‘We are getting closer and closer to Dublin’
By DARAGH SMALL
There was a stunned silence as Ephie Fitzgerald delivered the news that he would not be continuing on as Cork manager.
The Rebelettes had just been knocked out of the 2019 TG4 All-Ireland Senior Championship by arch-rivals Dublin in the semi-final at Croke Park, and now they had lost their prized leader, off the field.
“I have blocked a lot of it out now but it was silence,” said Cork midfielder Maire O’Callaghan.
“Then (captain) Doireann O’Sullivan just managed to say thanks for a great year. That always happens, even when the management are coming back. There were a few words spoken but the bare minimum because everyone was so upset.
“It was just a bit of a shock for us, I know some of the girls were saying they thought it would happen with (coach) James Masters stepping away as well. But it was a lot to take in.
“We were after losing the match and finding out there was going to be a turnover of the management team as well, so it was a sad enough dressing room.
“Especially for the older girls, I know we don’t have a lot of them anymore, but when you are trying to impress new management at that stage it’s harder.”
Fast forward three months and the landscape has shifted drastically. Things are looking up for Cork football.
The 2016 All-Ireland winning manager, Fitzgerald, reversed that exit decision and is back in the hot-seat after a meeting with the Cork county board in early October.
And last weekend the county was back claiming silverware in the club game, when Mourneabbey and Donoughmore were crowned All-Ireland senior and junior champions respectively.
For Mourneabbey it’s back-to-back titles having lost finals in 2014, 2015 and 2017, and it was done in the most dramatic fashion with a last-gasp winner to deny Galway’s Kilkerrin/Clonberne.
A well-worked team move ended with Laura Fitzgerald sending over the winning point with less than 20 seconds to go at the Gaelic Grounds in Limerick.
O’Callaghan has been a driving force all year for club and county, and this win more than made up for the devastation of losing in Croke Park.
“There were times in previous years when we thought we wouldn’t see one All-Ireland, never mind two,” said O’Callaghan.
“It is unbelievable. We will be on a serious high for months and we will tear the back off it.”
The 24-year-old, whose teammate and sister Síle O’Callaghan retired after the win, was watching on from inside her own half when Fitzgerald lined up the winning effort.
“When we were playing around with the ball in our 21 I was like, what is going on?” said O’Callaghan.
“I was around our 45 when I saw Noelle Healy kicking in the ball and I didn’t have much hope. I wouldn’t say it was something we practised in training.
“Laura did unbelievable to use her body, tap it down to herself, and it took a lot of guts for her to kick it. I know she scored a few but she wasn’t having her best day of shooting either.
“Nothing was going our way but she kicked an unreal point, and that was possibly the one rub of the green we got all day, and that was the important one.
“I was in shock and looked at the clock. Did that just happen?”
It was a huge win for Mourneabbey and having suffered through the agonising defeats it proved a point too.
And O’Callaghan was thrilled to see her sister go out on a high note after a stellar career, which included Mourneabbey’s All-Ireland junior title 14 years ago.
“She definitely would have been a role model for me growing up,” said O’Callaghan.
“I thought she might have finished up last year but she came back for another. She tore her Achilles in 2017 so I was delighted when she did come back from it. It would have been an awful way to finish.
“She would have been out for a year with that and she got back into being an impact sub before she was starting for us this year.”
O’Callaghan has two brothers: Tadhg (36) and Donal (26) and another sister, Eilís (35) along with Síle (34).
Síle O’Callaghan was formerly a member of the Cork panel and she paved the way for her younger sister who has gone on to become a fundamental part of the Cork set-up.
The county looks to be on its way back to the top, and having won 11 All-Irelands between 2005 and 2016, O’Callaghan believes its time they returned to the top table and reclaimed the Brendan Martin Cup.
They were beaten in the 2018 decider by Dublin and suffered the same fate in the final four this time around.
But O’Callaghan knows her county have all of the right ingredients to launch an assault on Mick Bohan’s charges in 2020.
“We were probably a bit disappointed with how we performed in the semi-final against Dublin,” said O’Callaghan.
“We are getting closer and closer to Dublin since we lost a lot of the bigger guns. Everyone is enthusiastic going into next year as well.
“Ephie coming back was good news because everyone is fond of him. He brought a lot into it when he came in. He has been with the younger crowd and we know he can bring a lot to the table.
“It was good to know we were back in good hands.”