curtain raisers

'As a 34-year-old woman playing for my 17th year, opening up for a men's game doesn't appeal to me'

Eight-time All-Ireland champion Aoife Murray is back for a 17th year with Cork, and as captain.

WITH 16 YEARS of senior inter-county camogie experience under her belt, along with eight All-Ireland titles and seven All-Star accolades to show for her efforts, Cork goalkeeper Aoife Murray is back for more.

Aoife Murray Aoife Murray, pictured at the launch of the Littlewoods Ireland National Camogie Leagues 2018. Dan Sheirdan / INPHO Dan Sheirdan / INPHO / INPHO

Upon her welcome return — which was confirmed at the weekend — the 34-year-old Cloughduv star has taken over the captaincy from Rena Buckley for the 2017 campaign.

However, with the Littlewoods Ireland Camogie Leagues kicking off on Sunday, Murray is facing a spell on the sidelines with a knee injury. But you can just sense from her sheer presence alone that she’s delighted to be back in the set-up. Back where she belongs.

In 2015, Murray stepped away from the inter-county game but came out of retirement the following May to rejoin the Cork squad in their bid for three-in-a-row.

She admits that this time around, she kept that in mind while there was plenty of mulling over the decision to return to the fold for round 17.

“There’s no point in saying it was an easy decision,” she told the media at the Irish Museum of Modern Art on Wednesday, donning the red jersey with the same pride as always.

“Maybe I’ve learned from the last time I said I’d retire and I came back — I might have taken a little bit longer.

“It wasn’t an easy decision, but I suppose, contradicting that, it wasn’t a hard one either at the same time.

“I’ve spoken to a lot of people who had retired and some of them regretted it because they felt that they had another year or two. I’d much prefer to go back and for it to be the wrong decision than to not go back and for it to be the wrong decision, if that makes any sense.

“I think it’s the right decision to carry on.”

She’s confident in her instinct and her ability, as are a neighbouring club in Cork. The Rebels operate under a system of the county champions nominating the senior captain and last year’s winners Inniscarra have opted for Murray.

Aoife Murray lifts the trophy Murray with the O'Duffy Cup in September. Gary Carr / INPHO Gary Carr / INPHO / INPHO

The back-to-back winners named defender Rena Buckley to lead Cork in 2017, and in quite different circumstances, looked outside of the club this year.

Murray explains: “The last time we won the county was 2005. We haven’t been as competitive as we could be over the last few years with Cloughduv.

“Of course, it was a childhood dream of mine. I think everyone dreams of scoring the winning point and saving the last goal and lifting the cup all in one go.

“But with Inniscarra winning again, Rena had it last year and Rena just felt…. I think it just highlights further what an amazing player she is and a person she is, that she just put her hands up and said, ‘You know what, I just won’t be able for a second year of it’.

“To be fair to Niamh Mc (Carthy), it’s only her second year on the panel and she had an outstanding first year. When they sat down and talked about it, they just said, ‘Ok we’re going to have to look outside’.

“I’m from the same division, we all played U15 Muskerry together. I think they wanted somebody who had experience and listen, I’m just really, really delighted and honoured really that they chose to nominate myself.”

Her older brother, Paudie Murray, is also back on board for a seventh season at the helm.

The three-time All-Ireland-winning manager guided Cork to back-to-back victories in 2014 and 2015, before they stole the crown back from Kilkenny in Croke Park in September.

“I think fair play to the man for coming back for a seventh year,” Murray smiles, when asked of her brother.

“Like most of us, it would have been easy for him to sign off on such a note but I think he feels quite connected as well to the bunch of players that are there and to the county board to be fair.

“We’ve had a great relationship — the players, management and county board — I think he felt like it was going to be really hard to walk away especially if there wasn’t going to be somebody else there of the same calibre to take us over, he feels quite committed to us.

Cork manager Paudie Murray talks in the team huddle Paudie Murray speaks to his Cork team in August. Oisin Keniry / INPHO Oisin Keniry / INPHO / INPHO

“We’re delighted as well that we don’t have to do the feeling out process of another manager and management team. It blends itself quite smoothly.”

On her own decision to return for a 17th year, Murray notes that she let Christmas slide by before making a definitive plan.

When speaking to The42 at the first-ever All-Stars tour launch in November, she was still in two minds, but the trip itself turned out to factor towards her choice.

“I think the trip to Madrid as well maybe reignited the fact why I love the game,” she continued.

“For the social and for the craic but then also for a real competitive game. That helped quite a bit.”

That, fuelled with a phone call to her brother after the festive season, helped her the definitive answer over the line.

“I rang Paudie and just said ‘Paudie, what’s going on? I need to make this decision because I just don’t want it to linger for any of the girls.’

“He said it was the same for himself. He goes, ‘Listen Aoife, if I go back, I just want to know if you’re going back or not. It’s not going to be part of my decision.’ At the same time, from that call I got that he really wanted to go back.

“Look at the end of the day, he’s my big brother and I have a family there that I don’t want to let down. Since I said I’d go back and since Paudie said he’d go back and the captaincy, my parents are on cloud nine.

“It’s great to be able to do that for your parents after them doing so much for you.”

On Monday, the Ladies Gaelic Football Association (LGFA) announced a series of eight double-headers for the forthcoming league campaign.

Aoife Murray Aoife Murray, pictured at the launch of the Littlewoods Ireland National Camogie Leagues 2018. Dan Sheirdan / INPHO Dan Sheirdan / INPHO / INPHO

Each of the games will take place prior to Allianz Football League fixtures involving the county’s male counterparts. Reigning All-Ireland champions Dublin will play their clashes against Cork and Kerry at Croke Park before the men’s meetings.

On a personal level, Murray is unsure whether she’d embrace similar double headers or curtain raisers ahead of the hurlers.

“It’s a difficult one,” she says.

“As myself, as a 34-year-old woman playing this for my 17th year, the idea of me having to open up for a men’s game doesn’t really appeal to me. Sometimes I would feel that we’re second class citizens because we’re opening up.

“I’ve played senior camogie and we’ve opened up U21 hurling matches and you’re going, ‘Fuck, these are kids. I’m a grown woman and I have to open up. They’re the main stage’.

“That would be my personal side of it. But then pushing that to a side, you have to look at the progression of the game. At the end of the day, we need more people watching it. If you have to swallow your own pride for a small while, for that to happen, then I think as a fan of the game, I have to do that.

“It would be great if there was more collaboration between that with games, especially at county level and club level. We’ve played All-Irelands and there’s been club hurling matches, not only the same day as All-Irelands but at the same time.

“It’s not only impacting on our supporters, it’s been impacting on players. I had brothers playing a match at four o’clock and I had an All-Ireland at four o’clock.”

She says that she feels things have improved since her breakthrough to the Cork senior panel, mainly down to social media.

“But we still have a huge way to go,” she adds. “We do have a long road to go.

“Maybe if we all just finally come under one umbrella, it’ll be something.

“I would hope to think that with camogie, we could have maybe a bit more collaboration on games. I know last year some counties were playing at the same time, two teams.”

Murray can’t remember who exactly but gives the example of the Cork camogie team playing at the exact same time as the county hurlers but in two different locations.

Launch Of The 2018 Littlewoods Ireland Camogie Leagues Players at the launch of the Littlewoods Ireland National Camogie Leagues 2018. Dan Sheirdan / INPHO Dan Sheirdan / INPHO / INPHO

The overriding conclusion is that scheduling is an obstacle, and needs to be worked on: “It would be great if we could see more of that joined-up thinking.”

Joining her on the sidelines for the next few weeks is fellow veteran Gemma O’Connor, who scored that monstrous equalising-point in September’s national decider.

Likewise, it’s O’Connor’s knee that’s continuing to trouble her and she’s just as disappointed to be missing the 2018 opener against Galway on Sunday.

“We have a few more weeks to do rehab and get back onto the pitch,” Murray concludes, estimating a further four weeks out of action for herself as she works closely with Santry Sports Clinic.

“It’s unfortunate because I really enjoyed the league last year. It was a great basis for the actual championship. I’m a bit conscious that I might have to chase fitness a little bit more than I did last year.

“It’s funny, once you make the decision and have a chat with the management team and set out your plan (you’re ready to go again). You look forward to the hard slog and the mental tests that they’ll put in front of us.

“You just get excited again, you go ‘Ok, I’m doing it’. It’s funny how it just clicks back into place.

“I’d love to be togging out on Sunday. I think it’s a great start for the girls.”

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):

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