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'I also fractured a vertebrae but the dodgy knees is the main issue'

Cork star Doireann O’Sullivan is back to her brilliant best, having gotten on top of injury struggles.

THROUGH THE PIXELS of the video call, you can see Doireann O’Sullivan touching wood. The Cork star makes sure to say she’s doing it, too. And rightly so.

Unquestionably one of the best forwards in the country on her day, O’Sullivan has had no shortage of injury struggles over the past few seasons. Her body has repeatedly let her down, last summer a particularly stop-start one after the 27-year-old tore her meniscus.

pwc-gaagpa-player-of-the-month-awards PwC GPA Player of the Month for June in ladies' football, Doireann O’Sullivan of Cork, with her award at St Finbarr’s GAA in Cork. Source: Sam Barnes/SPORTSFILE

“I’ve done that three times,” she points out, the first aged 22. “It’s your shock absorber so for landing and turning and twisting and stuff. It takes a bit of a beating. I’ve gone to Santry and got keyhole on that. I also fractured a vertebrae but the dodgy knees is the main issue.”

It’s a constant battle, but one the five-time Rebels All-Ireland winner and those around her have gotten on top of.

In time.

“I was a bit apprehensive coming back playing this year,” O’Sullivan explains. “It was probably the fist time since I started playing with Cork that I had to consider my options whether it was the right choice to play, just because of the demands inter-county football puts on your body.

“But I sat down with our strength and conditioning coach at the start of the year and we put a plan together so I don’t do all pitch sessions now and I think my body has responded well to that. Touch wood.”

From joining one of the greatest teams to ever play the game at the tender age of 17 to leading the charge for more All-Ireland glory with her club, Mourneabbey, O’Sullivan’s schedule has been hectic through the years.

Football and playing for Cork doesn’t define her, but in truth, it’s all she’s ever known. 

Understandably, the internal over-and-back about going again or taking a step back was tough, the decision-making process all-consuming.

“We finished club football and I told Shane [Ronayne, Cork and Mourneabbey manager] where my head was at,” she recalls. “He told me to hang up, forget about football for a while which I did, and then it got to a stage where I had to make my mind up.

“You can’t play inter-county without a bit of a pre-season so yeah, I was humming and hawing. I put pen to paper and made a pros and cons list — the pros far outweighed the cons but the massive one on the cons was the injury, just the fear of being back watching games from the stand that no-one wants to do.”

She didn’t return to the Cork set-up until April, having set things straight in her head, and with S&C coach Paul Howard.

“I’d never met him before and we went for a coffee and I just explained my concerns about not being able to train all the time,” O’Sullivan recalls. “He said that there was soccer players or county players who are doing the same. He just let me know it can be done, I just think we have a negative mindset about it but I’ve stopped panicking about it.

“In my head, I couldn’t understand how someone wouldn’t be on the pitch all the time but I think I’m understanding now that everybody’s body is different. I have been playing with Cork for 10 years so it’s just taking its toll a small bit now and that’s why it’s taking longer for me to recover.

doireann-osullivan-with-kayleigh-cronin In full flight against Kerry earlier in the summer. Source: Evan Treacy/INPHO

“I was also nervous how the girls would respond — they’re training three nights a week and I only do two — but they’ve been extremely understanding and I suppose seeing the big picture is the thing.”

She’s on a different strength and conditioning programme to the bulk of the team now, and uses Bike Row Ski classes to bridge the gap of that missed pitch session. She’s in a WhatsApp group with Ronayne, Howard and physio Sinéad O’Regan, with plans plotted within: “I just do what they tell me. Communication is important and I let them know how I’m feeling but it’s all done on an app and it’s all very professional.”

O’Sullivan laughs later in the call when she’s asked if her injury challenges have changed the way she plays, doing so cleverly and perhaps less reliant on athleticism.

“I wouldn’t have thought so but maybe subconsciously I am because my GPS results, they got flagged, we’ll say! I said my body was grand after the match, and our strength and conditioning coach said, ‘Of course it is, your sprint distance is down about 500m!’

“I don’t think I’m doing as much sprint distance or as much distance full stop compared to other girls. I don’t know if it’s me being lazy or me being smart. Maybe I am holding a run, delaying a run, not running until a player is in a good position that I can get the ball off them. Maybe I’m a bit wiser.” 

That said, she’s the same sharshooter, her accuracy before the posts and from distance, in particular, key for Cork. O’Sullivan has been in free-scoring form through the championship to date, her standout tally 1-7 against Waterford.

“When you’re taking the frees, you get a small bit more credit than you deserve,” she grins. “So that makes my contribution look a bit better, but yeah, I’m delighted to be back playing for Cork again.”

There’s a real feeling on Leeside that things are on the up. There’s one currency of success in that neck of the woods and that’s All-Irelands.

The last came in 2016 after 11 in the space of 12 years.

O’Sullivan and co. are hell-bent on ending the drought. That’s the main reason why she keeps coming back for more, and easily outweighs any injury concerns.

“I don’t think we’d have set out at the start of the year if we didn’t think we could win an All-Ireland. For those of us who have been there a few years, it is strange being underdogs but it is a huge motivator. We want to get back to Croke Park to play hopefully in front of a record to lift the Brendan Martin Cup again.”

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“When you’ve got a taste of success, you just greedily want more,” she adds. “This year, with Shane being manager, that would have been a huge motivator for me. He’s the right man for the job, and can get us over the line.

“My cousin Máire (O’Callaghan) being captain as well would be another motivator, and getting to play with my best friends. There are eight girls from Mourneabbey on the panel, two of which are my sisters (another star forward, Ciara, and goalkeeper, Maebh).”

sisters-roisin-doireann-maebh-and-ciara-osullivan Doireann O'Sullivan (second from left) with her sisters Roisin, Maebh and Ciara after the 2022 Munster final. Source: Evan Treacy/INPHO

It looks like she’ll stick around too, noting out straight that AFLW doesn’t interest her.

Team-mate Erika O’Shea is one of 21 Irish players confirmed for the new season, but O’Sullivan doesn’t see herself following in her footsteps.

“No, to be honest. I don’t think so. Saying that, I don’t think that you can say until you are in a position to go. I’m just about managing the inter-county set-up. From watching AFL, it’s extremely physical, and hard on the body. I don’t know about going over by myself. I still ring mam to book my dentist and doctor appointments! So, I don’t know about the logistics of it either. I’m enjoying football at the moment, and enjoying living in Ireland.”

Her entire focus is on tomorrow’s All-Ireland quarter-final meeting with Mayo in Ennis [throw-in 3pm, live on Sport TG4 Youtube channel], as All-Ireland champions Meath and Galway, Dublin and Donegal, and Armagh and Kerry, face off in the other last-eight battles.

There’s a nice mixture of excitement and nerves, but O’Sullivan is hopeful her side can “do the business” and progress in this open championship.

“It had been a two-horse race for a few years but Meath brought that new dynamic that you don’t know who’s going to win,” she nods. “There is no easy draw anymore or soft team anymore which shows where ladies football is gone.”

Anything could happen, that’s the beauty of it.

O’Sullivan will be touching wood, and hoping every ball she touches turns to gold again.

BTL 5

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Emma Duffy

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