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'It was tough. I just wasn't myself, my body was extremely weak. It just shut down'

Cork’s Eimear Scally chats to The42 about overcoming glandular fever and other hurdles throughout her inter-county career to date.

IF YOU’VE EVER been to Croke Park on All-Ireland ladies football finals day, you’ll know how the closing few minutes of each match play out.

Gourmet Food Parlour to sponsor the LGFA Higher Education championships Eimear Scally. Source: David Fitzgerald/SPORTSFILE

The atmosphere is nothing short of electric, the volume through the roof. There’s a sea of colour around the ground with young and old waving their county flags tirelessly as the clock runs down.

There’s usually very little between the sides score-wise in the closing exchanges — particularly in the senior edition. Fine, fine margins. Just a single point at either end usually settles it.

That wasn’t necessarily the case on the third Sunday of September in 2017 though as the minutes ran down towards the full-time whistle and that renowned hooter. Dublin and Mayo had played out a thrilling and finely balanced decider until the final eight minutes, but two key goals from Sarah McCaffrey and another from the boot of Carla Rowe quickly settled matters.

Of course the atmosphere was still electric, the volume through the roof and the sea of colour in full flow, but it was predominantly blue and fueled by Dublin voices.

With just 60 seconds remaining, the anticipation for the hooter grew and grew. Dublin fans young and old were about to do it — to count down 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 for their All-Ireland heroes. And they’d do so happily after three years of heartbreak at the final hurdle.

Others were left disappointed as they flooded for the exits.

One of such was Eimear Scally. A rising star on the famous Cork ladies team for quite some time now, it was the first year of her five on the panel that she wasn’t togging out for the All-Ireland senior final.

Instead, she was there as a spectator with her friend Anna Galvin, who plays alongside her in University of Limerick (UL) and also plies her trade with Kerry. An early exit was on the cards.

“We left I’d say with about a minute to go,” she tells The42.

We were both kind of like, ‘Ok, let’s get out of here’. I didn’t want to hear that final whistle. It was weird. I’ll never take those days for granted now, you know.”

Just three weeks earlier, Cork’s bid for their 12th All-Ireland senior title in 13 years was ended by Mayo in Breffni Park. Up to that point, they had had a mixed year. Ephie Fitzgerald’s charges were crowned Lidl Ladies National League Division 1 champions in May, albeit by the narrowest of margins, but then a tough Munster championship ensued.

They lost two consecutive provincial championship games to Waterford and Kerry, meaning it was the first time in 15 years that Cork wouldn’t contest the Dairygold Cup.

After that came serious questions that needed answering, along with comments from critics.

“We had such a disappointing Munster championship,” Scally continues, the pain almost heard through her voice.

Eimear Scally with Orla Conlon Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

“We had to sit back and were like, ‘Look, we had the same team as the league. We won that. There’s no reason why we should be doing this bad.’ We picked it up alright in the All-Ireland championship a bit, but we didn’t play well in the semi-final (defeat to Mayo).

“We played ok in patches but we were outplayed as well. I’ll never make up too many excuses for losing a game, I’ll never take it away from the team that beat us. That’s just unfair. Mayo deserved to win that game, no doubt about it. But it was disappointing.”

Interestingly, the Eire Óg sharpshooter’s first championship start didn’t come until 2017. It was like she had been around for years but this was the first time that she fully broke the starting 15 week after week.

“It’s mad,” she grins as she’s reminded. “I didn’t even realise. Obviously I’d take being a sub and winning an All-Ireland any day though.”

‘Scally’ was a name that had been floating around ladies football circles long before last year. Still a minor, she scored a goal from the bench in the 2014 All-Ireland senior final as her side beat Dublin, and starred through the ranks at underage level.

But then came a bout of glandular fever, diagnosed in November 2015, and a premature return which left her sidelined for even longer.

“I just knew I had it,” she recalls. “My sister had it before and I kind of had the same symptoms. My throat was like a rock like. It wasn’t normal tonsillitis or anything.

“I went back for a couple of league games, played up until the league final with Cork. I just wasn’t myself. There was 10 minutes I had in me and after that, my body just shut down.

“After the league final I just had to explain to the girls that I wasn’t able to stay, my body was extremely weak. I don’t think I went back in until the end of July and at that, I still wasn’t right.

“I’d say I had it definitely a year, a year and two months maybe. It was tough. It’s just annoying watching the girls play away. You know when the girls are like, ‘How long more are you out for?’ and I’m just like, ‘I don’t know. I just have to wait until I’m better’.

“It was annoying but sure look. These things happen. There’s worse things in life at the same time.”

Her maturity and sensibility shines through, as she accepts the illness for what it was but doesn’t exaggerate it by any means like others may.

“I was half lucky that way that I wasn’t bed bound the whole time,” she continues.

“I could get up and meet up with friends for a coffee or whatever. I wasn’t able to go out. I obviously wasn’t going to do the maggot on it and go out drinking. I wasn’t taking advantage of it at all like.

“I suppose if I went out for more than a couple of hours, just strolling around or something, I was so tired that evening. Exercise was the big thing. I could do something for five or 10 minutes and then I was just dust.

“I was looking forward to giving it a good bash and to make my place on that senior team. It didn’t happen so look, it was just annoying.”

Eimear Scally Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

As she said herself, the 21-year-old linked back into the Cork set-up for the remainder of the 2016 season upon her full return to action.

And in that one-point All-Ireland final win over Dublin, Scally graced the Croke Park turf from the bench in the 43rd minute, well and truly putting the glandular fever nightmare to bed. 2017 would be her year, or so she thought.

We know how it finished up in the Cork jersey, but in the earlier stages, there was another hurdle or two along the way to clear.

In March, she found herself in an unusual situation. She was lining out in the O’Connor Cup final in a UL jersey but opponents came in the form of University College Cork (UCC), where she had studied and played some ball the previous year.

The Limerick outfit were victorious on the day, but not without some drama and Scally at the centre of it all. In the 47th minute, she stood up to the mark to take a penalty after she was was taken down herself on a powerful, driving run.

There was a whiff of controversy surrounding the award of the goal as confusion reigned and there was much debate as to whether the ball had gone through the net or wide. The flag was waved though as UL’s pursuit for a third O’Connor Cup in four seasons continued.

It’s put to her almost a year later as UL’s representative at the announcement of Gourmet Food Parlour as the new sponsor of the Higher Education Committee (HEC) third-level championships

“It was wide!” she grins, half laughing as she echoes what people have said to her over and over since that day in McHale Park. “That’ll be on my tombstone like; quote: it was wide.”

She may be grinning now, but that wasn’t always the way, particularly not in the direct aftermath.

“It was tough going to training the Wednesday after,” she says.

“I think there was something like 12 or 13 Cork players on the UCC team and then there was just me. I was half nervous and the UL girls were like, ‘Jesus, I don’t know if you’ll come back alive’ and all this.

“Look, we had a joke or two about it and we moved on. I wasn’t going to be bringing it up and I wasn’t in a position to be. I suppose when you go out on the pitch, you go out and you don’t have friends on the pitch.

“That’s what my Dad always says. Anyone you’re playing against, you’re not friends on the pitch for that 60 minutes and it’s fine. It’s always the way with other players. I didn’t think about it too much. Obviously, it was a bit tough.”

It’s all fine now though, she assures me as she gears up for Cork’s 2018 opener against Kerry later today.

Last year is in the past now, there’s a sense radiating from Scally that 2018 is definitely going to be the year of redemption. Fitzgerald is still at the helm, with his right-hand man James Masters leading the training sessions.

Eimear Scally and Orlagh Farmer celebrate with The Brendan Martin Cup Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

18-time All-Ireland dual champion Rena Buckley has not yet made her decision clear on which code — or both — she’ll opt for, but Scally acknowledges that they were without both herself and Briege Corkery last year and it’ll just be an added bonus if they return.

“There’s nothing too different,” she adds.

“The only thing I could say is that there’s a bit more professionalism. We’re doing a lot of strength and conditioning at the moment and getting proper meals after training.

“There’s nothing major. You don’t want to change much like.

“My father would be annoying me like, ‘Who’s in, who’s out?’ and I’m like, ‘I actually don’t know. I’m going to have to wait and see until our first league game and see who’s on the sheet before the game’. We’ll see how we get on then.

“We’re not going to touch on it (last year) too much. We have to drive on and add that for fuel on our flight.”

And that first league game, that first challenge of the new year comes in the form of a tough test away to the Kingdom this afternoon.

It’s actually a repeat of their 2017 opener, where Cork ran out big winners against their Munster rivals on a scoreline of 5-17 to 1-11.

“That will be a good old game,” she smiles. “Hopefully we can start off with a win. It gives the confidence a major boost. That’s what we’re hoping for.”

It’s early days yet but Scally — and the Cork set-up in general — have their eyes already firmly fixed on a return to Croke Park after a year-long hiatus.

Thanks to an announcement by the Ladies Gaelic Football Association (LGFA) that there will be eight double headers throughout the league, their chance comes sooner than expected this year.

Gourmet Food Parlour to sponsor the LGFA Higher Education championships Gourmet Food Parlour will sponsor the LGFA Higher Education championships. Source: David Fitzgerald/SPORTSFILE

They have 10 February circled on the calendar for a fiery date with reigning All-Ireland champions Dublin at GAA HQ and it’s one Scally is clearly relishing. Finally back where she wants to be.

“That was a huge boost,” she concludes, when asked about the curtain raisers.

“There’s something every year now in fairness with the ladies football, it’s really moving on more. Girls feel a bit more valued.

“Going to Croke Park now, were absolutely delighted like. It’s so nice to be going to Croke Park and it’s not All-Ireland day. It’s kind of annoying that way that the only chance you get to play in Croke Park is All-Ireland final day, and that’s not the case for a lot of girls.

“To be able to just play a league game there is brilliant, you know!”

The countdown is on for that long-awaited return. As she said herself, she’ll never take those days for granted now.

Gourmet Food Parlour are the official nutritional partners with the Dublin GAA County Board and own restaurants in Swords, Santry, Malahide and Dun Laoghaire. One of the largest sports catering companies in Ireland, they also work with DCU, FAI, IRFU, Swim Ireland and Special Olympics to name a few.

The42 has just published its first book, Behind The Lines, a collection of some of the year’s best sports stories. Pick up your copy in Eason’s, or order it here today (€10):

‘I was emotional but Dad was roaring and crying. You do it for those background reasons’

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Emma Duffy

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