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'We had agreed to come back together and she's not there. It's heartbreaking'

Shane Ronayne hopes his Mourneabbey side can help the injured Sile O’Callaghan achieve a remarkable individual feat tomorrow.

“WHAT ARE WE back for, lads?”

It’s almost 12 months ago now since Shane Ronayne put that question, those six words to his Mourneabbey side.

Their first meeting of the year. Awaiting confirmation that they’d go again.

“We’re back for the All-Ireland,” was the answer he got back.

Sile O'Callaghan dejected at the final whistle Sile O'Callaghan after the 2014 final loss. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

They weren’t back to win the county, they weren’t back to win Munster, they were back for the Dolores Tyrrell Memorial Cup, that coveted All-Ireland senior title.

“That might sound absolutely crazy and big-headed, but it wasn’t,” Ronayne begins.

“No disrespect to anything else, a county and a Munster wasn’t going to be enough for us, we wanted to win the All-Ireland.”

The last three years had been a roller-coaster. The highs were like incomparable, that feeling of euphoria as they lifted county titles, Munster crowns and found themselves on the brink of All-Ireland glory time and time again.

But the lows were absolutely gut-wrenching. Their final outing on each of those three years had ended in heartbreak. Falling just short each time. So close but yet so far.

In 2014 and 2015 they were narrowly beaten in the showpiece and in 2016 they were sent packing from Donaghmoyne at the semi-final stage, their heads hanging.

The disappointment coming down the road from Monaghan was like nothing they’d felt before. The next few weeks would be extremely difficult. And there were huge question marks over 2017, the fourth attempt.

“There was a lot of soul searching done whether we’d go back,” the man behind the revolution in Mourneabbey since 2014 continues.

“Some of the players weren’t sure whether they’d retire, and I wasn’t sure myself if I’d stay on. We said we’d give it one more crack.

“It’s very hard to pick yourself up and go again. People always say ‘Ah look, you always have next year,’ but at that stage of the year, next year is 11 months away to get back to the same stage again.

“You’ve got so much to do in the meantime and so many things have to come right for you, you don’t know who’s going to be around with travelling, injuries…”

Ronayne, who guided Tipperary to All-Ireland intermediate glory in Croke Park in September, casts his mind back to a chat with Sile O’Callaghan.

O’Callaghan is part of a small group of players who have been there from the very start. She was there when the Clyda outfit won the All-Ireland junior championship in 2005 and captained them to intermediate glory in 2007.

Shane Ronayne celebrates winning Ronayne (right) celebrates winning with Tipp in September. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

If Sunday’s decider against Carnacon is to go to plan and they finally get over the line, it’ll be three All-Ireland medals across three grades. Of the nine titles available to Ladies club footballers — county, provincial and All-Ireland at all three grades — she’d have all nine.

But unfortunately for O’Callaghan, she won’t be lacing up her boots. She can only watch on.

“Herself and myself made an agreement that we’d both come back,” he continues.

“She was going to retire, I was probably going to go away. We shook hands on it the night we lost, we said we’ll give it one more crack.

“And poor Sile snapped her Achilles tendon during the summer. It’s heartbreaking. I find that personally very hard because we had agreed to come back together and she’s not there. She can’t play.

“It’s incredibly hard for her. She’s still part of the panel and hopefully Sunday evening Sile will have her hands on that cup and she’ll have her ninth medal.

“I know that the girls will give it that little bit extra on Sunday for Sile. They’re in a privileged position, they’re able to play Sunday and Sile’s not. Hopefully that will drive them over the line as well.”

So this is it. One more crack. The time is now to reach the Holy Grail.

Ronayne continues: “I think a lot of what we did in previous years was we were afraid of losing.

“This year, we’ve worked on other things that we hadn’t been working on with the mental side of things; getting over the line and not playing with fear. That’s been our biggest thing this year; we’ve gone out and played to win.

That fear, he says, is gone.

He firmly believes that if they pull of their best performance of the year, they’ll have every chance. But he’s fully aware that it can easily go the other way too.

“We mightn’t do it,” he says, grounded as can be. “If we don’t do it, so be it but that was the goal at the start of the year, to get to the All-Ireland final.

“We took each game as it came, we didn’t look ahead of ourselves but the ultimate goal was to peak for this weekend in December. Look, we’re there, hopefully we can get it done.

Sile O'Callaghan dejected O'Callaghan after the 2015 final loss. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“Whatever happens, they’re the same players going down the road to Cork again that night. They’ll have lost nothing in defeat if we lose.

“I think that’s the most important thing for them to remember. They don’t owe anybody anything, they don’t have to prove anything to anybody. They know they’re good enough to get there, it’s just about getting over the line.”

Going out to win, focusing on their own game. With five-time champions Carnacon in their way, they won’t deviate too far from what they’ve done all year.

Cora Staunton is one of the many big names amongst the opposition, Ronayne insists they won’t concentrate too much on the marquee players. That may instil fear in his own charges.

“It’s going to be nip and tuck,” he adds. “There isn’t a whole pile between the two teams.

“If both teams play up to standard, it’ll be a right cracker. If everything goes right it’s going to be a real tight battle.

“Loads of inter-county stars between the two teams and that’s what you want in the premier club final of the year, that all these big players are playing on the last day of the club season. It’s going to be a huge game.”

He’s already mentioned Sile, but the side will undoubtedly draw motivation from another front in Parnell Park on Sunday.

There’ll be no shortage of travelling support from Leeside to the capital this weekend, but there’ll be one notable absentee in the black and amber crowd.

Mourneabbey native Ted Linehan tragically drowned last month, and sadness has hung over the close-knit community since.

“Not to overplay the whole thing but Ted was a huge supporter of the club and had lots of family connections on the team.

“We try not to mention these things in dressing rooms because people get emotional, we’ve done that before with other things and it didn’t really work.

corabrid Carnacon captain Cora Staunton and Mourneabbey captain Bríd O'Sullivan.

“I think there is that little bit of motivation, people involved with the club, people involved with the team related to Ted. Ted is going to be looking down on Sunday and Ted would have been there, it’d be great if we could have that Sunday evening.

“It would be really special for the community of Mourneabbey. They really are a great community, they get together and mind each other and look after each other on sad occasions.

“Sunday is going to be a big happy occasion, we hope and if it’s not and it doesn’t work out, I know that the community of Mourneabbey will be fully behind the team on Sunday night and they’ll be welcomed home like they’re heroes anyway.

“But hopefully we’ll be coming home with the cup.”

For himself, to finally end Mourneabbey’s long wait like he did with Tipperary would be incredible.

“Look, it would be massive to cap off the year with another All-Ireland title. It’d just be really, really special.”

But this is something bigger. This is about a group of players, a club, a community that have been through so much together.

“It’s really hard to put into words what it would mean to the club and to the players,” he concludes.

But surely, the words will be flowing if they get the job done at long last.

The42 has just published its first book, Behind The Lines, a collection of some of the year’s best sports stories. Pick up your copy in Eason’s, or order it here today (€10):

After endless heartbreak, the time is now for Mourneabbey to reach the Holy Grail

‘He might look down on us and give us a helping hand’: Cork clubs seeking clean sweep of All-Irelands

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Emma Duffy

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