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Sarah Rowe determined to help lift spirits in her native Mayo

All-Ireland final against Dublin presents county’s women with ideal opportunity

Sarah Tierney, left, and team-mate Sarah Rowe. “We’re all from Mayo, we all care about Mayo, and on Sunday we’ll try to do it for Mayo.” Photograph: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

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.

“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.

Sad day

“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 Irish 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.

“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.”