Hurling & Camogie

Down and Catherine McGourty make senior championship return after 22-year gap

Catherine McGourty of Down.<br />&copy;INPHO/Ryan Byrne
Catherine McGourty of Down.
©INPHO/Ryan Byrne

CATHERINE McGourty was in the Down panel the last time the county played a game in the All-Ireland senior camogie championship. That was on August 21, 1999.

After almost 22 years the current Down goalie not surprisingly is the only player left from Down's run that year that ended with a comprehensive defeat by Tipperary in the semi-final in Parnell Park.

"I would say I will be the only player in the whole championship who started my career in the last century," she jokes. "That means I have played through four different decades!"

"Technically speaking I didn't actually play in the championship that year. I came into the panel in 1999 and got playing time in a couple challenge games during that summer. I distinctly remember one challenge game against Kilkenny who were on the other side of the draw.

"It was just a big adventure for me. Down had won the league and Intermediate championship double the year before and the girls I was training alongside were all players I looked up to and aspired to become."

That semi-final 22 years ago was the high point for Ulster camogie since Antrim's sixth senior title 20 years earlier. And no county from the province has reached the semi-final since with Derry from 2013-16 the last Ulster county to feature at senior level.

"The 1998 team disintegrated fairly quickly after that heavy defeat to Tipperary. There were injuries and retirements and Down went back into the Intermediate. We then dropped down to Junior and it wasn't easy to get back up again."

In fact McGourty, who was one of the leading forwards of her generation, was in Down teams that lost three All-Ireland Junior finals before they scored the last eight points against Laois in the 2014 final to win by 1-12 to 1-8.

"We had the potential to push on in 2014, but again that win was followed by players stepping down, going travelling etc and the next few years were lost. It became a struggle to play for Down, attendance at training was poor and there was a lot of apathy.

"The frustrating thing for me was that there was a lot of potential in the county, but we were not getting the best players committing to the team.

"I just decided to stop playing. I was starting to think that my county career was over and I might get a few more years with the club."

It is well documented now that Down struggled to field through the national league in 2018 and their management walked away before a relegation play-off. Yet they won the play-off, added the Ulster title and went all the way to an All-Ireland final that summer.

"That was the potential I saw playing against these girls at club level," says the Ballycran forward who was still one of the top scorers in club camogie.

"I felt that I had still something to offer at county level and I came back in for 2019. There were players needed for the league because Clonduff were playing for an All-Ireland club title and I played up front in most of the league games.

"When it came around to the Ulster championship however, I found myself in goals! Maria McNally had picked up an injury and a goalie was needed."

She won an Ulster title between the posts, 14 years after her only other provincial medal when she scored two points in the 2005 defeat of Derry.

Last Saturday she picked up her third Ulster senior medal to add to the All-Ireland Intermediate and Division Two medals that have come her way since last December.

"Coming at this stage of my career, I appreciate them a lot more. When I won the first Ulster medal in 2005, I thought that we would win plenty more. We didn't. So I am really enjoying playing at the minute.

"We have a strong team, a really ambitious team with a good management structure that do a huge amount research before games and they push us forward all the time.

"It's great to be part of that set-up and players can develop in that environment," says the teacher in Our Lady's & St Patrick's College Knock.

"For me, it's about completing the circle. When I started out with Down, the county was in the senior championship and able to win their way through to an All-Ireland semi-final.

"Now that we are back in the senior championship,I am looking forward to see how far we can go in it."