No love lost as Dublin and Mayo face off

Bo­han’s com­ments about Staunton have set spicy tone for to­mor­row’s fi­nal

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - Malachy Clerkin

Dublin v Mayo Croke Park, to­mor­row, 4.0pm TG4

The last bit of busi­ness in Croke Park for the year has the po­ten­tial to ri­val much if not most of what’s gone on there be­fore. Dublin and Mayo face off to­mor­row for a women’s All-Ire­land fi­nal that has a nice bit of nig­gle nib­bling at its toes be­fore a ball is even kicked. It might have been pre­sumed that once Cork left the stage, the women’s show­piece might find it­self a lit­tle light on sto­ry­lines. Not so.

Even if you hadn’t Dublin in their fourth fi­nal in a row, hav­ing lost the first three; even if you hadn’t Mayo back in a fi­nal for the first time since 2007, their county board hav­ing all but dis­banded them in the mean­time; even if you hadn’t the LGFA rea­son­ably con­fi­dent of beat­ing last year’s record at­ten­dance fig­ure given a good day – even if you hadn’t all that to stick in your satchel, the flurry of tem­per this week be­tween the re­spec­tive man­age­ment teams would be plenty to keep you go­ing.

To re­cap. Dublin man­ager Mick Bo­han – who was, by co­in­ci­dence, in charge of the Jack­ies when Mayo last won an All-Ire­land back in 2003 – ginned up a snappy lit­tle dog-whis­tle for the ears of Sun­day’s ref­eree Sea­mus Mul­vi­hill by slip­ping into a long and gush­ing trib­ute to Cora Staunton a small men­tion of her abil­ity “to in­tim­i­date ref­er­ees”. This was duly snatched up by Mayo coach Pe­ter Leahy, who sum­moned up his high­est dud­geon to call it “a ridicu­lous state­ment, a very in­sult­ing state­ment”.

Sore­ness

Add in a fur­ther bit of Mayo sore­ness at what they per­ceived as Bo­han sug­gest­ing they use head in­juries to slow down the game, not to men­tion the, ahem, close mark­ing Staunton re­ceived in last year’s All-Ire­land semi-fi­nal be­tween the two teams and you have quite the de­li­cious af­ter­noon in prospect.

The last four women’s foot­ball fi­nals have been de­cided, re­spec­tively, by a point, two points, a point and a point – this is a game that hasn’t dis­ap­pointed in re­cent times.

Cork’s long and im­pla­ca­ble reign as equal-op­por­tu­ni­ties de­stroy­ers means that nei­ther of these sides has a mo­nop­oly on grief com­ing into this. Staunton and her Mayo team­mates walked out of Croke Park in 2003 with their fourth All-Ire­land in five years – if you’d said to them that day they’d still be wait­ing on the next one 14 years later, you’d have been on the sharp end of a dirty look or two. As for Dublin, they’ve lost the last three fi­nals by an ac­cu­mu­lated to­tal of four points. They are long past the point of enough-is-enough.

Bo­han’s side have been eas­ily the most im­pres­sive team in the com­pe­ti­tion this year. They have been largely play­ing against their own vi­sion of them­selves, swish­ing aside Laois (by 28 points), West­meath (by 19), Water­ford (14) and Kerry (14). Kerry are the only one of those teams who would have been ex­pected to give them any­thing ap­proach­ing a game, but still, you have to ad­mire how they’ve made short work of ev­ery­one.

Bumpy road

Mayo’s road to the fi­nal has been a lit­tle bumpier, it’s true. But there would ap­pear to be more meat in what they’ve had to get past to make it to this point. The de­feat to Gal­way in the Con­nacht cham­pi­onship was heavy enough – 3-12 to 1-8 – and dif­fi­cult to dis­miss as just one of those things. Get­ting past Done­gal and Cork in the All-Ire­land se­ries re­quired ac­cess to a gear Dublin haven’t had to go look­ing for yet. Mayo know they have it – Dublin can only rea­son­ably hope they do.

It would be wrong to re­duce Mayo to Staunton and Staunton alone. Ire­land soc­cer in­ter­na­tional Sarah Rowe is the brains of the team and they are strong-run­ning through­out the pitch. But there’s no get­ting away from it ei­ther – Staunton has lasted at this level for 23 years be­cause most Mayo games come down to whether the op­po­si­tion can hold the best fe­male for­ward ever to lace up a pair of boots.

Dublin needed all man­ner of means – fair, foul and all the rest – to keep tabs on her last year. The sus­pi­cion here is that they won’t be dainty about it this time around and, fur­ther­more, that that will be enough.

Sarah Rowe smiles at the mem­ory of the pre-match mu­si­cal chairs in the Br­effni Park chang­ing rooms three weeks ago.

Mayo had put in months of hard graft, their prepa­ra­tions fine-tuned, their form good, they’d beaten a fan­cied Done­gal side by six points in the quar­ter-fi­nals. But they were leav­ing noth­ing to chance.

A year be­fore she and her team-mates had left the Ca­van ground feel­ing de­stroyed. They had trailed Dublin by eight points in their All-Ire­land semi-fi­nal, bat­tled back to level the game, only to con­cede the win­ning point in the dy­ing sec­onds.

It was hard enough to take for the team’s stal­warts, Cora Staunton, Yvonne Byrne and Martha Carter, all of whom have All-Ire­land medals to their name, but for the younger crew, Rowe among them, who had never even made it to Croke Park with their county, it was dev­as­tat­ing.

Twelve months on and they were back in Br­effni Park.

“Ex­act same chang­ing room, ex­act same warm-up area, ex­act same every­thing. And we were all sit­ting in the same seats we nor­mally sit in.

“So we just got up and moved. Dif­fer­ent seats, dif­fer­ent re­sult? We were re­ally su­per­sti­tious about it. Un­der no cir­cum­stances did we want to be sit­ting in that chang­ing room again feel­ing the same way.”

And then they went out and beat the seven-in-a-row-seek­ing Cork to put Mayo through to their first fi­nal in a decade. Even the scep­tics stopped doubt­ing the power of mu­si­cal chairs.

Hard work

“I was just over­whelmed by it. We were in an All-Ire­land fi­nal, some­thing I’d al­ways dreamt of, and the fact that we’d beaten Cork as well, a team who we have mas­sive re­spect for and as­pire to be. Beat­ing a team like that made you feel like all your hard work was put to good use.”

Un­til March of this year, when Mayo played – and beat – Dublin in a league game at Croke Park, the only day Rowe had set foot on the pitch was at half-time in the 2007 All-Ire­land fi­nal, the then 12-year-old tak­ing part in a Cu­mann na mBun­scoil game.

There was heart­break that day too, Mayo los­ing to Cork, but Rowe re­mem­bers watch­ing the likes of Staunton, Byrne and Carter in ac­tion and be­ing in awe.

“I was look­ing up at them, I was like ‘woah!’,” she laughs. “And think­ing ‘I re­ally hope that’s me one day’. But it was so far from my reach at that time. Now it’s ac­tu­ally real.”

So, here she is, pre­par­ing with team-mates Staunton, Byrne and Carter for Mayo’s first fi­nal since 2007, seek­ing the county’s first All-Ire­land ti­tle since 2003, the year Rowe took up Gaelic foot­ball. Mayo beat Dublin that day, and it’s Dublin they must beat again on Sun­day to bridge the gap.

She was born the same year Staunton made her de­but for Mayo, in 1995, and like the rest of the team waited anx­iously to hear whether she, Byrne and Carter would de­cide to re­tire or play on af­ter last sea­son.

“But Cora al­ways said to us ‘when I leave, why would you leave? There’s so much more in you. When we go it’s your turn, you have to step up – you can’t just quit be­cause we’re quit­ting, that’s stupid’. I was like ‘yeah, you’re right’. There’s more of a ca­reer left in me. When they go it’ll be a sad day, we’ll miss them ter­ri­bly, but we’ll have to get on with it.”

“So we didn’t re­ally know if they were go­ing to come back this year, we’d been back do­ing a bit of pre-sea­son work and there was no sign of them. And then they ar­rived in to train­ing one day and there was a big hooray, we were thrilled.

“They’re great craic, they’re great peo­ple, we’re liv­ing and learn­ing from them every day. The bond is deep. There wouldn’t be too much longer left in the three girls, but for now their ex­pe­ri­ence is in­valu­able to us. Peo­ple say Croke Park is the best place in the world, but they tell us it’s only the best place in the world when you win. And they’ve won and lost there.”

The 22-year-old from Bal­lina, who is in her fi­nal year at DCU do­ing PE and Bi­ol­ogy, had her own big de­ci­sion to make ahead of this year, whether or not to con­tinue try­ing to com­bine her Gaelic foot­ball with a promis­ing ca­reer in soc­cer.

She was a mem­ber of the Ire­land un­der-19 squad that reached the semi-fi­nals of the Euro­pean Cham­pi­onships in 2014, earn­ing a call-up to the se­nior squad later that year. But for 2017 she de­cided to put her fo­cus on Mayo, tak­ing a break from play­ing with Shel­bourne.

Schol­ar­ship in Amer­ica

“I just said I’d sac­ri­fice the soc­cer for this year be­cause it could be the girls’ [Staunton, Byrne and Carter] last, I don’t know. I wanted to give Mayo a proper go. Hope­fully I’ll go back to soc­cer, I do miss it. There’s a pos­si­bil­ity of a schol­ar­ship in Amer­ica, a few of­fers have come my way, from Philadel­phia, Atlanta, Chicago, so I might go over and do a Masters for a year, see how it goes. I don’t want my soc­cer ca­reer to pass me by, I’d love a chance to play pro­fes­sion­ally, so I have a de­ci­sion to make in the next few months.”

“But the GAA has re­ally stepped up a notch. Af­ter be­ing with the Ir­ish [soc­cer] set-up in the past I used to go back to a GAA pitch in the mid­dle of Bel­mul­let and I’d be think­ing to my­self, ‘what am I do­ing here?’ when I was in such a pro­fes­sional set-up, which I thrived on. But def­i­nitely, the GAA now has gone nearly as pro­fes­sional as the soc­cer, if not more. Things have im­proved so much.

“And I just find that the soc­cer isn’t as loyal. I played for Bal­lina Town, Castle­bar Celtic, Ra­heny and Shels . . there’s no real loy­alty there. It’s not like ‘I want to kill for my club be­cause it’s my home­town, it’s my peo­ple, it’s my com­mu­nity’.

“There’s some­thing just re­ally nice about play­ing the GAA and the GAA cul­ture.

“You’re with Mayo and these are my best friends, and will be for life. We’re all from Mayo, we all care about Mayo, and on Sun­day we’ll try to do it for Mayo.”

Mayo’s Cora Staunton: con­tain­ing her will be key to Dublin’s chances

Sarah Rowe: ‘You’re with Mayo and these are my best friends, and will be for life’

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