Two defensive legends of the game, Geraldine O’Flynn and Angela Walsh, tell Mary White just how important Bríd Stack and Deirdre O’Reilly are to Cork’s cause
GERALDINE O’Flynn’s eyes were swollen, her knee too.
Sitting in the dressing room at halftime of last year’s All-Ireland final, O’Flynn was hurting, in more ways than one. She stood and steadied herself on one leg and gave an impassioned speech to her comrades. Her friends.
Her knee had buckled 15 minutes into the game and she wouldn’t finish out her 10th final appearance in Croker. But it was O’Flynn’s words in the innards of the Hogan Stand that was the catalyst for Cork winning the Brendan Martin Cup once again.
O’Flynn will be sitting afar this time around; as a spectator in a venue in which she scored winning points in two separate All-Ireland finals – including the historic winner in the 2014 comeback against Dublin. But life has carried on and she returns to shout on her former defensive comrades and club allies Deirdre O’Reilly and Brid Stack.
The duo are among five personnel – O’Reilly, Stack, Briege Corkery, Rena Buckley and selector Frank Honohan – who have been there since Juliet Murphy first hoisted Brendan aloft in 2005 and 12 years later they’re bidding for an 11th title having never lost on the hallowed turf.
Aged 32, O’Reilly has been the longest servant of the four cohorts, making her senior debut aged just 15. 17 seasons on and this could very well be her last, but two years ago retirement could have come early.
O’Reilly played through the entire season with an agonising hip injury – the shape of her ball socket was abnormal, its cartilage torn, the pain excruciating. O’Flynn reckons if it had been any other human being, they’d have called it quits, but not O’Reilly. She doesn’t do quitting.
“Dee is a pure athlete and even the pain she went through we’d no idea. She didn’t moan about it once but the pain must have been something else. But that epitomises her. ‘Give it your all’, that’s her motto in life.
“When you trained with her, you were always in for a tough session. She still leaves a lot of younger players for dead now, physicality wise and fitness wise. Nobody can match her.”
And O’Flynn is right. Against Monaghan in the All-Ireland semi-final, O’Reilly flew forward from centre-back, creating the opening goal. From the off she set Cork’s tempo, and Monaghan had no way back.
O’Reilly had a word to say on the bus on the way to the game in the Gaelic Grounds too, which she wouldn’t usually.
“You wouldn’t even hear Dee in a game, but you’d see how she performs. She does her talking on the field and when you go out to battle with her, you know you’ve one hell of a chance.”
For almost nine years every summer, three times a week, O’Flynn and O’Reilly would drive from Kanturk to Cork city for training. Those hour-long chats in the car are among the things O’Flynn misses most about not being involved.
“Sometimes you’d see your teammates more than your siblings. I’ve played with Bríd since I was 14, the whole way up, and that’s a lot of time together when you stop and think about it. But Bríd is always reliable just like Dee.
“Both of them showed up at crucial times over the years, getting in a block, an interception or marking a player out of it. If you were to ask me would I be confident going out without Bríd and Deirdre? No I wouldn’t be. It’s more of a dressing room thing too. When you look around and you see them there, you know you’ll be grand.”
Stack now fulfills the role of Angela Walsh, her best friend who departed the Cork set-up following their dramatic comeback in the 2014 final against Dublin. The duo have been close ever since Stack captained Cork to a minor All-Ireland title 12 years ago against Laois, and then again to O’Connor Cup glory with UL, where they roomed in college for a brief spell. And then of course Walsh had the honour of captaining Stack to All-Ireland glory in 2009, against Dublin.
Many a commentator in the early days mistook them for one another, but their partnership of centre-back and full-back was at the crux of nine All-Ireland wins under Eamonn Ryan. They roomed together before every All-Ireland final day; sat together on the bus on route to Jones’ Road, and next to each other on the same bench in Dressing Room 1, and stood shoulder to shoulder together in all the team photographs. And despite Walsh’s absence, the bond is still there. On Sunday morning she’ll pick up the phone once again and call Stack, like she’s done before every game.
“I miss the big matches, the occasion and playing on the big days, but I don’t miss the commitment,” Walsh wryly smiles.
“Bríd has definitely been one of the driving forces this year and last, and she’s brought everyone along with her. She’d go through a brick wall for the team, and Deirdre’s the same. You couldn’t find more committed or dedicated people. You really couldn’t.”
As to the fifth member of ‘The Famous Five’, Frank Honohan, the admiration is just as high.
In the aftermath of last year’s final, a group photograph with the surviving members since 2005 was being snapped on the pitch. One photographer asked Honohan to step out, not knowing who he was. The players’ reaction to the snapper’s request said it all. They had Frankie’s back.
The longest servant in that line-up, there since 2003, Honohan took charge during the winter nights when Cork were searching for Eamonn Ryan’s replacement this January. He didn’t have to, but this time round he had their backs. He always has.
“Frankie was so good to us, and it’s been good for Frankie too,” says Walsh.
“The selection side of things we didn’t know just how much input he had,” O’Flynn adds, “but he always had time for everyone, whether you were starting or not, and that says a lot about him as a person. He’s an absolute gent.
“His soup has been spoken and written about too, but there was a great bonding element to that. We probably didn’t appreciate it until we stopped playing. We didn’t have the luxury of dinner after training; we had sandwiches on a Wednesday and Frankie’s soup on a Sunday. They’re the things you miss being part of when it’s all over.”
This time round there’ll be no inspirational speech by O’Flynn, nor Walsh to sit next to as the bus pulls into the underbelly of Croker. But with two of the greatest defenders in Stack and O’Reilly, as well the most decorated GAA players of all time in front of them in Buckley and Corkery, you can be sure one of them will have a word to say.
If not in the dressing room, then on the pitch.