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'You want to win as much as you ever did, you're more nervous than you ever were'

Since 2008, Cork captain Ciara O’Sullivan has played on All-Ireland day much more often than not.

Ciara O'Sullivan.
Ciara O'Sullivan.
Image: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

THIS TIME LAST year was very different for Cork captain Ciara O’Sullivan.

Rather than lining out in Croke Park for the TG4 All-Ireland senior football final like she had done every year since 2011, and in 2008 and 2009 before that, she was at home.

She watched Dublin put three final losses to her side firmly in the past as they beat Mayo by 12 points to lift the Brendan Martin Cup.

“It was a strange one watching it,” the Mourneabbey forward reflects. They’re back where they want to be now, of course, as they gear up to face the defending champions in Sunday’s decider. But back to the 2017 absence.

“You’re neutral and it’s weird having been there the few years before that you’re not involved — but you couldn’t begrudge Dublin having lost three finals and being such a good team and having stuck with it for so long.

“You couldn’t begrudge them winning but it was definitely a tough one to take.”

Three weeks prior, the Westerners had beaten Ephie Fitzgerald’s side by two points in the semi-final and ended their quest for a 12th title in 13 years. Absolute devastation.

It was a longer winter than normal on Leeside and while there was plenty of questioning and contemplating done, there was no doubt about resetting and going again. There was a bid for a 12th title in 14 years to be made.

There was no one specific point in time when players met up during the off-season. If you wanted to be there, the door was open for training in January. And fueled by the disappointment and hurt of missing out, they went again.

“We knew that bringing that heartbreak from last year’s losing semi-final; to kind of bottle that and hope that that would drive us on for the year,” O’Sullivan adds.

She had further heartbreak to spur her on too after her side lost the All-Ireland senior club final to Carnacon, further to decider defeats in 2014 and 2015 and a semi-final exit in 2016.

Ciara O'Sullivan with the trophy as the team celebrates Celebrating in 2016. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

There wasn’t much of a break as a result. It’s a good complaint to have though, to be going that far with your club, she says.

“Obviously, while we were disappointed to not win the All-Ireland, still we had a county and Munster that I wouldn’t have swapped for anything, for any amount of time off. It’s a good complaint to have, to be competitive in inter-county and club. I wouldn’t mind if it happened again this year to be honest.”

O’Sullivan has been involved with the Cork set-up since 2008. Success and knowing that they’ll be competitive in the latter stages year on year makes it easier to keep going and stay committed.

Learning from more experienced players helped her along the way, as did the astounding work ethic within the group. It’s just trying to keep that going and pass it on.

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She’s seen plenty change across the years in the game itself, the main one being conditioning and the emphasis on the gym, but there’s one huge difference this year on a more personal level.

Out of the four O’Sullivan sisters, just Ciara and Doireann are involved this year. Over the last few years, Róisín and Méabh have been there too but not for 2018.

“It’s a strange one because since 2008, when we were doing the rooms for the All-Ireland and everything I was always with Roisin,” Ciara grins. “I got stuck with Eimear Meaney now!

“It is a strange one. I think it’s worse for the girls though, having to watch the matches especially tight matches like the semi-final. It’s far easier to play in a match, definitely than watch it. But it is, it is strange.”

23-year-old Doireann is one player who has really stood up this year, chipping in with three massive points from play in that semi-final win over Donegal. She, along with many others were forced to mature as the older group hung up their boots and the dynamic changed.

Sarah Jane McDonald and Kate Keaney with Ciara O'Sullivan In action in the semi-final. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

That step-up and freshness in leadership is great to see, Ciara adds, and bodes well for Sunday’s showdown. One thing that many are talking about is the fact that Dublin’s 2017 All-Ireland final win brought them up a level and with younger girls securing their first Celtic Cross, it may put them one up.

“Personally, I don’t know. I think every year is different. I do honestly think that every final is different,” she says in response to that.

“A lot of people are saying, ‘I hope your younger girls won’t be over-ridden by nerves’ and stuff. I’ll be no less nervous now than I was in 2008. I don’t think having more experience of them helps.

“Still, you want to win as much as you ever did. You’re going to be more nervous than you ever were before. I don’t think having won or not won before stands for anything on Sunday.”

Chasing the title now rather than defending, she concludes:

“When it comes down to it, there’s two teams. When the ball’s thrown in on Sunday, it doesn’t matter who’s favourites or who’s chasing. Everyone’s just focusing on that match, that one game and to win that, even by a point, would be unbelievable.

“It is a bit different in that we’re not champions and Dublin are deserved reigning champions. We know we have a massive battle on our hands but as for being favourites or underdogs, I don’t think it’ll stand for much on the day.”

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Emma Duffy

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