Rejuvenated Rebels ready to fire again
By John Harrington
Cork goalkeeper Martina O’Brien didn’t get to watch last year’s All-Ireland Ladies Senior Football Final because of college commitments.
She regarded that as a blessing rather than a curse at the time, because she reckons watching it rather than playing in it would “would drive you mad”.
She’d played in the previous four Finals for a Rebels team that won 10 titles in 11 years from 2005 to 2016, so exiting the Championship last year after a semi-final defeat to Mayo was a sharp shock for a group of players accustomed to winning all before them.
When she looks back now she attributes last year’s dip in form to a general staleness that had crept into the camp, and is adamant the Rebels are now a rejuvenated force as they prepare for Sunday’s All-Ireland Final against defending champions Dublin.
“Staleness is probably a good word, and maybe even switching off (helped),” said O’Brien.
“Take time away from football and re-energise because a lot of the players had been going for five or six years. Even younger girls who are only 24 years old had been going for six years.
“So it can creep in, complacency, if you are going that long. You can kind of go 'oh, I don't feel like doing my extra training today, maybe I'll leave it off'. And that snowball effect starts maybe in May and maybe you end up not being in an All-Ireland final then.
“So, like, it was a collective. Everyone probably wasn't in the right head space last year and Mayo were better than us and they were in the All-Ireland final. That was that. We went away then for the winter and kind of did other things, which was great. We came back ready to go.”
While they were away, Dublin won the 2017 All-Ireland title in some style.
A subsequent documentary of their year, ‘Blues Sisters’, was critically acclaimed and gave an arresting insight into just how much work they put in to making their All-Ireland dream a reality.
Cork famously defeated Dublin in three All-Irelands in a row from 2014 to 2016, but O’Brien is keenly aware that the reigning All-Ireland champions have taken their game to a new level since those losses.
“The level of commitment that they bring, I think it opened everybody's eyes. People will say to you that you go out training with Cork or whatever but we do much more than that too. We're not just going out on the pitch for an hour, there is so much more in it now.
“Even in the last 5 or 6 years there’s so much more effort put in. What their documentary showed is the passion they have and drive that they had to win an All-Ireland.
“They’d lost so many that they could have just given up. I suppose it really just showed the desire they had as individuals to make a better team and win an All-Ireland.”
Many of the legendary players who powered Cork to those 10 All-Irelands in 11 years have since retired and the current team has a new look to it.
Most of their least experienced players will in front of O’Brien in the Cork defence, but she’s confident they’ll be able to handle both the occasion and the highly dangerous Dublin attack.
“That’s an important part of Sunday,” said O’Brien. “There’s a few girls starting in the back line who haven’t played in an All Ireland before. It will be tough.
“No one can manage that only them. I can’t help them get the nerves out of their system. It is going to be tough I do believe these girls are such good young girls that they don’t care. They see it as a challenge and they want to meet that challenge.
“Anything I say they ‘ll do at the drop of a hat so they’re willing to learn. If they make a mistake it’s not the end of the world
“They’re not the sort that will sit down and dwell on it. I’m hoping that’s a plus for us. You can look (at inexperience) as a negative but I’m hoping it’ll be a positive.”