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'I'm lucky to be able to play both and represent Cork' - the highs and lows of one of the country's top dual stars

Libby Coppinger maps her colourful sporting journey ahead of Sunday’s All-Ireland final against Dublin.

LIBBY COPPINGER WOULD rather do her talking on the pitch.

libby-coppinger Cork dual star Libby Coppinger. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Her love for both Gaelic football and camogie shines through with every word she utters, as does her gratitude for how much playing both has given her as she maps her rise. One way she gives back is speaking out, and being the players’ voice when needs be.

Unfortunately for the Cork dual star, controversy is never too far away. 

Ever since she rose to prominence on the inter-county scene a few years back, her name is one of the first mentioned should a dual fixture clash arise.

Coppinger first found herself at the centre of one of these high-profile storms in August 2017 with high-stake championship clashes in both codes fixed for the same day. As it turned out, she focused solely on camogie on that occasion but dual dilemmas are something she has constantly faced.

She’s spoken about the need for amalgamation with the GAA time and time again, so of course, that was going to be one of the first questions just days after the semi-final debacle and all that came after the late venue switch. Does it need to happen?

“I think that’s the only answer,” she tells The42, both parties keen not to dwell on the controversy too much, rather look to the final. But these things need to be talked about.

“We’re trying to get both games to be as popular as possible, and to get as many people playing and watching them as possible. That’s not going to happen if they’re fighting each other for different things.

“We should be looking to have as many players playing both now. Obviously it’s very hard at the top level and probably making things awkward, but especially at club level. It would just make things so much easier if we were all under the one umbrella and all working together rather than working against each other.

“Look, hopefully… I know it was a bad situation last weekend, we tried to make the most of it. If something good can come out of it then it will all be somewhat worth it anyway.”

She’s said it time and time again before, and no doubt she’ll have to say it again: it’s players who are suffering, those at the heart of our great games. They give so, so much and they very least they deserve in return is respect.

Again, Coppinger would rather solely do her talking on the pitch at Croke Park on Sunday afternoon. But this is something that may need to be addressed as the Brendan Martin Cup winters either in Dublin once again, or on Leeside.

“Yeah, it’s hard,” she nods. “We’re on about the player’s voice and it’s difficult to be challenging things while you’re trying to concentrate on your own game and making sure you’re as right as possible.

libby-coppinger Coppinger returned from injury to star for both teams this year. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“I suppose there needs to be some bit of player feedback and listening to what the players want and need. Now I don’t know how we could manage that but even I suppose past players, recently-retired ones, they know all about the struggles of it all.

“Could you get more of them involved in decision-making at the higher standard, if that would be of any help at all?”

**********

You can almost hear the 24-year-old smiling down the phone when she casts her mind back to where it all started. To those formative days where a star was born.

“Definitely growing up, the dream was always to play for Cork,” Coppinger states. “I don’t think I ever thought I’d get to. And definitely not at this level.”

Naturally at the St Colum’s club, Alan O’Connor was one of her sporting heroes, as was Sean Óg Ó hÁilpin. To this day, she still treasures photographs with O’Connor in particular at medal presentations, a local role model leading the way.

With the county enjoying phenomenal ladies football and camogie success at the time, her admiration soon switched that way with Rena Buckley and Briege Corkery among the standout stars to visit the club for training sessions. Understandably, the dual legends were two huge inspirations for her.

“I remember one time I was actually rooming with Rena and it was just like, ‘How did this happen?’ Like four years ago, you were giving me a medal and here we are. It was great to have that calibre of players to look up to, it was such a local thing. They’re right there and they’re coming and giving you as much of their time as they can.”

Interestingly, Coppinger didn’t play any underage football or camogie with Cork until her final year of minor, but she burst on the scene then. Camogie came first, football followed and the West Cork star was soon living the dream she was always destined for. 

“I was never expecting it. It went from nothing to it all very fast. Everyone was so welcoming but it was definitely a bit daunting the first few days, just rocking up and everybody knowing each other, me being the new girl and not knowing anyone’s name.

“I was delighted with it though, I was only buzzing to be driving up to training nearly every night of the week and sure dragging mom with me everywhere.”

A year with the U21 footballers helped the transition, she says, and Coppinger soon found herself breaking into both senior teams. She hasn’t looked back since.

libby-coppinger-and-tara-fitzgibbon Facing Limerick with the Cork minors in 2014. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

2016 was her first year with Ephie Fitzgerald’s ladies footballers, and she played her part as Cork got their hands on the Brendan Martin Cup for the 11th time in 12 years.

“We kind of had a joke at home for a while,” she laughs, “because we got to the All-Ireland final with camogie and football at minor, we lost both and it was a joke at home that I was bad luck.

“Then we lost the camogie two weeks before the football so it was like, ‘Oh my God, you’re dragging everyone down!’ But we won the football, we were delighted and it was like, ‘Okay, the curse has been lifted.’”

But as has been well documented, the side haven’t hit those same heights since.

**********

A year of highs, lows and drama for Libby.

The headline of an article in The Southern Star reflecting on Coppinger’s 2018. An All-Ireland camogie title lift, an All-Ireland football final defeat, balancing both and a heightened profile made for a crazy and unforgettable year. 

Little did anyone know what lay around the corner in 2020.

She echoes everyone’s words in that it’s been nothing short of insane, how unimaginable it was that we’d be at this stage a few months back and how great it is to be finishing out the championships. “There’s been a few bumps along the way. But sure, how bad?”

Most came away from the battlefield between the four white lines, but one huge positive was the club season she enjoyed with St Colum’s and West Cork.

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Just being around for the majority of it was a success in itself after a manic few inter-county seasons, but winning with the divisional outfit and knocking all-conquering All-Ireland champions Mourneabbey off their perch made it even sweeter.

“C’mere, a county medal at the end of the year, you’d take someone’s arm off for it. It was massive. Just even to get to play all our matches with Colum’s was great. Girls were like, ‘Libby, you’re here for a challenge match, what’s going on?’ I was getting a bit of stick but it was great just to get to actually play with the girls you grew up with again.”

libby-coppinger-scores-a-goal-despite-amy-foley-and-amanda-brosnan Scoring a goal against Kerry last year. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

An ankle injury stopped her in her tracks as inter-county returned. It was an unwelcome setback for a few weeks with the focus on getting it right, rehabbing and strapping but Coppinger just counts her lucky stars that it wasn’t too serious.

It was “tough to take,” all the same after all the waiting and building for the white-hot heat of championship, but is’t one she took in her stride despite the pressure and the race against time.

“I was just coming right and I re-injured it again so you kind of knock yourself back,” she adds. “Look, I’m happy to be coming around the right side of it again and back playing.

“I definitely am not good with the injuries. I’ve been lucky I haven’t had too many over the years but it was strange for a couple of weeks.” 

For someone so used to being in the thick of it 24/7, it was difficult, but the ever-versatile Coppinger roared back to full strength to feature in the business end at corner back for Paudie Murray’s camógs and corner forward for Fitzgerald’s footballers.

Balancing both is all she’s ever known but she says it’s gotten somewhat easier due to her respective managers’ support in taking decisions out of her hands and making calls on training. 

“Sure I’d love to be out every night of the week… most of the time anyway,” she grins. “I hate to say no, or sit out or anything like that when you’re not necessarily injured.”

While there are a few downfalls of playing both, the benefits and enjoyment outweighs all for Coppinger. Even when she faces difficult moments like bouncing back from the recent All-Ireland camogie semi-final defeat to Kilkenny to fully focusing on the football tilt.

“We’ve had a couple of years where we’ve had massive momentum and then it was tough to try and pick ourselves up,” she says. “We are in a fortunate position to be able to go out and train, and play the next weekend.

“It’s still tough when a loss is so raw after losing a semi-final to go again. I suppose you just have to try and park it and focus on the next job. Not that I’m over it or anything, but it helps you just get on with it. 

“I’m lucky and I’m delighted to be able to play both and represent Cork with both, I can’t complain about having to get over a loss too quick when I have another match coming up.”

libby-coppinger-celebrates-winning-with-her-friends-and-family With her family after the 2017 camogie win. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

**********

That next match being Sunday’s TG4 All-Ireland senior final against Dublin. For the fifth time in seven seasons, these ladies football heavyweights will renew their rivalry in the showpiece. But in ways, it’s been a long road back for Cork.

Having enjoyed incredible success up until 2016, they’ve reached the decider just once since in 2018, so they’re hoping to meet their exceptionally high standards once again.

“It was just a guarantee that you were in an All-Ireland final, they had won so many,” Coppinger recalls of her early days on the panel.

“It was a shock to the system… people call it a dry spell, I suppose it’s still only three years but it’s a long time without a bit of silverware at the end of the year.

“It will be massive to be there and we just have to focus on the performance now and everything else will take care of itself. We’re training really well and everyone’s attitude is spot on. We can’t do any more.

“There’ll definitely be a lot of hunger going in. Sure, anything can happen on the day.”

Hurt has been bottled from the 2018 final, they don’t want to experience that again. But this group is special, and they seem to have really clicked this year.

“We’re all in it for the same end goal,” Coppinger, who is based in Cork city and works as a client associate in Clearstream having studied Public Health in UCC, nods.

“It’s been a great year, there’s a great mix between experience and youth. We’ve a good bunch and hopefully we’ll get a nice prize at the end of it.”

libby-coppinger-with-sinead-goldrick Facing Dublin's Sinéad Goldrick in last year's semi-final. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Standing in their way of a reunion with the silverware are four-in-a-row chasers. There’s no secrets at this stage about their intense, though healthy, rivalry, and it’s fair to say that they’re the two top teams in the country right now.

There’s a mutual respect there for what they’ve both done for ladies football over the past decade or two, but that’s sure to disintegrate for the hour-plus of helter-skelter football on Sunday.

A fitting way to round off 2020, the heavyweights going at it to the nth degree as always.

“There’s no need for any motivation when you’re playing Dublin, they’re a massive side who have been so great the last couple of years,” Coppinger agrees.

“When you look back, they were competing in the All-Ireland final three years before that as well. They’ve always been there or thereabouts. They’re brilliant footballers and great athletes.

“We’re just going to have to make sure that we’re well aware of what they’re about and just try and bring a bit more to it, I guess. There’s a guarantee that it’s going to go down to the wire, I’d say there’ll be only a kick of a ball in it because the teams are that level.”

What better way to finish the year, and continue the journey, than with a brilliant spectacle after all the highs and lows. With Libby Coppinger’s favourite type of talking to be well and truly done on the pitch.

Screenshot 2020-11-24 at 9.04.07 AM

About the author:

Emma Duffy

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