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'People wrote us off saying it was the end of an era': Young guns shine as Rebels roar on

Ephie Fitzgerald’s side won their fifth league title in-a-row yesterday, and ninth in 10 years as the odds seemed to pile against them beforehand.

CORK ENTERED YESTERDAY’S Lidl Ladies National League Division 1 final in much different shape than they’d usually take to the field for deciders over the years.

Doireann O'Sullivan lifts the league trophy Doireann O'Sullivan lifts the cup. Source: Tom Beary/INPHO

With four league titles in-a-row under their belts lining out in Parnell Park, at first glance at the programme, it was a very different side to that whom had done the honours this time last year.

Neither of their 11-time All-Ireland winners, and dual stars, Breige Corkery or Rena Buckley have returned to the fold yet. Captain Ciara O’Sullivan and her sister, Roisin, were both absent as they’re travelling.

Deirdre O’Reilly had retired earlier this year, and to make matters even worse, 2016 Footballer of the Year Bríd Stack was withdrawn from the starting side before throw-in due to injury.

Just seven of the Cork players who started in last year’s All-Ireland senior championship final win over Dublin lined out from the get-go yesterday — Martina O’Brien, Marie Ambrose, Roisin Phelan, Shauna Kelly, Orlagh Farmer, Doireann O’Sullivan and Orla Finn.

22-year-old O’Sullivan, who was taking over the captaincy from her older sister, Ciara, was also struggling with a knee injury, and “probably shouldn’t have played,” according to manager Ephie Fitzgerald.

Donegal were coming into the game slightly more under the radar, and had already written history by reaching their first-ever Division 1 decider. They beat this year’s Division 2 finalists Westmeath — who drew with Cavan yesterday — in last year’s final at that grade so to stay up in Division 1, let alone reach Parnell Park was a stellar achievement.

Jess O'Shea with Geraldine McLaughlin McLaughlin scored 1-4. Source: Tom Beary/INPHO

The Ulster side had also overcome the Rebels in Mallow earlier in this top flight campaign — something which they drew huge confidence from entering battle.

Cork had a huge task ahead of them. They were a young — their oldest starting player was 27-year-old Martina O’Brien, with Orla Finn next in line at 25 — and somewhat less experienced Cork side compared to others that had come before. They were missing key players, and against the odds to run to glory.

Not only that, but Donegal were shaping up to be stiff competition.

Dealing with the headline-hitting attacking duo, Geraldine McLaughlin and Yvonne McMonagle, was going to be a mammoth challenge.

Aged just 21 and 22, but influential and probably two of the more experienced members of the starting 15, Ambrose and Phelan were handed the task of taming both threats, while Eimear Meaney came in to marshall the defence in place of Stack.

The pair combined for 1-7 in the first-half, McLaughlin with the goal along with four points, while her partner in crime posted three outstanding points from play.

The Cork defence got on top in the second half however, and kept them both scoreless — a huge contributing factor to their one-point victory.

“They are seriously good players,” Fitzgerald said afterwards. “The goal she [McLaughlin] got there, we hardly saw it.

“Obviously we knew coming up today that Donegal have fantastic forwards and bring a fierce intensity to the game. But in terms of goal chances, I thought we handled them very well. We restricted them to one or two and the goal they got, we dropped the ball and she [McLaughlin] buried it.

“What can I say? People were writing us off at the start of the year, saying it was an end of an era for Cork. Now, it’s the league, but it’s very important for us, in light of having eight girls who never played in a match of this stature before.

“I always felt we would be confident but whether I felt we’d be league champions or not, it’s a big step.

Ephie Fitzgerald Cork manager Ephie Fitzgerald. Source: Andrew Fosker/INPHO

“I thought our girls read the game well, Ambrose swept very well in the second half, I thought Eimear Meaney had an immense second half.

“We have a lovely forward line but today, I was more impressed with our defending. When it was put up to them, they really stood up.

“When we went three points or two points down, Finn kicked some great scores as well. All in all, I’m drained from it. This was important for me in the sense that we had to introduce so many.

“It’s taken as read that the older ones will always pull you over the line but it’s the first trophy for the younger brigade and hopefully that will give them confidence.

In terms of championship now, it’s full steam ahead to the first weekend of June.

This league title comes as a breadth of fresh air as the Rebels go in search of their seventh All-Ireland senior title in-a-row, and 12th in 13 years.

With news on the return of Corkery and Buckley expected in the coming week, Fitzgerald is now in the position that he doesn’t have to be as worried regarding their inter-county futures as he may have been before yesterday’s clash.

Niamh Cotter and Jess O’Shea have pioneered in midfield together for much of this year, and they both worked endlessly to drive their side to glory yesterday.

The young guns really stood up when it mattered most.

“With the eight debutants, and we only used six of the All-Ireland team (at any one time) during the league, it just goes to show their talent. I thought some of the football we played today was absolutely brilliant at times.

“Niamh Cotter’s engine in the middle of the field, Jess [O'Shea] in the second half, small in stature but she was excellent. These girls have been around a bit too. Obviously they found it hard to get into the team, with the older girls, because the standard was set so high.

Cork celebrate with the league trophy This is Cork's fifth league title on the bounce. Source: Tom Beary/INPHO

“I think these girls are setting their own bar now and hopefully, it augurs well for the future.

“We have three titles to defend. We’ve done the first so we’ll celebrate this and prepare for the Munster championship.”

In terms of the Donegal opposition, they were impressive, and rightly so if they feel hard done by that they didn’t come away with at least a draw.

Not just McLaughlin and McMonagle in the first half, players like Karen Gutherie and Niamh Hegarty really stood up to show it’s not just about the ‘Supermacs’.

Fitzgerald credited them for their performance, and will prepare for them to be a force to be reckoned with again come championship.

Of course, Ulster is a tough province to come through directly — Monaghan, Armagh and Cavan are but a few promising contenders — and Donegal face the Orchard county in their provincial opener on 10 June.

“Ulster’s a bit of a minefield obviously. They’re [Donegal] a fine side, we’ll step up our training now for championship, we were tailoring for three segments of the season but we’ll step it up now and try and improve our fitness.”

Meanwhile, Donegal manager Micheál Naughton expressed his disappointment afterwards that his side didn’t scoop the title.

In a game that was level six times, and had everything — four goals, controversial decisions, blistering intensity and a straight red card — Donegal at one point, missed a string of close chances. They hit the post and sent other shots wide.

Niamh Hegarty dejected Niamh Hegarty dejected after the game. Source: Tom Beary/INPHO

“We had probably five chances in a row and on another day, they would have gone over and we probably would have beaten Cork.

“A brilliant bunch of girls, [they] played their heart out. These girls put in a lot of work, nobody’s more disappointed than they are themselves.

“Football can be a cruel game and unfortunately today was a cruel day for Donegal. They left everything on the pitch and there’s huge credit to them. For the neutrals, it was a massive game of football.

“When you get a bad decision, girls get a little bit frustrated and annoyed and maybe left their hands in too long. Nevertheless, Cork take the trophy home and we have to go home, regroup, refocus and turn our attention to the championship.”

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Emma Duffy

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