IN the media room under the Cusack Stand following Cork’s two-point win over Dublin in the 2015 All-Ireland final, Eamonn Ryan’s assessment of Roisín Phelan’s performance was spot on.
Journalists were quizzing Ryan on Geraldine O’Flynn’s injury, who – it transpired – gave a rousing half-time speech as the sides were level. With just 15 minutes gone in her tenth All-Ireland final, the All-Star defender twisted her knee. O’Flynn played on briefly, but struggled. Deep down she knew the same fate that had befallen her in the 2010 All-Ireland quarter-final against Tyrone was a likely outcome – cruciate damage.
As physio Brian O’Connell escorted her off the field at the Hill 16 end, selector Shane Ronayne shouted up to Roisín Phelan in the stand.
‘Warm up, you’re going on’.
There was no time to panic. And, as Ryan would reveal in his post-match interview, Phelan ‘rose to the occasion’.
“I didn’t see what initially happened Ger because she’s not the kind of player to make a fuss, but then I heard Shane telling me to warm up,” the 21-year-old dentistry student recalls ahead of Sunday’s league clash against their 2015 All-Ireland opponents.
“When you’re brought on as suddenly as that, you don’t have a second to comprehend that you’re coming on in an All-Ireland final, with just 15 minutes gone. You just have to slot in and do your best for the team. It’s almost reflex, and you just go back to instinct.”
Natural instinct is what made Phelan stand out five years ago. She would spend her first season with the Cork seniors not named on the squad, but hard work and persistence saw her ability really come to the fore. Since, she’s settled and adapted.
“Coming back every January, you’re more familiar with how everything operates, and it’s definitely not as daunting as it was the first year,” she smiles.
“The training will never get easier but you get closer to the girls every year. When you first come onto the squad, everyone’s trying to make you feel welcome, and now it’s come to a point where I’m the one making others feel welcome. That’s just the natural change in the make-up of the team, but I acclimatized to the intensity of the training a long time ago.”
The Aghada woman is articulate and intelligent, and much more mature it seems than her student peers. But, maturity, she agrees, is something that’s been fermenting in her own game.
“It has. I don’t think I could have come on in an All-Ireland final three years ago the way I did last year. I wouldn’t have been as calm about it. But, even if you’re not making the team, just being around the type of players that the girls are, it just sinks in and you absorb that mental attitude and grit that you wouldn’t of had when you first join the panel.”
For four of her five seasons, Phelan’s game grew under the guidance of former coach Eamonn Ryan. But, his departure last December spurned a new era for Cork ladies football. There was uncertainty over who would take his place, and uncertainty over whether they’d be able to fill Ryan’s shoes. That however rapidly faded when the squad met with new head coach, Ephie Fitzgerald, on a cold January night in Whitechurch.
“As other players have said previously in the media, Eamonn never kicked a ball for us. He was there to make sure we were as mentally prepared as we possibly could be but, he knew, and we knew, that ultimately it was up to the players on the pitch, and those on the bench, to get the job done. So, a winning mentality is ingrained in us now. We’ve always had that determination ourselves as a group, so even though we’ve a new manager, it’s not as big a deal as people make out.
“Just like every player is different, every manager is different, and I know that things might be a little different with Ephie around, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The key is that we’re still kept on our toes and everyone is out to prove themselves.
“The game and how we play hasn’t changed that much because at the end of the day both Eamonn and Ephie are very good and very decent to the players. We’re just loving training. And, if we’re loving it, we’re happy out,” she smiles.
So, with Mayo and Armagh battling it out at the top of the Division 1 table, and Galway and Dublin tied in second, Cork are third with Kerry. Monaghan and Tyrone meanwhile prop up the table. At this juncture last year, Gregory McGonigle’s side inflicted the biggest league defeat in 12 years on the Rebels in CIT. But, when it mattered most, Cork, like Phelan, rose to the occasion.
“Having lost the first two games (Mayo and Kerry) in the league, we’ve left a lot to do. We’ve put that pressure on ourselves, but we’ve been improving game on game and hopefully we can keep that going.
“It’ll be be a very physical game on Sunday, it always is, and obviously having beaten Dublin in the last two All-Ireland finals, they’re going to have an added motivation to beat us. But, as I said, this year we started slowly and we still have to prove ourselves in a way. It’s coming to the business end of the league so hopefully with that added pressure, it’ll drive us on.
“But we play sport at a high level for the pressure. If there’s no pressure, then why would you be involved? It’s the pressure that makes it exciting.”