Linda Collins was one of a slew of talented young players earmarked for future stardom a few years ago when a number of Cork legends retired.
Having been the key contributor as Cork reached the 2014 All-Ireland minor final, only to lose in a replay to Limerick, and in the Rebels’ advancement to the last two Intermediate deciders, which also ended in disappointment, it seemed inevitable that she would graduate to the senior team.
She is only 21, so Collins has time on her side. There is no doubt that the progress stalled for a stage and the anticipated upward trajectory of her graph had levelled off.
Something was wrong.
Only so many can make it of course but Collins had the skills, strength and was a lethal finisher. Paudie Murray has illustrated his willingness to fast-track young players with promise on countless occasions over the years. Libby Coppinger, Niamh McCarthy and Chloe Sigerson were stars of last year’s All-Ireland-winning campaign.
One has to be wary, given that she played throughout last year’s league and in the final against Kilkenny (another loss), but something is different this time around.
In the semi-final, Collins hit Limerick for 2-03 from play in a game that Cork only won by four points. It was a match-defining contribution in a major game at senior level, earning her player of the match garlands.
It is, she says, down to a shift in mentality. She had applied a subconscious handbrake, placed barriers in her path.
The Courcey Rovers sharpshooter never truly believed that she was good enough to be operating at elite level and was consumed by fear that she would be found out, exposed as a fraud.
Now, she is performing with more freedom, adopting a happy-go-lucky approach on the pitch.
Off it, the last fortnight has been a flurry of assignments, with an exam thrown in at Mary I, where she is studying to become a primary school teacher.
Those commitments prevented her joining the rest of the All-Ireland-winning squad on their holiday but not from baby-sitting and child-minding, which she does as part-time work. She is intent on keeping herself busy.
"I try to anyway. Otherwise you’d be overthinking things and what not," she chuckles.
Recognising that a problem exists is the first step to solving it and Collins is no longer tying herself up in knots. Stripping it all back and playing for fun seems to have released the shackles.
It being sport, she won’t be brilliant every day, and might stink the odd one. That’s okay too, but she goes into Sunday’s Littlewoods Ireland Division 1 final with Kilkenny in a very positive frame of mind.
She thought what might be going wrong last year and kept coming back to her preparation for the 2016 All-Ireland intermediate final. A broken thumb had almost ruled her out. She had missed a lot of training and went into the game expecting nothing. Completely relaxed, Collins was Player of the Match in a losing effort, scoring 1-05. Replicating that mindset was the pivotal.
"It is a step up to senior and every year I get so far and then feel like I can never go the next step. But playing with players like Gemma O’Connor and Orla Cotter is surreal and in my head I was thinking ‘Am I even good enough to be playing with them?’ but this year, I’ve taken the approach that I’ve nothing to lose and I might as well go out and enjoy it."
"When you’re playing with a smile on your face, it’s easier to enjoy it. You’re more relaxed on the ball, more confident"
The feedback from the coaching staff has been an essential element of the process.
"Kevin Murray is very good. He’d always be giving me tips and tricks, what to improve on. What I’m good at and what I’m not so good at. Orla Cotter and Aoife Murray would be very good too. They’re very encouraging at training but even away from training, telling you what you might need to brush up on and giving you a confidence boost too.
"I suppose my confidence in my own ability would have been a problem last year. I don’t know why I lost confidence. As well, I was struggling with fitness since the start of the year. After the exams I got fitter but I suppose it was too late by then. I have tried to keep that going into this year and so far it’s been going okay."
Collins has learned to draw on previous good performances. She added to that resource at Cork IT four weeks ago. It was a real fillip.
"You feel that you can play at that level so that’s definitely a confidence boost. And it was nice to get the win against Limerick too as I’m in college with a lot of the girls."
This next hurdle is more testing, with the opposition chasing a three-in-a-row, the game live on TG4 and the memory of last year, when she was withdrawn very early in the second half, to overcome. But the new Collins is not building it up.
"There’s no two ways about it, Kilkenny are going to be a very strong and fast team. But the worst you can do is go out and play bad. You’ve nothing to lose, just go out and give it your best.
"When you’re playing with a smile on your face, it’s easier to enjoy it. You’re more relaxed on the ball, more confident.
"I think I probably put too much pressure on myself before. When I was 18, and knowing the talent that was there, every time I’d get the ball I was so nervous. But now I realise you have to say to yourself ‘You are good enough, relax and remember why you’re playing it in the first place.’
"Last year, Chloe, Libby and Niamh Mac had a great league and were all drafted into the senior team and played the full championship. So it’s a great opportunity and we’ll see how we get on. There are open doors and if you’re playing well, they won’t leave you behind."