Captain Fantastic Dervan — inspiring like she was inspired

On that day in 1996 when Galway won that long-awaited first senior camogie title and the team celebrated to the praise of hordes of young fans who made the long journey up in the days before we had motorways, who would have guessed that the excitement of that occasion would impact so greatly on the mind of one young girl who had travelled to the capital with a busload of her friends.

It was young Sarah Dervan's first time in that stadium, back in the days before swathes of it were ripped down and replaced by the impressive edifice we now have. It stayed with her, and next Sunday afternoon, she goes back to the stadium to play in her eighth final — captaining her county in the decider for the third year in a row, having become one of the most accomplished and recognisable figures of the modern game.

I caught up with Sarah this week as she prepared for Sunday's senior camogie All Ireland final against Cork in Croke Park. I recall speaking to her in advance of last year's All-Ireland Final when the mood seemed different. Galway and Kilkenny (again ) were to play on a wet Saturday night in Dublin.

Playing in front of an empty stadium under lights on a wet winter's night is not what makes the spirits soar when you think of All-Ireland camogie final day. Thankfully next Sunday should provide more of the norm, a sentiment with which Sarah Dervan agrees.

"It took us a while to get over that December game afterwards. It was a hard game being held in the middle of Covid, it meant that we did not have our families there afterwards, which was particularly hard. But you can just pick yourself up and dust yourself off. We are delighted to be back in an All-Ireland senior final, as they don't come around too often."

In her last media appearance before next Sunday's senior final against Cork, Sarah Dervan is her usual friendly demeanour, funny, courteous, insightful, self-deprecating, but fast forward to the bowels of Croke Park next Sunday afternoon and see the determined visage that she brings to game day. And it all sparks back to that day in '96.

"It was something that has stuck with me forever. It was a huge day because my own club woman Imelda Hobbins was captain that day and I had never been in Croke Park before. The enjoyment of that, we got the bus up, a heap of young ones on a bus all the way up to Croke Park. We enjoyed the day together and met the players.

A sense of anything being possible

"It is always something in my memory that I refer back to when I remind myself why I want to play camogie. It definitely pushed me on. My family are huge into hurling and camogie (her father was a panellst in the 1980 team and her brothers played senior in the 1990s ); my brothers gave me no option but to play hurling. Days like that stick in my memory so I encourage everyone to bring their children to Croke Park on Sunday. It is where they get a sense at that age that anything is possible as they get older, that if they work hard and practise their skills, that it might be them one day."

Such inspiration doesn't come though from wet nights in December in the surreal atmosphere of playing an All-Ireland final on a wet Saturday night in front of an empty stadium.

"2020 was a really eerie atmosphere, going out to Croke Park and there being nobody there. It was pitch dark and a cold night. It was very strange, so to have family and friends there will make such a difference. I am just delighted that they and all the other supporters get to share the day. It is comforting to have the crowds and your family up there," she said.

And now that impressionable young girl who watched her heroes win silverware in 1996 is heading back for her eighth final and she has become more aware of the passage of time.

Pressure

"I think you get more nervous as years go by. When you're young, I suppose you don’t put any pressure on yourself, you just go out and you hurl. But then the years go on and you get older and you become harder on yourself.

"You start looking for areas to improve. It is hard, and I suppose out of all those finals we only won two," she says.

It will be welcome that they are not facing the threat of the Cats given their recent ding-dong battles with them. Cork pipped Kilkenny by a point in an exciting semi-final last week.

"Yes, but I think Cork are going to pose just as big a threat, but we are just determined to go out and hurl to the best of our ability and see where that takes us."

She agrees that the hurt of losing the League Final to Kilkenny was significant, but not permanent.

"It did hurt, but you have to get to a stage where you have to park these things, the hardest thing is watching the match back. In games that go down to the wire, you question yourself and every decision you make and every ball you hit. In the 2020 final, it came down to the 53rd minute and the penalty decision. You question yourself and it is hard to pick yourself up. But you go again, but at least you have the girls around you, as we are all in the same boat and drive on for another year."

Now she is the focus of such inspiration. Galway's captain is statuesque in more than physique. She is calm, cool, collected, and then when she gets on the pitch she is all that again. What a boon it is to our team next Sunday that someone who has played in eight finals will be there to provide the cool head when it is needed.

The 2019 camogie final was momentous for many reasons — not least because of the record crowd, the massive television audience, and the fact that Galway and Kilkenny played out a thriller, with Galway's goal machine rattling the net three times in the first half. It was a stunning performance and boosted the role of camogie throughout the country, not least in Galway. It also wowed TV audiences round the world who were seeing it for the first time. The future for the showpiece seemed bright, but then came Covid and set back everything.

After the excitement of the last few weekends in Croke Park, the feeling is this weekend's game will be a cracker, although Galway have been injury hit this year.

"The injuries have been disruptive. Between both panels we have had about five cruciate injuries and on the senior panel, Heather Cooney is an awful loss. It's like missing my right arm in Croke Park the next day. She is a huge loss but she is rowing in behind us, she is at all our training sessions to drive us on and that is a credit to her because it cannot be easy.

"The cruciate is a very lonely injury and you have to do a lot of work yourself, so fair play to her for doing everything she can for getting herself back for next year."

Galway go back to headquarters determined to create a new winning streak. They got past Tipperary in the semi-final after a tight battle and before that, they had lost to a determined Kilkenny outfit in the league final.

"The league final defeat was very disappointing. Kilkenny turned around in the second half and turned us over for 1-3 in the first ten minutes and we had to pick ourselves up from that and face into the championship. All we could do is take the positives from every game and look at where we want to improve and while the league was what it was, the goal is the All-Ireland final and the championship."

And so here they are, just one game from glory. The three All-Ireland finals will be broadcast live on RTÉ on Sunday, but she and the panel are hoping that thousands will travel east on Sunday to witness another historic win.

Tickets are on sale from from ticketmaster.ie and are being sold in pods of 2, 3, 4 or 5. Ticket prices are: €25, on line in advance (€30 on the day ) and €5 for children.

 

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