It was so great to lift that trophy with the girls on that day - Ciara McNamara

Sun, Mar 11 2018

Ciara, left, with teammates having won the WFAI Cup last November. Credit: Peter Fitzpatrick (ETPhotos)

It is the eve of the new Continental Tyres Women’s National League, and a buzz of anticipation surrounds Cork City. Last season saw a marked improvement in league form, which resulted in a respectable mid-table position. A debut trophy for the club arrived from a magical day out at the Aviva.

Captain on that day, Ciara McNamara was in upbeat form when I spoke with her. Retaining the captaincy was a reflection on her growing status. “I was delighted that Frank, and his staff, had such belief in me. I suppose I am young enough to be captain of a national league side. I am only 21 after all. His opinion was that I had led them to a cup final last year and that hopefully we will be able to go again this season.”

Retention of the bulk of last year’s side, was added to by an assortment of signings to help bolster numbers and add competition and depth to the side. McNamara believes the new personnel can only help to improve fortunes. Michelle O’ Connor is one such new addition from from Douglas Hall while Eadaoin Lyons has joined from UCC.

“I would have seen Michelle play since she was about 14. She had the knack of scoring important goals and has had a few goals in pre-season, which is always a good sign. Eadaoin was in college with me and she was the top goal scorer with UCC. She knows where the goal is as well.”

The major highlight of last season was obviously cup final day at the Aviva Stadium last November. Being the precursor to the men’s equivalent, ensured a large number of City fans present to cheer them on. Despite being underdogs to a more experienced Wexford Youths side, the rebels came out on top. The day is likely to live long in the memory of those playing that day. As the woman tasked with lifting their first ever silverware, I asked for her memories of the moment Claire Shine’s effort hit the net.

“Just how cool she did it. She had a few opportunities before that and you always think to yourself ‘Oh no, will it be her day?’ But Claire had done it all season. She managed to get some really important goals to help us out when we needed them.”

It is clear they are not a one-person team and this showed as the Slaneysiders pushed for an equaliser on that epic day. “I suppose everyone put in a shift and gave it their all. We couldn’t have done it without that.”

A massive turn-out of supporters awaited their return the very next day. It, perhaps, demonstrated how much people have got behind the rebelettes. “To have filled Grand Parade. I don’t know how many were there exactly but it was just fantastic. It showed that the people of Cork are now fully behind us. To see your mum and your Dad; all the local clubs that came out to support you. It was fantastic for all the girls.” The point that is returned to often is the spirit of the girls and especially those present from the earlier difficult period. McNamara is keen to heap praise upon them. “The likes of Natalie O’ Brien, Maggie Duncliffe and Angie Carry especially. It was a prime example of showing that even when things are not going your way, keep your head down and keep at it. It was brilliant for them to get the reward that they deserved.”

As moves were made to improve affairs on the pitch, some moves have taken place off the pitch. This is the first season which they will be operating officially under the Cork City banner. This can be massive in terms of exposure and McNamara reiterates this. “Being recognised in the media and being able to promote women’s soccer overall. I suppose, it is not really as publicised as it could be here in Ireland. That can only help us.”

The less tangible aspects of this association are mentioned also. “we would have gotten new training gear this year. We have gotten a new sponsor for the next two years in the form of Clonakilty food company. I suppose new training equipment and better facilities as well. They are all little things but the little things go a long way.”

The higher profile, new arrivals and status as cup holders brings its own issues. City are now a side many will be raising their game against. McNamara recognises the pressure this can bring but is looking forward to the challenge.

“I know if I was playing for Galway, I would be relishing it. I would definitely want a cut off the FAI cup winners. I know that the girls will be ready for the game on Sunday, as they will for the rest of the league. Pressure will be there but I know that we can deal with it.” She knows the expectation levels are going to be high to match last season and exceed it.  The experience on cup final day will help put them in good stead. “If we can do it on cup final day, I can’t see why we can’t deal with it elsewhere. I suppose we just must build on what we did last season. Last season was great, but we just have to push on now. The pre-season games have gone very well for us and we are very confident.”

Looking away from the domestic front and towards the international picture, The Republic of Ireland are set to face Slovakia and The Netherlands. Having drawn away in Holland, McNamara is quietly confident.

“To be honest, they had a few chances and could have won the game. They are current European champions and Ireland held them to a draw. And away from home as well. Which was great.”

Ciara is also a fan of the work of current international manager, Colin Bell, from a spell playing under him.

“I think he has them suitably motivated and prepared. I worked with him when I was involved in the varsity games and he was so professional. He has won a Champions League and he knows what it is all about.”

Finally, as it was international women’s day recently, I asked how this current team could inspire future stars. “The main thing is to try and keep leading by example. It is all about saying ‘look, I was in your position not so long ago.’ As a child, you are generally playing a lot of different sports at the same time. I know I was dragged here, there and everywhere. It is a case of knuckling down, working hard and the rewards will come.”