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From starting football at 14 to becoming a central Cork figure with the medicine to succeed

Now one of the best defenders in the country, Melissa Duggan discusses all things football and life as a newly-qualified pharmacist.

UNLIKE MOST TOP inter-county stars, Melissa Duggan was a late bloomer when it came to what she does so brilliantly now.

libbby-coppinger-and-melissa-duggan-celebrate-after-the-game Melissa Duggan celebrating a Cork victory last year. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

While others her age dreamed of continuing the unparalleled ladies football success the county enjoyed through the noughties, Duggan’s main interests lay in athletics and camogie.

She didn’t exactly look up Juliet Murphy and the likes, or hold aspirations of winning All-Ireland titles with the Rebels. “I would never have dreamt when I was 14 starting playing football with my local club that I’d be on the Cork senior team,” she laughs.

It all just happened, as it often does.

“My sister was joining and my friends were playing so I just wanted to the play with them,” Duggan recalls of her first taste of football at the Doheny club.

“I was playing camogie up until then but then I switched to football. I didn’t really have any expectations, I suppose, for myself even making any Cork team.”

Now 24 and one of the best defenders in the country, she clearly had something special from the outset and just three years later, Duggan was on the minor team following a successful trial in West Cork.

“That’s when I kind of got the Cork fever and that’s where it all took off,” she grins, mapping the journey from her stunning senior debut year in 2017, for which she earned an All-Star nomination, to now.

“It’s just been fantastic, I haven’t looked back since. I’ve loved playing with Cork. Just to see the difference from 2017 to now, it’s just huge. The team has changed so much through the years that you’re nearly one of the oldest there, but you’re not really.

“It’s great to play for your county, it’s such an honour and I never, ever expected it throughout my teenage years that I would be on the senior team. It’s just fantastic; the training and the friends that you make for life.”

While the 2019 All-Star and Munster Footballer of the Year has cleaned up all around her, both on and off the pitch, of late, she’s yet to win an All-Ireland medal. By their extremely high 11-in-12-year standards, the Rebels have endured a drought since their last Brendan Martin lift in 2016.

The plan is to end that this year with the next hurdle today’s semi-final showdown against Galway. With controversy over a late venue change marring the build-up, all focus is now on the football that will be played at Parnell Park [throw-in 1.30pm, live on TG4], with the prize up for grabs a Christmas cracker against three-in-a-row champions Dublin in Croke Park.

melissa-duggan On the ball in Croke Park in 2018. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

While Duggan only found out about the switch from Limerick on the day we spoke, original plans were ripped up and new ones made. The disruption and logistical nightmare wasn’t exactly ideal, but she’s not one to be negative.

“Look, it’s early in the week and you can change your plan. It’s only a venue at the end of the day and what matters most is the match. We’ll be looking forward to Parnell Park, it is a long journey up but it’s a fantastic pitch. It’s great that even the championship is going ahead this year so we’ll just have to take every positive.” 

At the time, the plan was to leave home in Dunmanway at 7am to give herself time to stop off for a cup of tea and a stretch of the legs, before joining the Cork convoy of solo travellers at some point along the way, with the ETA for Donnycarney 12pm.

But alternative arrangements saw the journey made last night before decamping in a hotel. Of course, the long drive still had to be done, but that’s nothing new for Duggan.

Having commuted between college in Dublin, where she studied pharmacy, and football in Cork for almost three years, she’s no stranger to the M8. Up and down for training on trains, buses and cars, she once knew the journey like the back of her hand, but she’s since settled on Leeside.

Final year brought her back to home soil in January, so she could happily balance her nine-month placement with football commitments. The pandemic threw a spanner in the works, however, with inter-county on hold. And when club started up again, she was left to drive between Cork City and home.

“It all turned a bit of a disaster,” she laughs, “but look, nothing’s perfect and everything works out in the end. It was just the way the year turned out. It’s still great to be at home.”

When placement finished in September, she moved home to Dunmanway to finish her studies, graduate online and begin the next chapter as a fully-fledged pharmacist. 

“I’m just qualified maybe three weeks. Now, I’m locuming and doing the odd few days as a pharmacist. I’m kind of taking it easy for a while and making sure I’m right for football now. Football’s taking over now towards the end of the year.

“It’s actually worked out very handy for me. It’s great that I can kind of pick and choose my hours, and concentrate on football at the moment.”

lauren-magee-with-melissa-duggan Getting away from Lauren Magee in the 2018 final. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Especially after such a manic time in the job due to all things Covid-19. 

“The last few months have been very, very busy in the pharmacy itself. Everybody’s concerned, and of course they are, they don’t know what’s coming ahead of them. But hopefully now the easing of the restrictions will come as a pleasant turn of events for people, especially leading up to Christmas.

“Again, we’re so lucky that the championship go ahead,” she adds, with high praise for the LGFA, GAA and the protocols in place.

“While you might be busy working and stressed in the pharmacy during the day, it’s great to train with the girls. Obviously social distancing because when I meet so many people in public, I don’t want to put any other people at risk.”

That’s paramount in the current climate with Duggan’s regimental routine of late not straying too far from work and football as she keeps her contacts at a minimum. It’s the same for the entire panel, with “common sense” key in keeping everyone safe and healthy.

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Cork’s excellent approach has been well documented over the past few months, with an opt-out option in place at all times. In fact, whether or not the team would even line out in the championship at all was discussed collectively at one point.

“It was a group decision by both the players and the management that we wanted to play the championship, and we wanted to be successful in this championship,” she explains, with all guns blazing from there, as they built on a really positive league campaign.

“It was a bit nerve-racking coming into the championship. You didn’t you didn’t really know what we were going to be like; if we were going to maintain that momentum that we had throughout the league.

“Management, in particular, they made a huge effort bringing this team together again. It just seems to be going from strength to strength, the unity that we had in the league was brought forward again towards the championship.

“There’s just a great vibe at the moment, everything’s going well.”

Impressive individual training efforts through lockdown went a long way in setting them up for the challenge ahead, with all falling into place nicely on a team basis, as competitive in-house matches set the tone.

ephie-fitzgerald Ephie Fitzgerald speaking to his team. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Major injury concerns have been avoided to date, unlike other years, with a convincing win over Cavan coming as a boost after their battling opening victory over Kerry in Tralee.

“They were real tests, they were no easy games and it was a battle right until the end,” Duggan notes. “It’s just great that we got tested in the first two games and hopefully that will stand to us come Galway now.”

No doubt it’s another that’s going to come right down to the wire, a repeat of last year’s Division 1 league final which Cork won by two points.

With both teams making their rivalry a friendly one with a skills challenge for charity in lockdown 1.0, that’ll be long in the back of Galway’s mind in particular after an All-Ireland quarter-final hammering in 2017.

Having produced back-to-back one-point wins over Tipperary and Monaghan in the group stages, the Tribe will be hoping to book a return to Croke Park — and Duggan knows the height of the challenge ahead.

“There’s huge talent there and huge potential there as well. Galway were there last year in the final and they’re definitely a team that aren’t easy to beat.

“We’re just making sure that we have everything we can control right for Sunday. We haven’t played them in the championship in a while. It is kind of the unknown, we don’t know what to expect with them but from looking at their attitude and their pool games, they were tested as well in their games. Those games will stand to them as well.

“They’re definitely going to be looking to get to another All-Ireland final for the second year-in-a-row. We know that there’ll be huge hunger there from them. We need to match that hunger and question what they bring to their game.”

Cork will bring plenty, that’s for sure, with an all-out attacking game expected this afternoon. One massive boost going in is that all panel members can attend, with the news confirmed on the day we spoke, and subsequently shared in the Cork Whatsapp group.

“It’s just fantastic for the girls. We turned it into a positive thing as much as a negative thing – when we got the girls back after the matches, the trainings had been really competitive and everybody wanted to make that matchday squad.

melissa-duggan-with-caitriona-cormican Duggan facing Galway in 2018. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

“We tried to take the positive out of what may have been a negative, that 10 of our girls couldn’t go to both games beforehand. It’s just fantastic know that we’ll have the full squad there now again on Sunday and there’ll be cheering on from the sideline.

“We’re looking forward to it very much, we’re delighted now to be in the last four. It’s just great to get to the All-Ireland semi-finals, it’s where everybody wants to be.”

And now the final, even more so. While Duggan kept an eye on matters at Breffni Park last weekend as Dublin beat Armagh to book their return to the showpiece, she wanted to be right in the thick of the action. And watching that scintillating encounter just got her more riled up for this one.

“It’s fantastic to see the quality of football that Armagh and Dublin brought. Hopefully, we can match that and hopefully the supporters who can’t come watch that game.

“We’re still looking only to Sunday and whatever happens after the final whistle is blown, we’ll come to that then.”

As the conversation winds down, she allows her mind to wanter for a second though.

“Hopefully we can get a nice Christmas present this year. I’ve never won an All-Ireland medal yet. Hopefully…. you never know… hopefully this year.

“I’ll keep playing anyway until I get one.”

That’s a certainty.

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