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A year with Ethiopian charity work, travelling from Dublin and a 12th All-Ireland senior final

Aoife Murray hopes to help Cork complete three-in-a-row against Kilkenny tomorrow.

Cork camogie goalkeeper Aoife Murray
Cork camogie goalkeeper Aoife Murray
Image: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

EVERY SEASON, THE goal is to run out on Croke Park on All-Ireland final day.

Tomorrow Aoife Murray realises that ambition again.

But was that the plan at the start of 2016? No. How could it have been?

She had retired last winter and looked to have drawn a line under her Cork camogie career.

It had been a glittering spell, seven All-Ireland senior medals a testament to a brilliant team she was part of, six All-Star awards a testament her own top-range individual displays. Last September against Galway looked to be a perfect final chapter, victory providing a happy ending.

Cork celebrate with the O'Duffy Cup after the game The Cork team celebrating with the O'Duffy Cup after last year's final win Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

And yet here she is back playing as number one for Cork, Kilkenny the obstacle between them completing three-in-a-row.

“100% I didn’t see this happening. It’s funny when I stand here now and look back on it.

“I think if anybody’s honest, when the hour goes forward and there’s a stretch in the evenings, you begin to wonder what you’re doing with your time? I think it gets in you and you’re not suited to doing nothing in the evening.”

She’d been thinking of making a comeback back in the spring, a chat over a coffee with Cork selector Matthew Twomey persuaded her more and then a week in Ethiopia made up her mind.

Last summer Murray was roped in by the Camogie Association to attend a photo call for their charity partner Child Fund. By the end of that day she was an ambassador and that’s how she found herself on a plane to Addis Adaba a few months ago with Wexford’s Mags D’Arcy on a field trip.

They landed in the capital, their party jumped into jeeps and embarked on a six hour trek that started on new motorways and ended on dirt tracks in the south of the country.

“We landed in this village with mud huts. It was really uplifting. The kids out there have nothing but that’s what they’re used to. They’re just happy to see someone new.

“A lot of them wouldn’t have seen white people before. You were a novelty to them and they would have been touching your skin.”

ChildFund2 Source: ChildFund

The locals were introduced to camogie.

“I think we held the first camogie match in Ethiopia – Wexford v Cork. We brought out jerseys to one of the schools and left hurleys and sliotars with them.

“It was the best craic. The whole village came up. They were actually brilliant at it, they were so eager.

“They didn’t care about showing their excitement, they just showed it. There was no holding back and they were mad keen to find out what’s going on.”

ChildFund1 Source: ChildFund

She flew home from Ethiopia and figured retirement would be her lot for long enough and why not at least impart her years of experience to Cork’s emerging netminders?

At the end of May in Kilmallock, she played her comeback game in the Munster final against Limerick. It was a see-saw affair on the scoreboard but Cork won out narrowly and for Murray the buzz of playing was back.

The Cork squad prides itself on operating in an elite sporting environment and a player returning to camp mid season was not going to create a fracture in the squad.

“With experience. you kind of realise the girls are all very strong-minded and they’re there to win,” says Murray.

“I think if they see the advantage of having anyone in the dressing-room and that is a positive, they just take it on.

“Even if I didn’t manage to get that number one spot, I’d be able to do something. If you get that extra per cent, it’s for the team.”

Opting to come back was the easy part, deciding to make the commitment was the hard part.

The life of a camogie player in 2002 when Murray started is a world removed from the 2016 version. The demands have been ramped up with video analysis, gym programmes and ball alley sessions now integral parts of the sport.

One of the key factors that had nudged her into retirement in the first place was the travel playing for Cork entails. Work is with Hudson Advisors in Leeson Street which means home is in Dublin and that means it’s a 250km one-way trip to Cork’s training base on Castle Road.

There’s the mental toll of driving but also the financial drain. Reimbursement for mileage is still a dream that camogie players and ladies footballers hope to attain in the future rather than a current reality.

“I found it fine a few years ago but being older, traveling takes more of a toll on you. Everything costs. There’s no financial cover.

“Every little bit you spend, every bit of diesel and every toll comes out of your own pocket. Living up here isn’t the cheapest as well.

“The one good thing about that is you’re really doing it for the love of it and the real honest reasons. Every weekend I drive down and I’ve made one midweek session for the last six or seven weeks as well.

“I’ve been very fortunate that I wouldn’t be able to make those sessions without the support of the guys in work. I’m very lucky they’re sports mad and they just think it’s fantastic.”

Success helps fuels the drive and there’s a family narrative that will make All-Ireland final day more special.

Her brother Damien does logistics, her cousin Niall does statistics and another brother Kevin – who knows about All-Ireland wins with Cork over Kilkenny from 1999 – will be part of the Cork intermediate management tomorrow.

And then there’s the senior manager, Aoife’s brother Paudie. That provides a unique dynamic to the manager-player relationship.

Paudie Murray celebrates at the final whistle Cork manager Paudie Murray Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“I’m not going to lie, I found it really hard at the start. It’s funny because Paudie was our trainer with Cloughduv for years. I was really naive going into senior set up, I thought it’d be no difference.

“But it’s a completely different set of players. I found it really difficult but I think I’ve got used to it now. If I don’t think he’s right, I’ll say it!

“There’s no escaping it but we try to keep the family squabbles at home. Damien is the Kofi Annan of the family, he sorts out all the arguments!”

There’ll be plenty Murray family members in the stands tomorrow as well.

“The safest place to be is probably on the pitch for the final because it’s going to be worse for the family in the stands watching it.

“Family wise you’re looking more at the nieces and nephews watching to make them proud more so than your parents, brothers and sisters because you’ve given them plenty days out.

“I’ve 17 nieces and nephews, it kind of goes from 16 years old down to 2. I have one nephew who told me before the semi-final that I’d better win because he’d get the day out for the final. No pressure then!”

Tomorrow is her 12th All-Ireland senior final, a remarkable run of marquee days for one playing career.

“The older you get like anything, you kind of realise a little the gravity of where you’re at. That’s the thing where ignorance of youth can come in as they play a bit more freely as they’ve no idea what the feeling of losing is like.

“For a few of us there, we’ve been around for a good few years and we’ve seen both sides of it. Ourselves and Kilkenny haven’t played each other in championship. It’s a real clean final.

Jason Harper with Joanne Casey and Aoife Murray Aoife Murray (right) with Joanne Casey and Jason Harper at Crumlin Children's Hospital in 2014 Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

“Their natural ability to hurl is phenomenal so we just know that nothing but 100% hard work won’t get us near the finish line.”

2016 has lurched from the sanctuary of retirement to the heat of battle.

But tomorrow in Croke Park there’ll be a deep appreciation for the present.

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Fintan O'Toole

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