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'We were up 10 points and she just scored three or four goals' - battles with a 12-time All-Ireland winner

Former Cork camogie star Sandie Fitzgibbon reflects on the days when she came up against Angela Downey.

Genius Week

This article is a part of Genius Week, a series of features reflecting on sporting genius in its many different forms.

Below, Sinéad Farrell speaks to Cork camogie legend Sandie Fitzgibbon about her many encounters against Kilkenny’s Angela Downey.

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pjimage (11) Sandie Fitzgibbon had many battles against the great Angela Downey. Source: Mary Sheehan - Glen Rovers/Inpho

FORMER CORK CAMOGIE star Sandie Fitzgibbon makes an upfront confession at the outset of the call — “I’m the world’s worst for remembering dates and times.”

Hers is a lengthy list of achievements that spreads across two sports. There’s a lot to keep track of. Six All-Ireland senior medals with Cork — including one as captain in 1992 — four All-Ireland club titles with Glen Rovers, and the camogie Player of the Year recipient in ’92 and ’95.

They are just some of the highlights. She was also included on the camogie Team of the Century in 2004.

Was it 64 or 68 caps for the Irish basketball team? She’s not sure. She goes with the former number that pops up in reports about her, and gives a nod to the National Cup titles and National League titles she picked up in a decorated career.

Before we turn on the recorder, Fitzgibbon has a day to think about an opponent she came up against repeatedly in a Cork jersey, a name that’s synonymous with the game of camogie. 

Many other memories of her days in sport have faded from view but visions of this Kilkenny assassin remain clear after all these years.

Fitzgibbon’s first senior game for Cork was against the Cats, and she stepped onto the pitch without any prior knowledge of who Angela Downey was.

“We won an All-Ireland in ’82 and ’83 and from then on, we didn’t win All-Irelands,” she tells The42. 

“Mainly due to Angela and her skill, and drive. She was the driving force of the team she was on. And Angela was so fast and so skillful that it was really hard to stop her. She was very accurate as well, and she could turn a game just like that.”

That barren period Fitzgibbon refers to happened between 1987 and 1991 when Cork suffered four consecutive All-Ireland final defeats to Kilkenny. Wexford were the only team to break up their annual meetings in Croke Park, losing out to Kilkenny by 1-14 to 0-7 in the 1990 decider.

angela-downey-1995 Angela Downey on the ball for Kilkenny. Source: © INPHO

Downey was central to all of that success for Kilkenny. But conversations about her rarely go by without a mention of her twin sister, and Kilkenny midfielder, Ann.

That debut match for the Cork seniors saw Fitzgibbon stationed at midfield, where she reckons she “probably came into contact with the two of them” during her many runs up and down the field.

The Downeys were rampant. They contributed a combined 5-27 to the Cats’ scoreline across those four successive All-Ireland final wins over Cork. A match report in the Irish Press after the ’89 All-Ireland final ran with the headline ‘Cork Downed by Downeys,’ words which illustrate just how dominant the sisters were.

“The approach would be to keep Angela quiet and to have someone mark her,” Fitzgibbon explains.

“To do that you would have to stop Ann from delivering the ball down to Angela. They were the two focal points.

There was no quarter shared on the pitch when you played against them. They were really tough players. They’d give as good as they got. There was not quiet player among the two of them.

“They’d give you the old shoulder.

“The two of them were really strong and they would keep shouting and roaring at their team to keep them going. Even if they were behind, they would drive them forward. They had the skill to keep their team going as well. They were two very strong players and Ann would always look for Angela. So if Ann had the ball in midfield, she would deliver it down to Angela.

Angela would always know Ann was going to look for her so she would know she was going to deliver it down to her corner. And it always worked.”

For Fitzgibbon, the Downey plague followed her at club level too. The Downeys served the Lisdowney and St Paul’s clubs in their time, the latter being the most successful camogie outfit in the country with eight senior All-Ireland crowns.

Fitzgibbon’s Glen Rovers are not far behind them on the roll of honour, with four All-Irelands on their books.

The sides met in three All-Ireland deciders between 1986 and 1990, the Glen Rovers prevailing on two occasions.

But it was while the Downeys were in the Lisdowney jersey that Fitzgibbon suffered one of her biggest disappointments in sport. Cruising against the Kilkenny side at half-time in the 1994 All-Ireland final, Glen Rovers were reeled in after the restart by Angela.

94258881_2519019811760479_8211582010838220800_o Sandie Fitzgibbon pulling on the ball for Glen Rovers. Source: Mary Sheehan - Glen Rovers

We were up 10 points, and in the second half, she just came out and scored three or four goals,” Fitzgibbon says as she takes up the story. “I was captain that day and she scored one of the goals from the halfway line. She could turn the game just like that.”

Downey finished that demolition effort with 4-1 to her credit to help Lisdowney to victory while also denying Glen Rovers a three-in-a-row.

“She could be very quiet and then all of a sudden, bang, bang, bang and she’s after scoring two goals,” Fitzgibbon continues. “She was extremely fast and she could be extremely fast because she was extremely skillful. She had a lovely touch and her striking was very fast so it was hard to block her.”

Fitzgibbon would later go on to captain Cork to All-Ireland glory in 1992 before eventually ending the Kilkenny hoodoo in the 1995 All-Ireland final. After years of trying, Cork finally defeated their rivals in an All-Ireland decider for the first time since 1972.

The nature of their win was an added sweetener for the Rebels, as they were level in the closing stages before a Linda Mellerick goal powered them to victory.

There’s now some kind of rounding off of your ambitions and your career that you get to actually beat them in Croke Park because we were beaten so many times up there by them,” says Fitzgibbon. “It was nice.”

“I just wanted to beat them so much. The time we beat them in Kilkenny in the 1992 [All-Ireland] semi-final, it was a brilliant game. It was so high-scoring. You couldn’t concentrate or make out the score, there was something happening all the time.

“At the end we were saying, ‘did we win, did win?’ We thought we won but it was a cracker of a match, brilliant.”

Fitzgibbon is regarded as one of the greatest ever camogie players but history remembers the winners more than the runner-ups.

If results went differently, it could have been her name being honoured instead of the Downeys who won 12-All-Ireland medals each in their careers.

Fitzgibbon finished up with half that amount of Celtic Crosses for Cork. That, along with the many other accolades on her list, will have to be enough for her. Even if she can’t remember everything she won.

“It’s true alright,” she responds when asked about how things could have been different.

“I was extremely lucky. I played with very good teams as well and we had all the same type of drive. There’s always regrets of the game.

“I suppose Angela and Ann had very good players around them like Breda Holmes. They also had a very strong half-back line so Bridie McGarry used to be brilliant at half-back and you don’t hear as much about her.

“And then you had Biddy Phillips. They were able to defend as well as they were able to attack. People don’t talk about that as much. And Angela was very good at laying off the ball. If someone did tire down, she did pass off the ball and that’s why Breda Holmes worked very well off Angela. Angela fed her a lot.”

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