By Niall Gartland
STILL going strong – Fionnuala Carr, who has represented her club Clonduff with distinction for two decades, certainly isn’t hanging around for the sake of it.
She was simply immense in the centre-half back position as they claimed an All-Ireland semi-final win against Clanmaurice after extra-time last weekend, and the former Down star is thrilled to be back in another All-Ireland final.
Clonduff take on James Stephens on the hallowed turf of Croke Park this Saturday, and the experience of winning outright in 2019 should in theory stand to them when they go in search of a second title in four years.
Not that they’re making any assumptions – their manager Kieran McGourty, the former Antrim footballer – has brought a particularly innovative approach to training, so every day’s a school day according to Carr.
“Kieran was an extremely intelligent player and he’s also an extremely intelligent manager. He gets us to think in different ways about how we play – about what we’re doing with the ball and playing to our strengths.
“It’s very different to how we went about things in the pass, it’s not just drills and touch-touch hurling, he’s getting us to think about different match day scenarios, using them in training games and that’s translating onto the pitch come game time.”
“If you asked me at the start of the year if I’d be back in Croke Park the week before Christmas, I’d probably have said, ‘aye, dead on’. In all honesty I probably didn’t think I’d be back playing here.
“I find it’s slightly different playing in Croke Park for your club than it is for the county. It’s a lot more personal – some club people don’t follow the county, so there’s a different feel to it.
“We were lucky to play in a few finals in recent times with Down, but you don’t get to play in Croke Park all that often, in that respect camogie is probably a bit different to football and hurling.
“So when you and your club go to Croke Park, it’s really special and it’s almost indescribable.”
It hasn’t all been plain sailing en route to the final, but Clonduff’s grit and determination saw them edge out Eglish in the Ulster final before coming good in extra-time against Clanmaurice last weekend.
“We didn’t start that badly against Eglish, we missed a couple of goal chances and they had one chance of goal and took it. We had to dig deep in the second-half but I think it showed a bit of character that we still managed to grind out a win.
“The thing is that you’re inevitably going to be playing against very good teams at this time of year so you have to take your chances, that’s something we struggled with at times against Eglish and Clanmaurice. We addressed those things in both matches and still managed to come through with the victory.”
The standard of opponent at this level is something Carr returns to when asked about the strength of underage camogie in the club. Clonduff can call upon some of the most well-known camogie players in Ulster – Fionnuala, her sister Sara Louise and Paula O’Hagan in particular – but she’s hopeful that the future is bright if the young players come through realising that talent alone isn’t sufficient to win the big games.
“We’re going quite well at underage level, things went very well this year and we won a couple of championships. We’re conscious of the drop out rates across the board so we’re focusing on keeping two or three players every year to keep the conveyor belt going.
“It’s us older ones teaching the younger players that talent will only get you so far, especially at this time of year when the provincial and national championships are played. Every team at this level across the length and breadth of Ireland has no shortage of talent, so it’s about teaching the younger players the importance of responsibility and leadership, and also working hard when the other team has the ball.”
Lest we forget, it’s a big weekend for Ulster camogie in general as Antrim champs Loughgiel are in the All-Ireland Senior final having finally got the Sleacht Néill-shaped monkey off their backs in Ulster, as Carr acknowledges.
“It’s great for Loughgiel as they’ve been knocking on the door but came up against a Sleacht Néill side who are probably the greatest club team to ever come out of Ulster, and that’s no disrespect to the teams that came before.
“They dug deep and kept going year after year, and when you keep creating those opportunities eventually one will fall for you. The danger for Loughgiel was that the Ulster final could’ve been their All-Ireland. It’s hard to get yourself back up for another big game so quickly but they showed the quality in their team last weekend in the All-Ireland semi-final, I didn’t get to see the game but from what I’ve heard they were deserving winners.”