Mayo girls win All-Ireland crown

Another View 1999 – by Terry Reilly (c)

Leave it to the women……

FOR the best part of fity years we have waited to see a Mayo captain walk in the footsteps of the late Sean Flanagan and collect an All-Ireland senior football cup.

But we never expected it to be a woman!

Sport is indeed full of ironies, and we saw that underlined in the most emphatic fashion at Croke Park on Sunday when Diane O’Hora led her team of young dreamers to a victory that has eluded the county’s male counterparts since 1951.

We have made the pilgrimage to Croker in 1989, in 1996 and again in 1997 hoping to see our team climb the steps of the Hogan Stand, but Cork, Meath and Kerry beat us to it: we have had to do with minor and under 21 titles titles and a NFL crown in 1970.

The 90s have been hard on Mayo at HQ, ad we have returned far too many times on the wrong end of decisions when the odds against us did not look all that daunting.

All the false dawns have been gut-wrenchers. Perhaps had even confirmed that we did not have the belly for winning the ones that really matter.

And yet last weekend a panel of young women travelled up to Dublin clearly believing they could achieve what many felt impossible- i.e. beat mighty Waterford, six times All-Ireland champions in the past eight years, to win the All-Ireland title.

Yes, David slew Goliath, but any bookies I know weren’t prepared to contenance anything other than a Waterford win, and that was even before they heard a whisper that the great Mayo no. 11, Cora Staunton was out with a damaged shoulder.

Bookies are no fools: they had the form sussed. Why, they argued, hadn’t Mayo with nine members of the senior panel even failed to win the ladies minor title a few weeks ago. The word was that Corporal Diane O’Hora’s team would be lucky to escape with a ten points drubbing.

Word of the public dismissal clearly found its way to the Mayo camp. That, and the shock injury to Staunton, were to be used as powerful motivating factors against a team expected to romp home.

But motivation alone is not enough‹one the day of a final a team has to perform as close to its potential as makes no difference. And perhaps that was how Mayo pulled off  probably the biggest shock of the final year of the old millennium….they played out of their skins.

Against the backdrop of the macho image of men’s football there was a certain quintessetail decency about starting the game with the talismantic Cora Staunton on board. In the male version of the game she would have been brought on in the final seconds, a la Tommy Dowd last Sunday week, to share in a triumph fashioned over 70 uncompromising minutes.

And yet she was departing the scene after a minute after a prematch collective pledge that she should start had been honoured. Unlifting? Or foolhardy? Even naieve?

As matters transpired, it was a bold show of defiance that was to manifest itself as one of Mayo’s greatest days in sport. The day in fact no-hopers refused to offer themselves up as ritual lambs dressed in Green and Red. A
line was drawn…

And yet, conditioned as have been, we waited for the inevitable. But Denise Horan, the  Mayo netminder, was having none of it. Twice in the opening three minutes the Waterford mauraders came kicking menacingly at her door but were repulsed with an assuredness the bookies might even have latched on to.

It was seven minutes before Mayo, through Diane O’Hora, got sight of the Waterford posts, but the defending All-Ireland champions were first off the mark with the O’Ryan sisters bagging a point apiece. Those 61 All-Ireland gold medals already in the Waterford team’s handbags seemed set to attract more.

On fourteen minutes Christine Heffernan opened Mayo’s account from a free when her captain was fouled, and four minutes later Mayo were level, Heffernan again on the mark. Waterford knew they had a fight on their hands
andn though they battled they could do little about the one point deficit they carried to their dressingrooms at half time.

Mayo knew the worth of the firtst half performance. They had played partculalry well, and even more importantly, in the key positions. Horan in goal, fullback Lohan, midfielders Christina Heffernan and Claire Egan, Bailey, Staunton and O’Hora up front all had the legs on their opposite numbers.

Realistically though, they had to come out in the second half and prove it all over again. With the ‘play as if ye are a point down rather than one up!’ instruction from  manager John Mullin ringing in their ears, they set about writing themselves in the history book. In just four minutes of magic they stitched on as many invaluable points, per O’Hora, Heffernan, O’Hora again and Sabrina Bailey to go five clear.

‘Catch us if you can’ was the challenge confronting the hottest favourites in years, and to be fair the gauntlet was picked up: from there to the 52nd minute the Munster kingpins put their heads down and reduced the gap to a mere point. There were actually 13 minutes left on the clock that triggers the hooter in ladies football, plenty of time for the more experienced side to craft out the vital scores. But Mayo responded by putting the foot to the board again and in a defiant ‘what we have we hold’ finish O’Hora hit her fifth point and then Sinead Costello, with her distinctively colourful hairband bobbing up and down, cut through to fire over an emphatic final score.

As the county  blinked in awe of what was unfolding the clock froze on four seconds as a Waterford girl went down injured. It was like an action replay, a reprise before the winning line was crossed in a sea of emotion and the injured Cora Staunton gingerly embraced on the sideline as 15,000 spectators watched.

Diane O’Hora, a near neighbour of Mayo footballer David Brady at the Quay in Ballina, lifted the cup as President McAleese and Taoiseach Bertie Ahern looked on. This fine player, whom neighbours recall as a real tomboy with a panache for sport, became the last footballer to climb the steps of the Hogan Stand to claim a cup for yesterday it came crashing to the ground to make way for the new one.

“Typical,” observed RTE pundit Kevin McStay, “just when we were getting used
to winning here.”

Yeah, sport is a funny old game.

*Article first appeared in The Western People September 1999.

**Mayo Ladies have won four All-Ireland inter-county senior championship titles, 1999, 2000, 2002, 2003, and threeNFL titles, 2000, 2004 and 2007, in addition to underage All-Ireland crowns, and club championships.

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