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'The collarbone, winning the All-Ireland and then breaking my jaw, it was probably a rough enough time'

Mayo great Cora Staunton reflects on the 2000 All-Ireland ladies football final and her county’s golden era, which was built on ‘torturous’ training and pure hard work.

Year2000_2

This article is a part of 2000: Revisited, a week-long series of features looking back on some of the headlines and the forgotten stories that filled the sports pages 20 years ago.

Below, Emma Duffy revisits the 2000 All-Ireland ladies football final with Mayo great Cora Staunton, who starred for the back-to-back champions at just 18 that day after missing the previous final with a gut-wrenching injury.

***

MIGHTY, MIGHTY, MAYO! You went, you saw and you have conquered once again.

For the second year running, you have brought great honour and glory to the county by winning the All-Ireland senior football championship. 

In so doing, the Mayo ladies have now emulated the great men’s 1950/51 senior team which won back-to-back All-Irelands.

- Connaught Telegraph, Wednesday, 4 October, 2000

“I hope you remember more of this than I do,” Cora Staunton says as she answers the phone to reflect on that 2000 All-Ireland final. But almost 20 years on, it turns out she remembers it as well as yesterday. The more she talks and the deeper she delves into the glory days around the turn of the Millennium, the more memories come flooding back.

After being invited into the Mayo senior team in 1995 at the age of just 13, the years that followed were turbulent enough for Staunton. Shy, timid and finding her way in life, her mother, Maria, was diagnosed with cancer that same year. Cora threw herself into football. It was her outlet.

Between the seniors, her own underage sides and her beloved Carnacon, she was kept busy. All the way up through U14, U16 and minor, Mayo were contesting All-Ireland finals. Victory came at the youngest level in 1994, but in most other deciders, they fell at the last hurdle to either Waterford or Monaghan. Competing, close, but not there yet, most of the group climbed the ranks together and were thrown into senior inter-county football at a very young age.

Staunton’s recollections of the earlier days in the senior set-up aren’t just as clear, but one thing she does know is everything soon changed.

Before this change, “it wasn’t unusual to have the odd player smoking at half-time in the dressing room,” as goalkeeper Denise Horan previously told The42. Staunton was young and naive so she was sheltered from a lot of that, but it was a very different culture.

They certainly didn’t train as hard, for one, with a session consisting of a few drills and then a match. There was very little physical training involved, and no such thing as strength and conditioning or gym work.

Those days were certainly left behind in 1999 when a new management team came on the scene. John Mullin took the reins as manager, his son, Jonathan, came on board as a selector and Finbar Egan, in particular, certainly whipped everyone into shape as coach.

“Really when Finbar came in, he kind of changed things,” Staunton recalls. “I remember myself, I was late coming back in ’99. I lost my mother in ’98 and took a couple of steps back from football.

diane-ohora-and-cora-staunton Cora Staunton celebrating after the 2000 All-Ireland ladies football final. Source: Tom Honan/INPHO

“They kind of coaxed me to go back in and play, so I came back in and that was the first time I met Finbar really. Things had really changed. He was all about fitness and really into just getting the team right.

Diane O’Hora, who ended up being our captain in ’99, got him in. She was in the Army at the time, and not that he had an army background, but he was very regimental. The training we done then, even now, in the last 20 years, I’ve never trained as hard as the time we had him.

That’s a fairly big statement, considering the glittering career Staunton has carved out for herself since, between here and her semi-professional Aussie Rules base in Sydney.

But Egan could see the talent in the group, and knew with ruthless training, they could break the scene and reach a first-ever All-Ireland final.

“Finbar was a coach that was just ahead of the game at that stage,” Staunton notes. “He was probably five years ahead of the game. He was very regimental and training was extremely, extremely hard. It was like being a full-time athlete at the time. We trained probably four times a week.

All I remember is training would be just over and you’re already dreading the next session that was coming. Then you’d have your next session over and you’re already dreading the next session.

“You always thought you were fit until you done the level of training that we done with him. It was just constant, constant… there was no let-up. But was very unified.”

That word gets her thinking about a running drill that probably still keeps her up at night: up-and-downs. They’re something she wrote about quite a lot in her book, Game Changer, and entailed of running up and down the pitch, from one goalpost to the other maybe 10 times.

“That was hard, and obviously there’d be times you’d struggle,” Staunton recalls. “The biggest thing I remember is he made us do them holding hands, the 30 girls or whatever was on the panel at the time.

“Whether there were 25 or 26 at training or whatever, we all had to run holding hands and go up and down the pitch to make the time. Basically what he was trying to tell us was we’re only as strong, or as good, as our weakest link.

“Whoever was the poorest runner on the team, you had to get them to the same level as the fittest person on the team. You couldn’t break the chain. If the chain was broken and we got back within the minute, the up-and-down wasn’t counted.

We spent hours and hours training where we might have 10 up-and-downs to do but we could end up doing 25 because we didn’t get the time or we broke the chain or whatever. I just remember the level of exhaustion when you were finished training. You just never knew what was coming. It was just a level above everything else. ”

***

That pure hard work, countless hours put in on the training field and diligent following of home programmes soon paid off, as Mayo reached their first All-Ireland final in 1999.

After six failed attempts at the semi-final stage — coming closest in 1996 after an extra-time defeat to Laois — the Green and Red defied the odds against Meath in the last four and booked their date with destiny in Croke Park.

Ladies football giants — and overwhelming favourites — Waterford awaited.

cora-staunton-and-patricia-mcnelis-491999 Facing Meath in the 1999 All-Ireland semi-final. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

“We had been knocking on the door to get there, and in ’99 when we had the breakthrough in the semi-final against Meath in Parnell Park, we were massive underdogs going into the final,” Staunton recalls.

It’s well-documented that a broken collarbone sustained in training the week before the final kept the teenage star forward out of action, minus a tactical 47-second cameo at the start of the game before she was withdrawn.

Eventually, this young and rising Mayo side overpowered the Déise on a scoreline of 0-12 to 1-8 and got their hands on the Brendan Martin Cup. “It was a huge shock. We weren’t expected to win at all.”

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It was, of course, a dream come true for everyone involved. Mayo toasted this massive success, and would close the Millennium dining at the top table of ladies football. But truth be told, they were only getting started.

Staunton was as competitive back then as she is now at 38, and there was a feeling that she didn’t fully deserve her Celtic Cross by not contributing on the field of play.

Redemption was certainly on the cards in 2000, with a personal goal to be achieved.

“After the ’99 final, you’re 17 years of age, you’re very young and you don’t know what’s happening,” she concedes. “I had been through a rough enough year obviously the year before. I knew myself… you’re probably just saying it to yourself a couple of weeks after when all the celebrations have died down.

You don’t feel after the injury that you fully deserved your All-Ireland even though it’s a team game. Nowadays, everyone that participates — the 30 girls, everyone deserves their medal because the training’s hard.

“I just think I wanted to get to play in Croke Park, that was probably a bigger thing than winning the All-Ireland. I always wanted to play in Croke Park on All-Ireland final day. That was obviously the goal and we wanted to get back there. I think we were just very driven, there wasn’t just me — I had a personal goal — but we were very driven.”

Back to the drawing board they went. This was only the beginning.

After a short winter, it was back to the hours and hours of training, the endless up-and-downs and following individual programmes when not training as a team. They had done it before, they could do it again and their plan was to open the new Millennium, again at the top table.

“It probably all came from Finbar that we were very driven and wanted to achieve and do well,” Staunton continues. “It was all based through the hard training.

“Girls were 16, 17, 18, we did have a few older girls — I say older and they were probably still only 24 and 25 — but we had a very, very young team and whatever we were told to do, we’d do. We were hanging on every word that he said and obviously we seen that after ’99 and all the hard work we put in, the success was there.

We knew if we put in hard work again, we could get more success. The training, and the team was very close. Maybe there was a change or two from the ’99 final to the 2000 final but we had a very young team that were very eager and willing to learn, and wanted to play.

Egan could see that in his players, and knew they had the tolerance for his strict training methods because they were hungry for more success. A first league title followed in June 2000 after three consecutive defeats in the nineties. Staunton, back to her best, chipped in with six points that day as her side overpowered Tyrone.

The Red Hand were the same opposition in the All-Ireland semi-final.

Majestic Cora carries Mayo ladies into another final, was the headline the Western People ran after that victory. Despite trailing by seven points at one stage during the first half, Staunton led the charge over the line with a remarkable 3-6.

finbar-egan-1392003 Mayo coach Finbar Egan. Source: INPHO

That last four battle was played in Croke Park, so she had ticked that box after her injury disappointment a little over 12 months prior. It wasn’t quite All-Ireland final day, but they had booked their golden ticket.

Around that time, she had started college in Athlone with team-mate and good friend Yvonne Byrne — or ‘Crazy’ as she’s fondly known — so the pair would travel home for training with Egan, who also oversaw some of their third-level sessions.

The journeys back to the west came as a welcome distraction before management flogged them on the field. One training session that really stands out in Staunton’s mind and one that the group still talk about to this day came just before their second All-Ireland final.

“I think it was 2000 and training the week before the final, we were thinking leading up to it, ‘It’s not too bad, we’re nearly there, training should be easy,’” she laughs, recounting the journey home with Crazy. But Egan was in the front seat planning something else.

We went into Breaffy, just outside Castlebar, on a Wednesday night and I remember we ended up doing probably one of our hardest sessions five days out from the All-Ireland. I think we did something like 80 sprints and training just went on and on. There was no let-up.

“Finbar was very much a stickler that we had to do it, and if we didn’t do it at the time, we’d keep doing something until whatever he told us was right. I don’t know how we got through training for the five or six years.”

“Even now, I’ve never done anything as hard,” she re-iterates, “and I think that was the base for me, personally, and probably other girls on the team. The fitness that you built up is something that you probably never lost, you’re just topping it up.

“For the first few years I was in with Mayo, it just went to another level and I think when he left, we probably never had another coach that pushed us that hard. Obviously science and training moved on, but I definitely think that was the base of where our performances and unity and everything came.

They always say the teams that train hard, they do well. Certainly, I have vivid memories from his five or six years of training us, and especially the first couple of years, it was definitely torturous, put it that way,” Staunton grins.

***

Again, though, those torturous sessions and punishing runs paid dividends on All-Ireland final day. Each and every player had responded to every challenge set out all year long, and Mayo knew they were ready to defend their crown again.

1 October 2000. D-day. Opposition came in the form of the old enemy, Waterford, once again. “Even though we were All-Ireland champions, I don’t even know if we were still expected to win. A lot of people believed that ’99 was just a little bit of luck. Waterford probably still were the favourites.”

15,000 people filtered into Croke Park to watch the rivals go head-to-head once again. A stronger Mayo crowd were present, hoping to see their heroes solidify their status as the top ladies football side in the country, while redemption was the word on Waterford lips.

From the moment Carlow referee Christy Haughney threw in the ball, it was an intriguing contest. A game that had it all. “I remember it was very, very tight, tit-for-tat for most of the game,” are Staunton’s first words on it. “We took the lead, they took the lead…”

Screenshot 2020-04-29 at 11.01.17 The Mayo starting 15 for the 2000 final. Stanton is in the front row, second from right. Source: The Connaught Telegraph.

She wouldn’t take credit for it herself, but the Carnacon star’s 1-1 had Mayo in good stead by the break, but yet, the game hung in the balance. The second half was the big one.

With 40 minutes on the clock, Waterford led 0-9 to 1-4 and were really finding their rhythm, with Geraldine O’Ryan one of many players firing on all cylinders, but the reigning champions battled hard. O’Hora and captain Maria Staunton — Cora’s cousin — combined brilliantly as Mayo battled back, and when the latter earned a penalty after being fouled by Sarah Hickey, the game was at a crucial juncture.

“Crazy stepped up and cooly — like she was playing in Ballyhaunis — chipped the ball into the back of the net, which was brilliant,” Staunton remembers. “That was a huge moment in the game.

I think Yvonne probably was 18 at the time, and that’s a lot of pressure on a young person’s shoulders. She was a renowned back and people probably wouldn’t have seen her as a penalty-taker but she would have been taking them all year for us. That kind of pressure that was on us.”

The pressure was well and truly on, but that goal eased Mayo fears. Sister Act Christina and Marcella Heffernan drove Mayo on, as did Marcella’s midfield partner in Rachel Barrett. Staunton added her second point of the day with four minutes remaining, and the scoreline stood 2-6 to 0-11.

“I think I got a pretty lucky goal pretty close to the end as well,” she adds, looking back. Indeed she did. Just after that point, she cut loose to collect a ball down the left-hand sideline. She cut in on her right and took a pop at the posts from 55 yards, but that pointed-effort fell millimetres short and just under the crossbar for a dramatic goal.

That put Mayo four points up in the dying minutes, but they were far from home and hosed. Three Waterford points in as many minutes gave Michael Ryan’s side hope, but that all-important equaliser seemed to evade them.

“We were lucky enough, we won it just about,” Staunton stresses. “I remember the nervy ending. We got goals at the right time.

Rachel Barrett, she was very athletic and she put in a stellar performance in the middle of the field. She had a blockdown in the last couple of minutes. Certainly, Denise Horan had one or two exceptional saves in goals.

“Waterford had a massive forward line, they probably had some of the best forwards in the country at the time. There were obviously defining moments throughout the game but I definitely think the penalty and probably the three goals that we got swung the match for us.

“I remember them having a chance with the last kick of the game too, I think it was Mary O’Dwyer or one of their half-backs maybe went up and took a shot. A shot for goal even though they were only a point down, and it just sailed wide.”

Thankfully, for Cora and co.

Before getting into the celebrations and how much it meant to everyone, she’s keen to give a nod to her team-mates. Mayo didn’t have a very big panel and while their stock was young — “and I mean very young, verging on 14, 15, 16″ — they were a tight, close-knit bunch who would do anything for one another.

“Girls performed, and probably a little bit of luck got us over the line,” Staunton, who was named Player of the Match, nods, “and Finbar’s cuteness on the line and where he positioned players was obviously another important aspect of it.

cora-staunton Staunton bursting through the Waterford defence. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

“We had an outstanding team when you look back on it, a super team. Right from Denise Horan in goals, she was probably one of the best goalkeepers of that era, to Nuala O’Shea, who probably never got the credit she deserved and finished football very early, to Helena Lohan to the two Heffernan sisters who were massive players for decades.

“Obviously then we had a pretty potent forward line in the likes of Diane [O'Hora], Marcella [Heffernan] played a little bit in the forwards. We had young ones as well in the likes of Sabrina Bailey; we just had a very, very good mix. But it probably all came down to we were all training really hard and we were very united.”

***

The scenes at the final whistle said it all. Staunton turned to O’Hora and Claire Egan for warm embraces in the forward line before being reunited with the team as a whole. But the immediate celebrations were short-lived as she and her partner-in-crime were soon whisked away for media duties.

“I remember myself and Crazy doing an interview with Jim Carney on the sideline after the match,” she grins. “It was probably just a minute afterwards and it was a very raw interview.

“I don’t really want to see it ever again! I know it has come up in a few Whatsapp groups in the past. It was just one of those interviews that you certainly had no media training or no media skills.

Two very naive country Mayo people that didn’t talk in front of TV cameras too often…. that was certainly not a highlight, it’s an embarrassing moment when you look back on it but sure there was youth and innocence, it was very raw emotion.

From a club perspective, too, it was special with Maria as captain and a strong Carnacon contingent involved.  

“To have a Carnacon person as captain was great. Obviously Niamh Lally was on the team as well so the three of us used to travel to training quite a lot together. I always remember the year previous, the two of them sitting in A&E in Castlebar when I broke my collarbone and tears coming down their faces. To see the changes from that.

“I suppose what was different that year was Maria got the cup on the pitch, which was very different to going up the Hogan Stand. That was obviously down there before.”

Mayo were the last to receive the trophy on the Hogan Stand and the first ladies team to lift it on the pitch at that time, closing the last Millennium with a win and opening this one with another.

And as Cora watched that moment unfold, she couldn’t help but smile, content with the fact she had heavily contributed on the field of play in the showpiece.

“For me, personally, it was a big deal, yeah, because I hadn’t got to play the All-Ireland the year before,” she nods. “It was great to get to play in an All-Ireland final and to especially win one.

To win back-to-back was massive, and obviously winning a close, tight All-Ireland. At the time, you don’t want to be winning close, tight ones, you just want to win them, but they’re probably even more special because it’s tit-for-tat right to the end.

“You look back and they were great times obviously. That was a savage Waterford team who I think won five All-Irelands in the 90s and were still at the top of their game. They had another exceptional manager in Michael Ryan.

maria-staunton Maria Staunton celebrating with the trophy. Source: Tom Honan/INPHO

“I do think it was all down to the level of training that we done at the time with Finbar. We probably were the fittest team around and I think that showed throughout the five, six, seven years that we were at the top. That’s probably how we got there. You look at the likes of Cork, they probably took on that mantle then

It was an exceptional team to be involved in, and I was very lucky to be part of it.

Mayo ladies are now undisputed champions and Mayo queens of the goal strike are headlines that followed in local newspapers over the preceding days as the celebrations went into the dark winter nights.

While Carnacon regained the Connacht club title after a lapse of one year, Staunton missed out because of another nasty injury three or four weeks after lifting the Brendan Martin Cup, in her first college match with Athlone.

A badly-judged tackle resulted in a badly-broken jaw and another three-month stint on the sidelines.

“I broke my jaw in three places in the middle of October, so I didn’t really play any football then. I got my wires out just before Christmas and then I was back in January. I had had a little bit of a break in some ways, it probably wasn’t too bad, I probably lost a stone-and-a-half with the broken jaw so I was probably pretty lean and fit. 

But yeah, the collarbone and winning the All-Ireland and then going to college and breaking my jaw, when you look back it was probably a rough enough time.

“But I just loved football, being involved in it, excelling and trying to get to the top. They were very, very good years for us.”

A remarkable 12 months that yielded their first two All-Ireland titles and a first National League crown paved the way for more success for this group. They contested three more All-Ireland finals together, losing in 2001 before going back-to-back again in 2002 and 2003.

Further final defeats followed in 2007 and 2017, but Staunton certainly puts Mayo’s ladies football success down to the turn of the Millennium.

“We were lucky that we got to win a few more and participate in a few more,” she says. “Of the five finals we played in, we were either very unlucky or very lucky. Our luck kind of swung that day [2000] and obviously the following year, our luck didn’t swing with us. 

Doing back-to-back was huge for us as a team. People probably looked at ’99 as a bit of a fluke, and Waterford just didn’t perform rather than us being an actual good team. I think that’s when Mayo probably stamped their credentials down as a really good ladies football team, and for the next decade, were seen as one of the top teams in the country.

“Back in them years when we were winning, people probably stood up and noticed the talent that Mayo football had. That was probably the biggest thing from it: that we were very driven and we wanted to keep continuing to succeed. 

“I just think from them two years, especially ’99 and 2000, ladies football grew in Mayo massively. Clubs were forming left, right and centre, there was such huge hype and interest and I suppose that’s where it all started for ladies football in Mayo.

“Where it is now is probably due to them days when girls just decided this is what they want to do based on what the senior team were doing.”

cora-staunton-and-claire-egan Staunton and Claire Egan celebrate. Source: Tom Honan/INPHO

And there was a ripple effect outside the western county too. Others caught onto the near-professional environment that they operated in, and everything grew across the length and breadth of the country.

“I think that made other teams move on because they seen the success we had from hard training and doing whatever Finbar had us doing,” Staunton concludes. Look at Cork bringing the game to another level next.

You talk to the Cork girls, their success is based on hard work and training as well. Eamon Ryan was quite old-school in that regard. The game has moved on and now you look at this Dublin team and those at the top.

“It’s not based on as much physical training, it’s looking after your body more, your diet more, your nutrition is better. There’s a lot more strength and conditioning and all of that. All of that has changed.

“But the football was very good back then. It was fast, it was very open and it was good to play in. It has moved on skill-wise since then, but there were some exceptional players in those times. Mayo certainly had its fair share of them.”

Evidently. And the great Cora Staunton was just one of many.

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Emma Duffy

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