ONE SPORT’S LOSS is another’s gain.
Over the past few years, many in women’s soccer circles across the length and breadth of the country may mourn the fact that Cork star Amy O’Connor no longer plays the game.
An integral part of the Ireland U19 team that made history by reaching the semi-finals of the Uefa European Championships in Norway in 2014, O’Connor — like many others — opted to go down the Gaelic games route instead.
Leading the charge alongside current senior captain Katie McCabe and Mayo Gaelic football and AFLW ace Sarah Rowe up top, wins over Spain, England and Sweden saw O’Connor’s Girls In Green top their group at that competition.
But their magical journey came to an end at the hands of an experienced Dutch side –many of whom were part of their 2019 World Cup final squad — in the last four.
Also a talented Gaelic footballer in her time herself, O’Connor won the first of her four All-Ireland senior camogie Celtic Crosses layer that summer. Still a minor back then, she well and truly made the breakthrough and hasn’t looked back since.
23 now, the St Vincent’s forward says she hasn’t played a soccer match in two years.
Does she miss it?
Plain and simple.
Not at all?
“Not at all. Not for a second. It’s weird.”
“I actually don’t know,” she ponders. “It was such a big part of my life, it’s weird that I got up one day and walked away. That was it, I never kicked a ball again.
“I suppose because I love camogie so much it wasn’t like I was sacrificing something; camogie was always my first love. I just don’t miss it at all, no. It’s a weird one.”
On the ball against the Netherlands in the 2014 Uefa Women’s U19 championship semi-final.
Source: Anders Hoven/INPHO
With every word her passion for her beloved camogie shines through more and more. It was that or nothing. O’Connor, from Knocknaheeny in Cork City, also donned the Rebel red with the footballers until minor level, and was a member of several successful panels on that front.
But that got the boot even before the soccer fell by the wayside, with pharmacy in college her target. After studying in UCC on a scholarship, she’s coming to the end of an internship on Leeside and the completion of that, along with a successful exam, will see her graduate with a Masters from the Royal College of Surgeons (RCSI) this year.
She’s told The42 before about the challenges people face and the negative routes they often take in the area she’s from, and one thing’s for sure, O’Connor is breaking that mould and is a shining example for younger girls in Knocknaheeny.
She, perhaps, looks elsewhere for inspiration to drive her on. Those on her team are the leading lights. Gemma O’Connor and Orla Cotter are two she’s mentioned time and time again since coming into the set-up, but there are many more she looks to.
Take the dual players on Paudie Murray’s panel: Libby Coppinger and Hannah Looney, who are both also on the hunt for Brendan Martin Cup glory with the county footballers, and Ciara McCarthy, who has thrown her lot in with camogie for the year.
“I don’t know how they do it, I don’t to be honest,” she says of Coppinger and Looney in particular.
“They’ve some drive. Our training is tough and they’re obviously training just as hard with the footballers… I can imagine how competitive that squad is. They’re probably out every night of the week.
“Credit where credit is due, both managers are really accommodating, Ephie [Fitzgerald] and Paudie. If we had a tough session with camogie on the Tuesday, they’re not going to train tough on the Wednesday with the football. It works out.
“There’s great communication and understanding among the two squads in Cork and the girls are intelligent themselves, if they’re not feeling great they’re going to say it. Their training is tailored so they’re not going to be burned out when it matters.”
Well, now is definitely when it matters.
An All-Ireland semi-final against Galway at Limerick’s Gaelic Grounds tomorrow is next on the agenda, with the three in-a-row bid ramping up. She’s said it before and she’ll say it again: the Leesiders actually don’t talk about it. They have nothing won this year.
After navigating their way safely through the group stages and finishing top, Cork progressed directly to the last four. Job done, even though it wasn’t done maybe as stylishly as O’Connor would have hoped.
Celebrating the 2017 win with Lauren Homan and Coppinger (right).
Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO
“The goal at the beginning of every year is always to get out of the group, be it going through the quarter-final or the semi-final. The first target was reached.
“We need to improve going forward. We’ll focus on ourselves and if we can reach the targets the performance will follow.”
Not reaching the league final this year may be seen as a kick to Cork, Kilkenny knocking them out in the semi-final to avoid a repeat of the previous five national deciders between the old rivals across league and championship.
“We didn’t write it off as just the league,” O’Connor says of the competition Galway went on to win. “We obviously take every match very seriously and we go out to win every game.
“We didn’t perform to our capabilities, we were down a few (players). Galway hit us for two goals, we weren’t great against Kilkenny, we were a bit behind where we were last year. Galway and Kilkenny were the two top teams in the league. We were a bit behind but hopefully we can make up a bit of ground now.
“We’ve got to get it right.”
And after a few unconvincing performances in the round-robin stages, the order of the day at the time of our conversation was to right the wrongs, to focus on themselves and reach their targets.
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After an intense schedule of six matches on the trot, there’s the danger of the long lay-off now, considering the Tribe faced Waterford in the quarter-final in the interim.
But that doesn’t bother O’Connor.
“In some ways it’s a blessing in disguise because of the injuries,” she says, pointing out Katrina Mackey’s broken hand in particular.
“Nearly half our team was strapped against Waterford [in their last group game]. Others might see it as too long of a break to get back into it but our training is very competitive and our standard won’t drop.
“Hopefully we can recover from the injuries we picked up in the group stages.”
Well, Mackey is down to start at corner forward tomorrow, so all seems to have went to plan in that regard.
To conclude, the sharpshooter acknowledges the common perception that Cork and Kilkenny are the top two in camogie from the outside looking in, considering the sheer amount of duels they’ve had in finals of late.
At last month’s Camogie Association ‘Go Together’ launch with her cousin Kerrie Horgan.
Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO
But the chasing pack is close. Anything could happen on any given day.
Particularly tomorrow, with Galway the name on her lips before they were even drawn against each other after the culmination of the last-eight battles.
“You could go out on any day and if you don’t perform, you’re going to be beaten,” O’Connor stresses. “Anyone can beat you, it doesn’t matter if you’re the top team or the weakest team in the whole competition.
“If you don’t perform or if you don’t turn up, you could be beaten.
“Galway have made huge strides. At the start of every year I say Galway are going to be there or thereabouts because they’re a great team. They’ve proven it in the league, have great players all over the park.
“It’s always the three of us, Galway Kilkenny and Cork [in semi-finals], but the others have made huge strides.”
Who will make the biggest strides tomorrow?
One must wait and see.
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