Ten years have passed, but the memories of the ladies first All-Ireland victory are still vivid – some, at least.
1.42. That’s what the countdown clock said. That’s when I knew it was ours. The All-Ireland no one gave us a chance of winning.
For years I had wondered how it would feel to be part of an All-Ireland-winning team in Croke Park and now, almost two minutes shy of the end, with four points to spare and a swagger in our play that wasn’t going to permit the concession of two scores, the feeling was real.
Then, just as quickly, it was gone. Curious that. You spend your life praying for a moment to come, only for it to arrive and you to be lost in some kind of hypnotic stupor. That was me late on the afternoon of October 3, 1999.
One minute and 42 seconds will forever be embedded in my mind as the moment my dream came true, but as for the rest of my time on the pitch that afternoon I have no recall.
Watching the video of the game last week, I was reassured to see that I was actually there for the final couple of minutes of play, yet I have no memory of who was the first person I embraced after the final whistle. Equally empty is the part of my memory bank where Diane O’Hora’s wonderful acceptance speech should be stored.
But of what went before and what came after I have vivid recollections.
FOR me the fairytale began on September 4 in Parnell Park. We were playing Meath in the All-Ireland semi-final and, though they were the favourites, there was a confidence in our dressing room that day that I hadn’t seen in the previous six All-Ireland semi-final day dressing rooms I had sat in. Since 1993, when as a 15-year-old I made my senior inter-county debut against Laois at the penultimate stage of the championship, I had been yearning for the breakthrough to Croke Park. But each year brought only disappointment.
Some day, I consoled myself, our day would come.
On that September day in Dublin GAA’s second home the breakthrough finally did come, when we saw off the Royals.
The perma-smile of satisfaction that victory brought was soon replaced by grimaces of pain, however, as we set about preparing for the biggest game of our lives. For some reason, we all still remember Balla GAA pitch, where one of the toughest physical training sessions we ever endured focused our minds on the prize that lay in wait – and on the enormity of the challenge that stood between us and claiming it, Waterford. With five All-Ireland titles in the previous seven years, they were, unquestionably, the team of the nineties.
We were written off in the build-up to the final. Keeping the ball kicked out to our vaunted opponents was about as much as we would manage, some experts claimed. And, looking back, who can blame them for their pessimism. We were a bunch of mostly giddy schoolgirls, none of whom had ever played in Croke Park.
SO how did we do it?
In the couple of years after that final, I attributed our success largely to the youthful confidence and lack of baggage that our predominantly teenage team brought to Croke Park. Unlike Christina, Diane, Marcella and myself, all of whom had been trying and failing for years, our new band of baby-faced team-mates had no bitter memories of defeat to hold them back.
Ten years on, however, I appreciate the more complex nature of the mix that made up that special team. On the face of it, the difference that year was the injection of youth. In reality, it was the professionalism of the approach brought by John Mullin, Jonathan Mullin and Finbar Egan. Between the three of them, nothing was left to chance. John was the bigger picture man, Jonathan the pursuer of the finer details and Finbar the soft-spoken but ruthless driver.
They took a group of individuals of different ages, talent levels and work ethics, cut the chaff out early on and cultivated what remained into a team that was bound by hard work, loyalty to each other and determination to win. We didn’t have the best footballers in Mayo that year, but we had the 30 individuals most willing to submit to the cult of a team with a single goal. No personality, no issue, no problem, no ego was allowed to become bigger than the needs of the team. That was what made 1999 different.
It manifested itself in a thousand little ways throughout the year. In the way the super-fit players literally dragged the slower ones through sprints so that we would all make the allocated time. In the way we encouraged each other to keep going when limbs were unwilling. In the way fear of letting down colleagues trumped the occasional temptation to break the alcohol ban.
By the time October 3 came the practice of being a team was second nature. So when we ran out onto the pitch to pose for a team photo, we did it with the entire panel; no shots of the first 15 were taken. When the national anthem was being played, the starting 15 went to the sideline to stand shoulder to shoulder with the rest of our team who weren’t permitted on the pitch.
And perhaps the single greatest symbol of unity was management’s decision – endorsed by all of us – to start Cora Staunton, though she had a broken collar bone and was unable to play. No one begrudged her the right to her place in the parade and the honour of playing in an All-Ireland final – if only for a minute-and-a-half. And no one questioned how sacrificing a sub so early on might impact on the final outcome. Things like that were secondary.
LOOKING back at the game itself, our self-belief stood out above all. Maybe we were cocky, but if we were it was based on our conviction that we had worked hard enough to be able to win. And we had.
It showed most in the second half. Buoyed by Sabrina Bailey’s point before half-time, which sent us into the dressing room a point to the good, we scored four points in a row in the third quarter. We were beginning to look, play and work like champions. And though Waterford responded with four points of their own on the trot to reduce the gap to just one point with less than ten minutes remaining, we weren’t for collapsing under pressure. On the contrary, we revelled in the opportunity to show how worthy we were.
Diane, with the confidence and style befitting a captain, hit two superb points from play, while Sinéad Costello sealed victory with two minutes remaining with a fine point from the right wing – the final point of the millennium scored in Croke Park.
FOR me, the homecoming was the best part of all. We had left Mayo on Saturday as hopefuls being willed on by our family, our friends and each other. On Monday night, we returned as champions to the overwhelming embrace of a county overcome with pride and emotion. If playing in Croke Park was a dream come true, that was heaven itself.
Ten years on, that memory sends a tingle down my spine. No amount of time, I suspect, will alter its effect.
5 MEMORIES THAT STAND OUT THE WEIRD AND THE WONDERFUL
The Saw Doctors were the band of choice on the team bus, as selected by Sinéad Gordon and myself. By the time Sunday evening came, the lines ‘To never have considered losing/As if to win is by your choosing’, from ‘To Win Just Once’, had a greater resonance than we imagined.
Nearly as great as the excitement of Croke Park was the novelty of staying in the seminary in Maynooth the night before the final . . . and walking down its long hallways picking out pictures of our parish priests from their class photos! Mass, celebrated by the late An tAthair Déaglán Mac Conghamhna in one of the lecture halls on Saturday evening, was the more serious (and focusing) side of our sojourn there.
LIKE A BIRD
There were many memorable moments in play that day, but the one that stands out for its sheer brilliance was Yvonne Byrne soaring, Liam McHale-like, into the air midway through the second half and claiming the ball amid a crop of players – with just one hand. Majestic.
CACOPHONY OF SOUND
Having played there himself in the 1996 All-Ireland minor semi-final, Jonathan Mullin (pictured) had warned us that the gelling of so many sounds from the stands in Croke Park created a constant hum that made it impossible to hear anything on the pitch. I for one was sure he was exaggerating, but it quickly became apparent how right he was. Shouting was required to get through to the player next to you.
O CAPTAIN, OUR CAPTAIN
As an army officer at the time, Diane O’Hora knew a thing or two about leadership – and her selection as captain that year proved to be an inspired choice. Not only did she give a player-of-the-match performance on the day and compose herself admirably to deliver an eloquent speech minutes later (the last captain to accept a cup on the steps of the old Hogan Stand), but she went on to be a superb ambassador for her team and her county on the never-ending lap of honour that was the year that followed.