IT’S A MISERABLE December night and training is edging closer and closer.

The rain is lashing down outside, but nothing could dampen Ciara O’Sullivan’s spirits. Not even the fact that she knows this is going to be a tough session, a little over a week out from Cork’s return to the All-Ireland final as they face old foes Dublin.

Cork star Ciara O’Sullivan.

Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

There’s nowhere else in the world she’d rather be.

This is where she’s always wanted to be, after all.

Football and family have been the two main cornerstones of her life. There’s no doubt about it, the O’Sullivans of Mourneabbey eat, sleep and breathe football, and Ciara certainly agrees. It’s everything to them. “It’s probably a bit sad, but it really is.”

A story she tells about her father, Jerry, epitomises that. Over lockdown, the local GAA club, Clyda, were running an interview series with past players about their careers. Ciara picks up:

“They asked the worst loss you’ve suffered, and he said Mourneabbey v Carnacon. I was like, ‘Dad you weren’t playing in that!’ Then your biggest victory, Mourneabbey v Fox-Cab, 2018. I was like, ‘Dad, they are not your matches!’

Dad, someone who played for so many years, was using our matches as his biggest success and his biggest defeats. That shows what it means.”

Growing up, football is all Ciara and her three sisters, Doireann — who’s captain for today’s final having taken the mantle from her elder — Róisín and Maebh — the oldest and youngest respectively — ever knew.

Jerry and their uncle, Con, oversaw training at Mourneabbey, while their mother, Ina, was chairperson of the ladies football club for quite some time. Parenting was done at the pitch, she grins, in a reflective mood.

The memories of underage trials with Cork come flooding back, and of the days that followed, waiting to hear if you had made the panel.

“Our whole house used to be waiting on those phonecalls all the way up underage and just praying that we would,” the 30-year-old forward recalls.

“I think for a while underage I lived on Róisín’s success, I was just brought along because I was Róisín’s sister. It has always been a massive part of our family. To get the call-up then to the seniors was just unreal.”

That came in 2008, and the sisters were both catapulted into Éamonn Ryan’s all-conquering side at the peak of their powers. 

The O’Sullivan family after the 2015 All-Ireland family.

Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Having always wanted to play for Cork and follow in the footsteps of this phenomenal group whose reign of terror started in 2005, here they were living that dream.

“I’ll never forget getting the call, it was a bit surreal. Previously you would have been in Croke Park in September watching Juliet [Murphy] lift the cup for the third time in-a-row in 2007.

It was a great honour and serious excitement, not just for me and Róisín, but for Mam and Dad as well. Having each other definitely helped because you’re going into a team that’s so successful and has won so much.”

That success kept on coming, with the O’Sullivans making immediate impact.

Ciara started at wing-back in the 2009 All-Ireland final victory over Dublin, and soon got her hands on the Brendan Martin Cup. Despite a quarter-final exit in 2010 and the Sky Blues winning their first title, Cork picked up where they left off and won six-in-a-row through the new decade.

O’Sullivan, indeed, captained them in 2015 and 2016, and has eight All-Irelands and four All-Stars to her name through a 13-year long glittering senior career so far.

For years, all she knew was success, the accountant struggling to keep track of the remarkable numbers at times. While the last few haven’t delivered quite as much silverware, the journey has been simply unforgettable.

Ah, it’s been brilliant few years,” O’Sullivan nods. “If you told me 13 years ago that I would have been as lucky to win what I have won and play with the people I have, I’d have bitten your hand off for it.

“I’ve always said that that I’ve been really lucky with time I came on the panel in 2008 when the girls had won three-in-a-row. I just came on at the right time and piggybacked off those girls’ success for a number of years.

“I was really fortunate to have played with the likes of Juliet Murphy, Briege Corkery, Rena Buckley, Angela Walsh, Bríd Stack, Geraldine O’Flynn, you can go on and on, I’ll forget people now but to have played with them a few years after being in the stand looking at them while they were winning the three-in-a-row…

“I think anyone who’s played with them and who was fortunate enough to be involved with that golden era of Cork football learned so, so much from them. And I think that’s what we’ve tried to continue on. I’ve really enjoyed it all.”

Celebrating the 2016 win.

Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Not just the good, but the bad. After 11 All-Ireland titles in 12 years, the Rebels haven’t hit those same heights since Ephie Fitzgerald’s first year in charge in 2016.

Mayo knocked them out in the 2017 semi-final, Dublin tasted sweet revenge in the 2018 showpiece after three consecutive decider defeats at their hands, and the Jackies again ended their 2019 campaign in the last four. 

“Those losses in the last few years obviously were hard to take but you learn from them,” she concedes. “I was very lucky for so many years to get over the line; 2014, you look at how lucky we were, 2015, a point or two and the same in 2016.

That luck is bound to run out at some time. I definitely can’t complain about it, out of the 13 years as a whole, I don’t think I’ve done too badly.”

While Division 1 league crowns arrived in 2017 and last season (O’Sullivan watched Doireann lift the silver from South America the former year), nothing quite compares to championship glory.

The 2018 defeat at Croke Park hammered that home for O’Sullivan, the then-captain cutting a heartbroken figure in her post-match media duties. That upset of a first All-Ireland final defeat lives with her to this day.

“It was a lot of our first experiences losing in Croke Park and losing an All-Ireland final so it was a hard one to take. I think losing to Dublin with the massive rivalry kind of added to the pain as well.

“We did bounce back in 2019 but only to come up short again against Dublin in the semi-final. We’d be hoping that we’ve learned from those two defeats in the last two years because they definitely really hurt at the time.

You’d be hoping to kind of bottle some of the hurt.”

Hurt and heartbreak, silverware and success; it really has been a mixed bag for O’Sullivan between club and county over the past few years.

On the road a long time, she’s asked these questions time and time again. How does she keep going back to the well? What makes her tick? Is it the want to succeed, the hunger for more, or the special groups she’s involved with and the people at the heart of it all?

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“If I’m being perfectly honest, last year I struggled a bit with Cork,” she concedes.

The Cork team dejected during the 2018 presentation.

Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

“Coming off the high of having won the club All-Ireland and finally getting over the line in 2018 and then facing back into Cork again, I did struggle in 2019 mentally to to be as fresh as I would have liked — or to have that appetite that I would have had in previous years.”

While the year 2020 has been by no means ideal, the truncated season came as a blessing in disguise. An enjoyable break to recharge the batteries. “When we came back, I was very hungry for it,” she nods. “I’ve found as you’re getting older, the short year and the less matches kind of suits better.

But I think we do have a special group whether it’s with club or with county. It’s the competitiveness that is in each of us that we want to win — even more so than wanting to win, we hate losing.

“Over Covid people were asking, ‘Do you miss football?’ I was saying, ‘I don’t miss football because there is no football, but if people were playing matches and I wasn’t then I knew I would definitely miss it.

“I think the break this year has made me realise that I do want to keep going even next year, give it another year and see. I think it’s just the group of players that make me want to go back and the competitiveness for me anyway, they’re the two things.”

Enjoyment, of course, is another huge element. On the day we speak, Jack McCaffrey’s candid interview with Bernard Brogan goes live on Off The Ball, the serial All-Ireland winner explaining his reasoning for stepping away from the Dublin panel. Simply, the fun and enjoyment was gone.

O’Sullivan watched it and completely related, but now reinvigorated, her sheer love for the game shines through as she talks about the set-up and what’s changed of late.

It is all about the enjoyment of it,” she agrees. “You have to be willing to put in the work that will get you that enjoyment. I mean in 2019, I wasn’t really enjoying it and I wasn’t looking forward to going training, I was probably in a bad mood and for no reason other than I was just king of fed up off of it in general.

“We have a great group of girls at the moment, we have some young girls who’ve come in from minor and their attitude and what they’ve brought to training has been unbelievable.

“They’ve made it so enjoyable and they’ve really fitted it in and bought into the group. That has helped with the enjoyment. Obviously it’s much easier to enjoy it when you’re winning so we’ve enjoyed it so far this year but the big one is yet to come.”

Celebrating the 2019 All-Ireland club final win.

Source: Lorraine O’Sullivan/INPHO

The big one indeed. A rivalry like no other renewed on the biggest stage, at the very end of a year like no other. A fifth decider meeting in seven seasons, a sixth in total with Cork looking to make it 5-1.

After the disappointing events that overshadowed the semi-final, O’Sullivan wants to do her talking on the pitch, and to go one step further than they have done over the past few years. 

She makes absolutely no secret of that, with serious belief and vindication in her tone as she talks about grabbing the game by the scruff of the neck and not letting this one pass them by. Sometimes that can happen in finals, but not this time. 

Though hugely impressed by Dublin’s semi-final performance, particularly after losing captain Sinéad Aherne — “one of the best players in the country” — to injury early on, O’Sullivan backs her side.

We’re under no illusions of the task facing us but if we didn’t think we’d a chance and that we could win, there’d be no point having put in all that hard training all year. We do think we have a chance and we’re just hoping that we can deliver on the day.

“There is no need to go over all the rivalry we’ve had with Dublin. For the last, I’d say nearly 10 years, there’s been nothing but a point or two between us in nearly every match.

“There is a massive mutual respect too. For them to lose three finals in-a-row and come back and keep battling, you’d have to hugely admire that. Unfortunately, from a club point-of-view, we can relate to that more than we’d like.

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To then go on and be as dominant as they have been, and raise the bar again, it’s admirable. Some of the players they have will go down as the best ever to play, they’re unbelievable. I’d like to think that they would respect the Cork teams over the last number of years for what we’ve done as well.”

Bringing it all back to this family affair, it would be a dream come true for O’Sullivan to watch her younger sister, Doireann, following in her footsteps up the steps of the Hogan Stand to lift the cup for the first time.

Captaincy is an honour and a privilege but it’s a job that can only be done for a set amount of time.

“It definitely made it a lot easier for me giving up that captaincy knowing it was going to Doireann, staying within the club and staying within the family,” Ciara smiles, praising her sibling’s exceptional leadership skills. That’s high praise coming from such an incredible taliswoman herself.

Facing Dublin in 2018.

Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

The aftermath of today’s final is something she’s thinking about quite a lot, along with the hopes that hurt and past experiences will drive her side on.

As many say, Croke Park is the best place in the world to win but the worst place to lose. 

And that gut-wrenching feeling she felt in 2018 will be front and centre of O’Sullivan’s mind this afternoon, as will thoughts of her family, who were given a lecture about staying at home and following Covid guidelines meticulously in the run-up to the final. 

It’s difficult for all involved that they won’t be there, none more so than Jerry and Ina back home, but Ciara is hell-bent on erasing past hurt and making it a Christmas to remember.

“However lonely it was that day to lose when your family was there, it will be a lot lonelier if you lose with no crowd or support,” she concludes. ”

“It’s something we definitely don’t want to feel. This year, more so than any, it is more about family rather than yourself. They’re the people who are making the sacrifices. It’s fine for me because I’m getting the benefit of going playing in Croke Park, they’re not. I think this year everyone is mindful of doing it for your family.

“Knowing that feeling that we felt in 2018 when they were there, how bad it was, it would be a lot worse without them. We’ll definitely be using that to drive us on.”

As football and family always do for Ciara O’Sullivan.

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