Legacy of Rebel royalty inspires new-look Cork to make their own history – Ireland


What would Beyonce do?

That popular young women’s catchphrase even has its own hashtag (#WWBD) that is jokingly used to summon up some fearlessness and empowerment in the face of obstacles.

Cork footballer Roisín Phelan has a delightful variation on it.

Her guiding football principle is simply: ‘What would Angela do?

That’s Angela Walsh, a totem among fellow giants in a Cork defence who bestrode ladies Gaelic football for well over a decade.

Their defence was truly stacked with players like Rena Buckley, Briege Corkery, Geraldine O’Flynn, Bríd Stack and Deirdre O’Reilly.

They weren’t just iconic footballers but willing mentors, happy to teach Phelan the tricks of their trade when she joined them as a wide-eyed teenager seven years ago.

Walsh, above all, was her ‘Queen Bey’ and still is.

Life off the pitch for the Aghada defender has been hectic in the past half-decade.

A five-year dentistry degree in UCC was challenging, especially as the last two years were based in a hospital off-campus.

That meant early-morning lectures before attending her allocated client list from 8.30am-5.0pm and then dashing off to train and study.

Phelan only graduated last May and her first full-time job is in a dentistry practice split between Tullamore and Carlow, yet she counts herself lucky not to be rostered for weekends yet and to be allowed away early every Wednesday/Friday for inter-county training.

The past few years have also brought upheaval for the Rebelettes.

Pipping the Dubs in 2016 brought their 11th All-Ireland in 12 years but many legends, including manager Eamonn Ryan, had already quietly stepped into the wings.

Their understudies don’t have the same ‘Invincibles’ tag but many, like Phelan, have learned at the feet of the greats.

Jerome Sheehan, a teacher in the local Scoil Íosogáin primary, was the one who encouraged her to try all sports and she played schoolgirl soccer for Midleton and Cork until GAA became her sole focus.

She already had good genes.

Her grandfather Pat Phelan played senior hurling for Limerick and her brother Diarmaid captained the Cork minor footballers this summer.

Phelan is only 24 but is now a relative veteran in this young Cork squad with five All-Ireland senior and five NFL medals already tucked away.

She was still a minor and just 18 when she got called up in 2012.

Training that first night was a straight, internal A v B game and she was dispatched to mark Valerie Mulcahy. Talk about a baptism of fire.

But there were other newbies too like Jennifer Barry and current centre-back Shauna Kelly and the older players “all knew your name and were conscious to use it, to make you feel you welcome”.

She was on Cork’s extended panel for that year’s All-Ireland final, came off the bench a year later and started in 2014 in that famous 11-point comeback to beat the Dubs.

Now she is Cork’s full-back and her apprenticeship beside Walsh was all she dreamed it would be.

“Angela was such a great comfort to have beside you, even confidence-wise, knowing you could absolutely go to every ball full-heartedly. We had so many pillars around us that if you messed up there was always someone there covering your back.”

Phelan never actually experienced defeat in an All-Ireland series until last year’s semi-final loss to Mayo, a game that could prove seminal for this team.

“We played Donegal in a league final and beat them in a good match but just didn’t get up for the Munster Championship.

“We didn’t make the Munster final for the first time in a long time so came through the qualifiers. Mayo played us well that day and put three goals past us that will haunt me.

“Nothing’s been taken for granted this year. Every training session, every ball, every match is being attacked much harder because we remember the pain of last year.”

Ephie Fitzgerald’s team may not be filled with household names now but Phelan, Martina O’Brien, the O’Sullivans (Doireann, Ciara and Áine), Orla Finn and Eimear Scally were all here and beat Dublin in 2016.

“It did hit me recently that a lot of this team have never played in Croke Park before but that’s not necessarily a bad thing,” Phelan stresses.

“Players like Melissa Duggan, Saoirse Noonan and Emma Spillane bring great drive and energy to us and they’re fearless. I notice that I actually get more nervous as the years go on,” she admits.

On the onerous task of playing full-back, she says: “Really it’s about backing yourself. Your gut instinct is usually the right one. If you think you should be in a certain position you probably should. It’s that half a second or less when you react, that’s the vital thing.”

This Cork team are looking to make their own name now but they haven’t far to look for inspiration. Whenever Phelan is in doubt that’s simply: “What would Angela do?”


Senior: Cork v Dublin

Croke Park, tomorrow, Live, 4.00, TG4.

After losing three finals in a row, Dublin got one monkey off their back last year. Now can they get another?

They retain the same starters, bar one, who beat Mayo in last year’s final but Cork have something of a hex over them having won the  2014, ‘15 and ‘16 finals so there’s a score to settle for Dublin here.

In truth both sides are now very different. Cork are not the ‘invincible’ Rebelettes of old but a new  and improving team looking to create their own history.

Their threats include the O’Sullivan sisters, Orla Finn and dual talents Libby Coppinger and Hannah Looney.

A watertight defence also shut down Donegal’s lethal forwards in the All-Ireland semi-finals.

But Dublin, if anything, have found another gear this season when they won their first Division One title and have vaporised everyone en route to the final, including Galway last time out.

History suggests this should be close as Cork’s victories in 2014-2016 were twice by one point and once by two.

But this is Dublin 2018. When Sinead Aherne, Noelle Healy and Nicole Owens get in full flow they are a joy to behold.

Their pace, power and skill is on a higher level to everyone else. Sound familiar?

Verdict: Dublin


Intermediate: Meath v Tyrone

Croke Park, tomorrow, Live, 1.45, TG4

A  fancied Tyrone lost this final to Tipperary last year and are on a mission here.

Meath were last in Croke Park to win the junior title in 1994 and have standout players in Niamh O’Sullivan, Stacey Grimes, Vikki Wall and youngfull-back Orlagh Lally.

They shocked Roscommon in their semi-final but it’s hard to see them beating a much more seasoned Tyrone who stormed Ulster and were given stern tests by Wexford and Sligo.

With veterans Neamh Woods and Gemma Begley alongside Áine Canavan and Chloe McCaffrey the Red Hand should prove too strong here.

Verdict: Tyrone


Junior: Limerick v Louth

Croke Park, tomorrow, Live 11:45,  TG 4

This is a re-match of the 2010 final which Limerick won but Louth turned the tables when these two met in a league semi-final.

Limerick have regained some players since then, however, including Rebecca Delee from camogie and veteran star Dympna O’Brien.

But Louth, who claimed this title in 2015, have a real star in the making in Kate Flood and a particularly compelling mission to complete as they aim to honour the memory of their manager Micheál McKeown, who tragically died mid-summer.

Verdict: Louth


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