THE best champions do it the hard way, and there were no easy match-ups for Sandie Fitzgibbon on her path to being voted The Echo Rebel Legends winner.
Billy Morgan, Denis Irwin, Rob Heffernan, Roy Keane and Rena Buckley, which would be some five-a-side line-up in any sport, all fell as the northsider’s supporters backed her in large numbers.
The former Glen Rovers and Cork camogie ace, who shone as a basketballer and soccer player too, got the backing of her former team-mates, the basketball community in Cork and the sporting public as she polled 54.7% in the final.
While the likes of Keane, Irwin, Sonia O’Sullivan or Jimmy Barry-Murphy would have been obvious candidates to prevail it was up to our readers to vote online and decide the victor in each of the 31 pairings.
Sandie Fitzgibbon’s ultimate success reminded the county what an incredible athlete she was, a multiple All-Ireland champion for club and Cork, picked on the camogie team of the 20th century, and a wizard on the hardwood too, for Blarney and Ireland.
Rena Buckley, who had defeated Jonjo O’Neill, Derval O’Rourke, JBM and former team-mate Briege Corkery, to reach the last stage of the tournament had significant backing all through as well and would of course have been a more than worthy winner too.
It shows the strength of female sport on Leeside that there were two women left standing, while Claire Coughlan and Linda Mellerick lost to Roy Keane and Rob Heffernan respectively by very narrow margins.
Rob Heffernan, Juliet Murphy, Keane, Rena, JBM, Briege Corkery, Sandie and Sonia O’Sullivan were the elite eight in the quarter-finals, which reflected the calibre of the long-list in the first place.
The sport of camogie has always been a relatively successful one for this county and the outstanding Sandie Fitzgibbon made a huge contribution to that success.
Sandie enjoyed a very successful career which included winning seven consecutive senior county medals with her beloved Glen Rovers.
She began playing with the Glen as a nine-year-old and won her first All-Ireland minor medal in 1978 at the age of 14.
Sandie was born in 1964 and was one of a sporting family of six sisters and one brother.
Her successes in camogie are nothing short of amazing and her most notable achievement was playing in 13 senior All-Ireland camogie finals with Cork.
At club level she won 10 Cork senior medals with Glen Rovers that included the seven-in-a-row between 1990 and 1996.
Fitzgibbon also has eight Munster Senior Championship medals and just to round off her club career she won four Senior All-Ireland medals in 1988, 1990, 1992, and 1993.
There is no doubting Sandie played with and against the best during her career and she looked back on it with mixed emotions.
“I would say losing six All-Ireland titles in a row was the most disappointing for me, but in a nutshell, it was the same for all my team-mates,” she said.
At no stage did Sandie ever feel that she wouldn’t reach the Holy Grail with the Rebels.
“Thank God our luck changed, and it was a dream come true when I captained Cork to win the All Ireland title in 1992.”
After playing at the top for 17 years Sandie decided to call it a day in 1997 at the age of 33.
“When you play at the top level for a long time it really does take a great deal of commitment and I felt at that time I could no longer give it the dedication that was required to play at inter-county level.”
Two years later after giving Glen Rovers 26 years of incredible service she decided it was time to bow out.
Sandie was also a top-class basketball player and she helped the North Presentation School win the All-Ireland Cadet title in 1978.
At senior level, she helped Blarney win four National League titles and three National Cups, and she also played with Lee Strand in Tralee where she helped them win national league and cup honours in her three years with the Kerry club.
Her basketball skills were dazzling and despite being only 5' 6" she had the ability to wreak havoc on court.
Indeed, Sandie’s talent is still spoken about in basketball circles and to represent your country at the highest level of the sport speaks volumes of her skills.
Amazingly, throughout her playing career, Sandie mixed camogie and basketball and was never fazed by the demands.
The busiest week of her career came in October 1990.
On Sunday she played an All-Ireland club camogie semi-final with Glen Rovers in Derry and immediately after the game travelled to Boston to play three senior internationals with Ireland.
Having returned to Ireland on Friday she had only two days to prepare before lining out with Glen Rovers in the All Ireland camogie final.
Sandie once again showed her incredible commitment and skills as the Glen defeated St Paul’s in the decider.
In 2000 Sandie was presented with the Millennium award in Cork for her achievements in sport, an award she so richly deserved.
There are many legends in the sporting world on Leeside, but the name of Sandie Fitzgibbon will always be remembered with affection as one of Cork’s finest.
This is Cork we’re talking about, not just your run-of-the-mill county, so even shortening it to 32 candidates was a challenge for The Echo crew.
Sonia, Roy, Jimmy, O’Gara, Irwin, Briege, Rena, Rob, Seán Óg, Stringer... those sporting stars identifiable by just one part of their name are obvious options.
Our team of contributors used a few criteria to nominate some more contenders.
The likes of Larry Tompkins and John Caulfield didn’t spend their formative years in Cork so they weren’t considered for this exercise. However, Seán Óg Ó hAilpín, who moved to Cork at the age of 10, was, along with Ronan O’Gara, who was born in the US.
We looked at former players or athletes, in terms of being retired from the elite level of their chosen sport, which meant Rena Buckley and Briege Corkery were in, but Simon Zebo, Denise O’Sullivan, Patrick Horgan, Davy Russell and Peter O’Mahony weren’t.
There were a host of brilliant sports people who just missed out, this time around, including Mark Carroll, Pat Morley, Tom O’Sullivan, Ray Cummins, Colin Healy, Valerie Mulcahy and many more. They may all get their chance in future battles. Our 32 contenders, nominated by our panel of writers, were placed in alphabetical order, with number one paired with 32, number two with 31, and so on.
1. Dave Barry v 32. Peter Stringer.
2. Orla Barry v 31. Sonia O’Sullivan.
3. Jimmy Barry-Murphy v 30. Marcus O’Sullivan.
4. Alan Bennett v 29. Derval O’Rourke.
5. Rena Buckley v 28. Jonjo O’Neill.
6. Billy Coleman v 27. Ronan O’Gara.
7. Brian Corcoran v 26. Mary O’Connor.
8. Briege Corkery v 25. Seán Óg Ó hAilpín.
9. Claire Coughlan v 24. Ray Murphy.
10. Damien Delaney v 23. Juliet Murphy.
11. Sandy Fitzgibbon v 22. Billy Morgan.
12. Caroline Forde v 21. Linda Mellerick.
13. Rob Heffernan v 20. Teddy McCarthy.
14. Denis Irwin v 19. Olive Loughnane.
15. Kieran Joyce v 18. Donal Lenihan.
16. Roy Keane v 17. Rachel Kohler.