‘Dublin have taken football to a new level, men and women. They’re at the top of the hill, we’re climbing it’

SINCE 2005, IT’S all been red and blue.

Either Cork or Dublin have climbed the steps of the Hogan Stand after each of the last 15 All-Ireland senior ladies football finals.

Cork ladies football captain Doireann O’Sullivan.

Source: Brendan Moran/SPORTSFILE

The Rebels won 11 of 12 finals from ’05 to 2016, with Dublin breaking the chain when they lifted the Brendan Martin Cup for the first time in 2010. And after three final defeats in-a-row, the Sky Blues took over from 2017 onwards.

Now, as these heavyweights meet in the final for the fifth time in seven seasons, this time the Sunday before Christmas, Dublin are eyeing four-in-a-row and Cork hope to stop that, and reach the Holy Grail once again.

From the hunted to the hunter, things have changed considerably for Cork, and for Doireann O’Sullivan since her arrival to the panel in 2012.

“When I first started with Cork we were the team to beat,” the captain recalls. “We were the ones going for the four-in-a-rows. And just so quickly now Dublin had turned it around and they’re now the team to beat.

“Look, it is a huge challenge. They’re a hugely successful team and they’re a formidable outfit. But we do believe that we can beat them.

“There’s no point training at the start of the year or meeting in January if you don’t think that you can be the best.”

Positivity flows as O’Sullivan cuts a calm and collected figure five days out from the showpiece, fielding questions from the media through a break from her schoolday as a secondary teacher.

The intercom goes off to relay a few announcements at one point and interrupts her train of thought as she paints a picture of how much it means to captain this side in an All-Ireland final, having taken the mantle from her older sister and team-mate, Ciara.

“I grew up looking at the likes of Juliet Murphy, Briege Corkery and Angela Walsh captaining Cork teams. It is a huge honour and privilege and obviously I would love to follow in Ciara’s footsteps and get to lift the Brendan Martin Cup.

Facing Dublin in last year’s semi-final.

Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“When you look around and see the calibre of players and the names we have on our team, it is an honour to represent the girls and our management team.”

She’s well aware of the calibre of the opposition at this stage too.

Cork and Dublin’s rivalry this decade has been well documented, the sides meeting regularly at the business end of championship and league, with little to nothing between them at the end of the day.

While that fierce rivalry will never be denied, there’s a serious sense of mutual respect and esteem for what the’ve done for the game of ladies football. Game recognises game.

“We have huge respect for Dublin and it works both ways,” O’Sullivan nods. “We’ve played them all the way up underage, we’ve played them at club level and at senior level.

“They are unbelievable footballers and they’re lovely girls off the pitch as well. I think once you cross the white line, people tend to change a small bit but they are lovely girls off the field.

“Meeting girls at All-Star events and off the field is nice as well, you realise they are like us, and they are normal and nice. I do think that respect is always there but I think it will probably go out the window when the ball is thrown in at half three next weekend.”

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That said, it certainly shines through in the build-up, with O’Sullivan noting that Dublin are on another level time and time again.

“The Dublin footballers have taken football to a new level, men and women. They’re ticking all the boxes: strength and conditioning, nutrition, tactics, they’re off the scales. 

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“Dublin are excellent footballers, but I think the thing that separates them from the rest of us is their athleticism. They are extremely fast and fit all over the pitch, they have taken strength and conditioning to a new level. If you run into one of the Dublin girls you know all about it. They have taken the pace and strength and speed of the game to a new level.

O’Sullivan at Blarney Castle.

Source: Brendan Moran/SPORTSFILE

“It’s our job to try close that gap and catch them. They’re at the top of the hill, we’re climbing the hill – we need to close it and get there quickly.”

But O’Sullivan is positive about it all: as she says, why show up if you don’t believe you can beat them? 

And after a six-point defeat in last year’s semi-final, Ephie Fitzgerald’s young and ambitious side have revenge on their minds.

“Anybody who is playing at a high level absolutely hates losing. It’s probably what drives you on to come back every year.

“That loss to Dublin last year was hugely disappointing for us. We thought we ticked all the boxes and it just flopped on the day. I think we’ve learned a lot since then but losing definitely is a huge motivating factor for any player and team.”

The emphasis is on doing the simple things right this time around, and not hitting the panic button early on like before.

Interestingly, the sides met in a challenge match a few weeks back and while O’Sullivan missed out due to self-isolation, she feels it’s one they benefitted from although they were well beaten.

The same applies through the year as a whole, they’ve learned so much and clicked brilliantly despite motivation being few and far between at times.

And now, having adapted well to winter football and with the benefit of playing at an empty Croke Park in the semi-final under their belts, they’re ready to go.

“It’s a lot easier to hear the person beside you, to hear management, just to hear those calls. I couldn’t believe how much easier it was to communicate the last day against Galway,” she nods. “We’re really excited.”

And while they may have upper-hands in some areas, there’s a potential downfall in another given the Mourneabbey contingent welcomed Dublin star forward Noelle Healy to their ranks for the 2019 season. She now may have valuable insight into their inner workings.

Healy in action for Mourneabbey.

Source: Lorraine O’Sullivan/INPHO

Although back with her native St Brigid’s now, Healy finished a stint of work on Leeside with an All-Ireland club medal, and friendships and memories to last a lifetime. And as O’Sullivan says about the respect, that also works both ways.

“We had the privilege of having Noelle down with us last year,” she smiles. “The dedication and commitment she gave to Mourenabbey football was incredible, given it’s not her home club.

“I think we all just had huge respect for her. She was always going to start on our team, just with her talent and presence on the field. she was a huge part of why we got over the line in 2019. She probably does have a small bit of an insight into our set-up.”

It’s not something she’ll dwell on too much, but O’Sullivan points out that Healy may end up being watched by her former adopted clubmate in Eimear Meaney on Sunday. “That could be a match-up that could take on a life of its own,” she grins. “The two girls have marked each other in club training, so that would be a strange one alright.”

A strange match-up, but a fitting way to end a strange year. The more things change, the more they stay the same, and Sunday will once again be red or blue. 16 years on.

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