My Club: Ashling Thompson - Milford
In this week’s ‘My Club’ feature, Cork senior camogie star Ashling Thompson tells us all about Milford camogie club.
By John Harrington
Milford camogie club’s rise to prominence has been sudden and spectacular.
They have won three of the last four All-Ireland senior titles, which is a remarkable achievement considering the club is less than 10 years old.
Their story falls squarely into the classically romantic 'small club achieving big things' genre. Because with a population of just under 250, Milford village in north Cork is not the sort of place you’d imagine a superpower of sport to emerge from.
Their camogie club has been catapulted to fame by the exploits of a generation of players who have been winning trophies from the very first year they came together as a team. Formed in 1997, Milford were County U-12 Champions that year and have not stopped winning ever since.
Cork county team star Ashling Thompson was there from the very start, and in typically honest fashion gives a revealing insight into what makes Milford camogie club so great and why it has played such a big part in her life.
Can you remember the very first time you played with Milford?
I was six or seven. I live in Newtownshandrum but I went to National School in Milford because my mam is a teacher there. They're neighbouring villages, right beside each other. We all played sport in school, but there was no camogie club at that time so my mother Sheila and another lady, Ann Watson, decided they should set one up. That was in 1997, and that's where it all started.
So did the club start off initially as just an underage club?
Yeah, they started off at underage level. We were the first team and as we got older the club sort of grew up with us. We were the first team to make it up to senior level.
What age were you when you first played at senior level?
I played my first match when I was 12. I was thrown in for a challenge game and I actually broke my collar-bone when I was shouldered by a 35-year-old!
Did that put you off the game for a while?
Not at all, I would have gone in there no problem as a 12-year-old, I absolutely loved it. As big as the other girls were, they never scared me. I was pretty bold when I was young! I just absolutely loved it straight away.
Was the club successful straight away?
We were extremely successful underage. Both the club and the school. We did Mosney and community games and indoor hurling, everything. We won a lot. We were talented really from a very young age. And that group is now pretty much the current Milford senior team now. It's all the same girls. Obviously there are some older players like Elaine O'Riordan and Deirdre O'Reilly who plays with the Cork footballers as well. But the age-group that started, and I would have played with them even though they were three or four years older than me, they have all stuck together.
What sort of silverware did ye win in Cork on the way up through the underage ranks?
Everything, really. U-8, U-10, U-12, U-14, U-16, all the way up. Everything in every age-group.
Was it just that there happened to be a particularly talented bunch of girls who all happened to grow up in the area at the same time?
Yeah, I think so. We all played different sports. I played soccer, basketball, everything. I don't know what it was about camogie, I think it was maybe because the club was set-up when we were that young, so it was really our first love. I think times were different as well back then. It was all you did, you'd just go outside and play. There was no phones or social media or phones or anything like that. Camogie was just something that we all lived and breathed and did every single day. So I think it was the combination of a very talented bunch and an awful lot of practice.
Did your mother play camogie as well?
She was actually a gaelic footballer and a hockey player. She played for Cork footballers and actually won two All-Ireland clubs with Newtownshandrum at senior level. And she was an athlete as well, she was a marathon runner and was sponsored by Adidas at one point, so she was pretty talented. I definitely got my athleticism from her, and my dad would have played hurling with Newtownshandrum. He'd take the head off you! So I definitely got my hurling from him. I've two older brothers and they both play for Newtown.
Why do you think this bunch of Milford camogie players have stuck together for so long?
As I said, it's just something that we just live for. We just fell in love with the game and we've never left anyone behind along the way. It's always been the same bunch. It's just gas to think that we're all senior together now and still playing on the same team together.
The club's record at senior level is incredible - three All-Ireland titles in the last four years - how special has it been to be part of that?
Personally, it has completely changed my life. I think in general that only for camogie I would not be where I am today. So it's been a life-changer for me. I'm sure it's the same for everyone else too. There's not many girls, boys, men, women, that will ever get the chance to say, 'I won three All-Ireland clubs'. It's extremely special, but I think it will only be in years to come that we will actually realise what we've achieved.
*Presumably you think this team can achieve even more? *
Yeah, exactly. There's still more in us, I think.
People wonder how the Kilkenny hurlers and Cork ladies football team can keep coming back for more. From what you've seen in Milford, what's the secret ingredient?
It's just hunger. We were very successful underage in Milford but then we hit a wall when we got to senior and we lost five years on the trot. We just couldn't get past it. And I think it just came to a boiling point towards the end and we decided to just change things up because we always knew we had it in us, but we just couldn't seem to get that performance. We'd bottle it on county final day. I think it was more mental than anything, and we just changed the whole set-up. We got in new trainers and management and we just said we were going to knuckle down and see where it takes us. And everything just completely turned around for us and we won County, Munster, and All-Ireland titles that year. And now we have four counties, four Munsters, and three All-Ireland clubs.
The team's unbeaten run came to an end when you lost to Mullagh in the 2015 All-Ireland semi-final. What sort of impact did that have on the group?
It was the worst feeling I'd say I've ever experienced. Literally, someone would bring it up six months down the line and you'd still have tears in your eyes and a lump in your throat. It's so weird because it genuinely feels like you've lost someone. It's like someone has deceased, that's the exact feeling you get from it. That's so strange but at the same time it proves what it really means to us.
So to come back afterwards and win the All-Ireland again this year, was that the sweetest of the three?
I think my first All-Ireland was definitely the sweetest. But, yeah, it was incredible to come back and win again this year because people would have got the notion that Milford were finished. It was the same in our first year after we beat Oulart in the All-Ireland semi-final, they actually lost in their county championship the following year and people were saying they were finished. But then they won the All-Ireland club last year. Yeah, it was great to get back, do it all over again, and relive it.
How healthy is the club now at underage level? Is there another talented generation coming behind yours?
There's a lot of work being done. My mam trains the U-12s and has always trained teams in the school as well. There's loads of other people involved too, but it can be hard because the numbers are quite small in our area. I know at U-16 that they have joined with Ballyhea because both teams can't individually field teams. It's a tiny village, so it is extremely hard to find people who will take the time out. I wouldn't have the time to do it myself, as much as I'd love to. It is hard to find those extra hours, but they always seem to find someone and the club is pretty healthy.
That's something we really want to focus on too, not to lose the run of ourselves and just focus on senior. It's extremely important to keep those kids playing sport because it might put them on a platform in Croke Park some day too.
You have spoken eloquently in the past about how important the club was for you when you were going through a tough time in your life. Presumably that's why you're so passionate about it?
Definitely, yeah. As I said, I don't know where I would be without it. And at the time in the past when I had my own issues if I didn't stick with my sport I would literally have had nothing because I had already given up on everything else. I never gave up on Camogie. As much as I had completely changed, I wouldn't even watch a match on telly, that's how much I had changed. Whereas now I would religiously watch every GAA and ladies football and camogie game. Whereas before I didn't even bother because I was just at a different place in my life, a really sad place.
But I still went to training and I still kept playing and eventually I pulled out of it. It completely turned my life around. I firmly believe that it does that for 50 per cent of players. That it is a gateway for well-being and just keeping healthy upstairs as well as physically.
Frank Flannery, the Current Cork senior hurling coach, also coached Milford camogie team for a couple of years. How big an influence was he on you?
My major influence was Frank Flannery, definitely. He was one who came in when we changed the whole set-up in 2012. He led us to our first All-Ireland club.
He's a hugely positive guy, so was he the perfect person to turn Milford from being a nearly team into winners?
Definitely, yeah. I remember when he first came in he said, 'there's eight steps to an All-Ireland'. We were all looking at each other saying, 'is this fella off his head, like?' We would have thought if we could even win a county medal we'd be flying. We laughed, but he was dead serious about the eight steps. As time went on and we got past each step, we were like, 'oh my God, this fella is just gold'. He was definitely the main influence that turned my life around. Without the sport, but without him especially, I don't know if I would have gotten through all the things I've been through. He was there for me no matter what, whether it was to do with camogie or not. He was a friend as well as a coach, and I think that's the most important thing in sport, for a coach to have that sort of relationship with players. It's important to know the person behind the player, and not just judge them on what you see on the outside. Get to know them.
Why do you think that camogie was the one thing you didn't let go of when you went through that tough time in your life? Was it because you didn't want to let down the girls you had been playing with since such a young age?
I think that's it too, no matter how negative you might be at a certain point of your life, I've always been extremely loyal to my sport. I don't know why that is, but it would be like walking out on my mother. I just feel like if I ever walked out on camogie or Milford I'd literally be leaving everyone behind. And it was just something I could never do. I never even thought about it for a second. If just feel if I had done that, I would have let everyone down and they'd never forgive me for it.
But, at the same time, I didn't even think about it. It just never passed my mind, as much as I was foolish. Different friends I had that didn't play camogie, good friends, I left them behind. It's just something that never crossed my mind, weirdly enough.
*Your mother must take a huge amount of satisfaction from what has grown out of her decision to set up a camogie club little over ten years ago? She must be loving the journey that Milford have gone on? *
Yeah, she is. Especially watching mine too. It was going great, then it was flipped suddenly upside down, and then it was flipped all back around again and for me to be where I am now in this position, I'm sure if it was my daughter I'd be bursting with tears. It's amazing really, but she's just so proud of the club in general and all of the girls. She taught all of them as well when they were little and in Primary School so she's extremely proud of everyone. It's definitely something I'd take major pride in, anyway.
What's left to achieve for you and Milford?
I don't know, I never really plan ahead with anything in life. I always take life as it comes to me. I think that's the best way to go about things, really. Set goals, but don't prepare to fail or prepare too much. I just like to take things as they come and see what's around the corner.
You never know, I might get a Golden Globe some day!