By Daragh Small
At just 22, Emma Cleary has become one of the leaders of a new generation of Cork talent carving out their own identity.
Cork provided us with a host of legendary figures during an unprecedented run of success that yielded 11 TG4 All-Ireland senior titles between 2005 and 2016 but a period of transition meant for no All Stars going to the Rebel County last year.
From those dizzying All-Ireland heights – and having at least one All Star in every selection between 2004 and 2021 – last year was their first without an individual representative.
But at the beginning of this season, it was clear that Cork manager Shane Ronayne was eager to give the future their chance in the Lidl National Football League.
Cork retained the ZuCar All-Ireland Minor A Championship when they beat Galway in Nenagh last August, and those players soon began to emerge.
Abigail Ring, Rachel Leahy and Orlaith Cahalane have already made an impact on the scoring charts while Aoife Healy has been added to the defence.
It will take another couple of years for these to fully establish themselves in the senior ranks but acting as vice-captain, Cleary will be used to ease the step up.
“It is nice to get the responsibility, just being a voice for the players, and someone players can go to if they have an issue or a problem. It’s nice to have that role,” said Cleary.
“But there is so many leaders on the team anyway, it could be anyone. It is nice to have but there are so many leaders there already so it’s just kind of helping them out.
“Shane has given a few of the younger girls opportunities, either bringing them on or starting them in the League games. That is what the league is all about, to unearth a few new players.
“The likes of Aoife Healy, Orlaith Cahalane came on there against Dublin, scored a goal and did really well. We just have to keep building on it now and try fit everyone into a system that we can play to going forward as well.”
Luckily for Cleary, she has an expert in her own household to give her advice, she is the daughter of Cork senior men’s manager John Cleary.
Weekends have taken on a whole new meaning with both camps in full flow at this stage of the year but her mother, Helga, and sister, Laura, will usually attend the Ladies football matches if there is a clash.
John will also go to support his youngest daughter any chance he gets and he was in Páirc Uí Rinn last Bank Holiday Monday, to witness an epic against Dublin.
“It’s very busy, especially now with the League matches, a lot of our matches are clashing but I actually don’t mind. I get way too nervous watching Dad’s matches. I don’t mind missing them at all,” said Cleary.
“Mam probably comes to my matches more, she gets nervous watching Dad’s matches as well. And he was there on Monday, he comes whenever he can but it is very busy to be fair.
“But it’s brilliant. He’s a great football man, he loves it, and it’s great having him for advice. We watched the game on Monday night back together as soon as we got home. It’s good to have him there for that.
“The first day against Mayo, he was training that day in Cork so he couldn’t go to it but as soon as we got home, we threw it up on the telly. I’d be getting annoyed with him sometimes alright, with him giving me too much criticism. But it is very good to have him for that, that’s for sure.
“I’d have my own few opinions when it comes to his team but I don’t think he would listen to me too much!”
That game against Dublin promised plenty and it delivered too, with the Dubs running up an early lead. They were 4-8 to 0-10 ahead at half-time before Cork rallied.
It was an amazing second half with Cork striking for three goals but still coming out on the wrong side of a 4-13 to 3-15 scoreline.
Cork began the league with a 2-11 to 0-12 win away to Mayo before another thrilling 2-9 to 2-9 draw against Munster rivals Waterford. But ironically, the defeat to Dublin could have brought them on the most.
“We would have been delighted with some of it and very disappointed with other parts,” said Cleary.
“We played excellent at times but fell asleep for the second 15 minutes of the first half and made a few bad mistakes which resulted in goals. If you let that happen against Dublin they are going to punish you and they did.
“But to be fair to the girls, we really came out in the second half and gave it everything. And probably were unlucky in the end to not get over the line. It was definitely a great learning for us.”
And so Cork must plan for a difficult game against in-form Galway next weekend, looking to build on a defeat but with confidence that this young crop can stand up and be counted when push comes to shove.
The curve is definitely pointed upwards and now it’s just a matter of Ronayne and his more experienced players like Cleary helping to improve their fortunes sooner rather than later, and challenging in the major competitions.
Cork are fourth in Division 1, only behind Kerry, Galway and Dublin, and a win next time out could put them in prime position for a tilt at a trophy again.
And as the TG4 All-Ireland Senior Championship looms large, Cleary knows that Cork might not be too far away there either. They haven’t been champions since 2016 but lost finals in 2018 and 2020. Could this be the year they get back on top of the pile?
“Last year really showed that it is there for anyone who wants it,” said Cleary.
“Maybe a few years back it might have been the likes of Cork and Dublin setting the standard. The gap was closing with Meath winning the last two years and it is really there for anyone now.
“It will be a really interesting summer I’d say but hopefully we come out the right end of it.”