18), Daire and Eimear Kiely (21), Libby Coppinger (24), Melissa Duggan (24), Sadhbh O’Leary (24) allied with experienced campaigners Áine Terry O’Sullivan, Martina O’Brien and Ciara O’Sullivan.
Getting to play two championship games at Croke Park will benefit Fitzgerald’s squad as will the competition for places within a senior panel bursting with talent. Fiona Keating, Laura O’Mahony and Sarah Hayes are just some of the county’s emerging players that didn’t make the All-Ireland final 30-player panel. Add to that, Eimear Scally and Emma Spillane’s possible returns and the senior squad will be stronger than ever.
Looking back on their run to this year’s All-Ireland final, Cork used a 38-player squad to good effect and built on an impressive National League campaign that was cut short by Covid-19.
A reduced TG4 LGFA All-Ireland senior championship began in Austin Stack Park, Tralee, in early November. A quality Kerry side stretched Cork for much of the opening three-quarters thanks, in part, to Louise Ni Mhuircheartaigh’s 10-point haul.
Rustiness was to be expected even though Saoirse Noonan scored the game’s only goal after two minutes. That proved a crucial score as Cork found their bearings in the second half and secured a deserved 1-14 to 0-14 Group 1 victory.
Ephie Fitzgerald’s side were much improved in their second outing against Cavan at a freezing Birr. Cork’s clinical finishing ability was best exemplified by Saoirse Noonan’s stunning goal during a second-half rout that earned Cork a 7-9 to 2-6 triumph.
An All-Ireland semi-final berth secured; Cork were due to face Galway at Parnell Park following a venue change from LIT’s Gaelic Grounds Limerick. Yet another venue switch, due to a frozen pitch on the morning of the game, saw the two sides meet at a hastily rearranged Croke Park. Putting those off-field distractions to one side, Orla Finn kicked 9 points while Ciara O’Sullivan and Melissa Duggan added a goal apiece as Cork ran out 2-17 to 0-13 winners.
Returning to Croke Park for an All-Ireland final, Ephie Fitzgerald’s side were ranked as one of the few teams that could halt Mick Bohan’s four-in-a-row chasing side. Alas, it wasn’t to be but the defeat should not overshadow what has been a positive season.
A full-forward line comprising of Saoirse Noonan, Doireann O’Sullivan and Áine Terry O’Sullivan dovetailed brilliantly throughout this year’s campaign. Orla Finn’s move from the inside forward-line to half-forward worked wonders for the Kinsale player.
Hannah Looney and Maire O’Callaghan provided a solid midfield platform over the past 12 months and were aided by the best half-back line in the country. Melissa Duggan, Ashling Hutchings and Erika O’Shea were the biggest positive from this year’s campaign.
O’Shea is just out of minor but already looks like a future star. Martina O’Brien and her full-back line, anchored brilliantly by Róisín Phelan, helped limit Dublin to just 11 scores last Sunday.
There is obvious disappointment at losing another All-Ireland final, absolutely, but Cork will be back and all the better for this season’s experiences.