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Dublin: 11 °C Wednesday 24 April, 2019

'They soldiered on when it was easier to give up and say, 'why do I need this s**t?"

Cora Staunton goes in search of a fifth All-Ireland medal this weekend.

THIS WEEK IS just like any other for Cora Staunton.

Sorcha Furlong tackles Cora Staunton Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

Her working life in Castlebar will carry on as usual. She’ll be at club training with Carnacon, and give what she can to the local team that has been at bedrock of her life.

Throughout the years of triumph and despair with Mayo, club success always sustained her through the winter months.

They’re chasing a 19th county title in 20 years this season, and Staunton gives them a special mention while speaking to The42 ahead of her seventh All-Ireland final this weekend.

Mayo’s last appearance at this stage of the championship was 10 years ago when they were beaten by Cork.

The path back to this point has rarely been pleasant for Mayo and this season presented some sticky challenges for them.

Exhaustion was the emotion of the moment when they pulled off a shock win over Cork in the All-Ireland semi-final, and they’re likely to experience similar levels of pain when they face Dublin in Croke Park this Sunday.

An All-Ireland final beckons, but after 10 years spent grafting to get this opportunity again, Staunton isn’t dwelling on the status of the game.

“You don’t want to fill your head with a whole lot of pressure. I’m just doing normal stuff that I do every week. You’re probably trying to keep a low profile.

I work in Castlebar, so I probably wouldn’t go down the town too often because a lot of people want to talk football with you. From that point of view, that’s the only thing that will change.

“The week before the All-Ireland final, I’ll still go to club training. Everything will go as normal, it’s just another match and another step in our journey.”

Mayo’s pursuit of a place in the final fell at the penultimate hurdle last year, when they suffered a heartbreaking one-point defeat to Dublin.

Staunton had 22 years of inter-county service in the legs at that point, and speculation was mounting about her future with Mayo.

Cora Staunton at the end of the game Cora Staunton after the final whistle of their defeat to Dublin in the 2016 All-Ireland semi-final. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

The Carnacon star immersed herself back into club duty in the aftermath of the loss, and just as she had done in previous years, she delayed the decision making until the start of the following year. As always, she assessed everything with fellow stalwarts Yvonne Byrne and Martha Carter before making any moves.

Given Staunton’s legacy in the sport, the media interest swelled as the new season approached.

“I was doing a bit of work with Sky Sports in Dublin and I kind of got cornered by the media,” she explains.

“They were asking if I had made a decision and said that I was hoping to make it by the next week. I think it went out in the paper that I was going to decide by the weekend, which probably put a bit of pressure on myself.”

After some lightly applied pressure from management, Staunton opted to stay on for another season, and returned to the panel ahead of their opening National League fixture.

But the prospect of leaving with her lot after 22 years was a real prospect at times.

More so than any other year, we were very 50-50. Other years, we were 50-50 as well but we kind of knew that we were coming back. One year one (of us) might push more than the other.

“I thought I pushed Yvonne a little bit more this year and she probably pushed me a little bit more the year before.

“But out of any year, I’d say we were very 50-50 coming back. Maybe other years, we knew we were coming back but we probably weren’t saying it to each other.

“We probably weren’t just admitting it but this year, it could have gone anyway to be honest.

She added:

We’re either all in it or we’re not in it. I could be wrong but I think we’ll all retire together. I couldn’t see one staying on and the other two (leaving). At the end of the day, we’re all individuals and I’ve been soldiering along with Yvonne for quite a long time.

“Me and Yvonne have been on the county team since 1999 so that’s the guts of about 18 years that we’ve been playing together. It would just be very strange if she wasn’t there and I was playing or visa versa.”

Their commitment to Mayo’s cause was rewarded when they helped the team to record a sensational win over reigning All-Ireland champions Cork in the semi-final.

The image of them celebrating the achievement together on the pitch offered a poignant reminder of how far they had come together in a Mayo jersey.

Mayo won four All-Ireland titles between 1999 and 2003, but those glorious years were followed by a barren period which yielded just one more All-Ireland appearance for the county in 2007.

Mayo's Cora Staunton, Yvonne Byrne and Martha Carter celebrate at the end of the game Cora Staunton, goalkeeper Yvonne Byrne, and Martha Carter celebrate their win over Cork together. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Disputes between players and the county board flared up at times, and a succession of managers came and went through the years.

Staunton and co played on despite the hostilities, and their perseverance brought them to victory over the greatest team in the history of ladies football.

“Martha, Yvonne and a few others like Fiona McHale – there’s a few girls that came in at the end of our era in 2003 and maybe didn’t get their All-Ireland medals. Then there’s girls who did play in an All-Ireland final but didn’t get the chance to have the medal in their pockets.

They’ve been soldiering together for the last 12 or 13 years. It’s well documented the stuff that went on years ago with county boards and stuff. There was numerous stuff written, and it’s for those players who stuck with it when it was a lot easier to walk away.

“We were having manager after manager and it was easier to walk away, and our stubborness probably didn’t let us walk away. (It was) our love for the county and the want to play ladies.

It probably is a bit extra special for them because they soldiered on when it was easier to give up and say, ‘why do I need this shit really?’

Even at 35 years of age, it could never be said that Staunton is on borrowed time in this sport.

The freedom with which she plays, coupled with her consistently high scoring tallies illustrates her importance to Mayo’s attack.

Diane O'Hora and Cora Staunton Cora Staunton and Diane O'Hora after the final whistle in the 2000 All-Ireland final. Source: Tom Honan/INPHO

It has always been her word that she will continue to play as long as the game brings her enjoyment, and her standards are high.

But just like every other athlete, Staunton has experienced moments of self-doubt.

“There were plenty of times throughout the year when we probably had a few lows and you’re probably thinking, ‘am I good enough to be back playing anymore?’ But they quickly go out of your head and you move on.

“The Connacht final was a huge disappointment but after that, we seemed to be moving in the right direction.”

As impressive as Staunton’s career might be, it will have to come to an end.

The week leading into an All-Ireland final is not the time to contemplate her future without football, but she knows she will have to face that transition at some point.

“I wouldn’t have a huge fear, I haven’t thought about it enough. Obviously, it’s going to be a huge different process. It’s going to be completely different to what I’ve known.

It probably will be a shock. I don’t let myself think about it too much, because it probably is a little bit scary to know what’s next. At the same time, I always think that being involved in some way in sport, whether it’s the GAA or coaching.

“I wouldn’t step away from club straight away either, so you still have that. If you thought about it too much, or let yourself think about it too much, it’s a very scary thing.”

Sunday might be the last opportunity for people to witness Cora Staunton play on the inter-county stage.

It would be human if she admitted that her mind has occasionally conjured up images of her standing in Croke Park victorious, and with a fifth All-Ireland medal to her name.

It would be the most satisfying way for her to sign off from her career.

But if she does allow herself to experience those moments, she’s keeping them for the right time and the right place.

“Getting yourself right for every training session is the most important thing. Getting your time in to do your frees, getting your time in to do your stretching.

“Everything is based around work and football and that’s been the thing for the last number of years.

“You’re worried about getting yourself right and trying to get yourself in the best shape that you can.

Closer to the match, you might let yourself drift towards that. If you start thinking about that, you’d have yourself worked up in a knot.

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