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From struggling with numbers to an All-Ireland final, and the importance of Mayo's versatile All-Star

The journey to a first national decider has been ‘the dream,’ says CL McHale Rovers captain Marie Larkin.

INTERVIEWS WITH CLUB players are often a mixed bag. 

marie-larkin CL McHale Rovers captain Marie Larkin. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

The majority of them have little to no media experience so at times, it can be difficult as they’re surrounded by recording devices and journalists throwing various questions in their direction. Well, the beginning, anyway.

Sometimes, the first few questions are like pulling teeth before the player settles into proceedings and becomes more comfortable in unfamiliar surroundings.

CL McHale Rovers captain Marie Larkin defies all of the above, though, as she’s all chat from the get-go ahead of her side’s first All-Ireland junior club final on Sunday. 

An exciting week, looking forward to an All-Ireland final, what’s the feeling like?

And she’s off, with the two journalists in her company left hanging onto her every word.

“I didn’t expect to be looking forward to it,” the Mayo native explains. “The feeling, it’s nearly like preparing for the county final. For us, this year, the county final was the biggest thing. We didn’t make it to it last year. That was our aim this year: to make it to the county final.

It’s been a long journey but it’s been the dream so far. Long may it last.

A fairly nice bit of bonus territory, so. She smiles and nods in agreement.

“The Connacht final and then the trip to Manchester for the All-Ireland quarter-final — that was great. That was a trip I’ll never forget.

“It was like playing a game at home with all the support that was there. It was absolutely incredible. People travelled over and there were people living over there too, people who would have roots at home. They looked after us quite well with accommodation, feeding us…

“We got the bus over. Willie B brought us over along with the supporters’ bus as well. The supporters’ bus travelled through the night — made it in time for the match. We travelled the day before and came home the day after.

ROVERS The side earlier in the campaign. Source: Crossmolina/Lahardane/Ardagh- Mc Hale Rovers Ladies GAA Facebook.

“We met the supporters in the pub for a while after. Then they left and travelled through the night home again. It was mad, but it was great. We got the result out of it as well. It was even more enjoyable.”

That’s what it’s all about. 

This has been a surreal year for CL McHale Rovers, it must be said.

Technically, an amalgamation of two clubs — Crossmolina and Lahardane, with players from floating club Ardagh also involved — they were struggling for numbers earlier in the season. Now, they’re in an All-Ireland final.

Larkin herself lives in Dublin, and can’t make midweek training but races home for Friday night sessions and another on Sunday. The commitment was a struggle for everyone early on, she says, but they’re a long way from those days now. 

We started on February 3rd,” the 23-year-old continues. “Back then, nobody knew what we were capable of. The belief came from somewhere and once that came, the numbers started coming out and things started clicking for us.

“In the beginning, it wasn’t easy.”

One player springs to mind at that point: Ruth Queenan.

“One of the girls that instigated it in the beginning — she was always there, day and night — got herself fit and was playing full-back or corner-back for us. Just before Manchester, she broke her ankle in training.

“My heart goes out to her. She’s still on the sideline at every single training, standing there holding herself up with her crutches and the cast on. It’s people like that who are driving us on. She would give everything to be on that pitch.

“She got the cast off there on Friday and part of me thinks she will be out there on Sunday. She would love to be out there but she can’t.”

rachel-kearns-scores-a-goal-past-lisa-murphy Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Another massive influence on the team must be mentioned also. 

Mayo defender-turned keeper-turned All-Star full-forward Rachel Kearns is CL McHale Rovers’ biggest name. On Saturday night, she was honoured at the 2019 TG4 Ladies Football All-Star awards after a stellar campaign in the Green and Red.

In Sarah Rowe’s absence through the league, Kearns impressed on the square and then held onto the number 14 jersey for the year, posting some incredible scoring returns. 

In 2018, she lined out in defence for the Westerner’s and earned herself an All-Star nomination, while she even appeared in goals in the 2017 Division 1 league final.

She’s just as important for CL McHale Rovers, Larkin assures.

“She’s been incredible for us this year. She’s such a threat in attack. Even for Mayo, last year she was lining out in goals and as a defender. She’s definitely found her true calling at full-forward. We’re so proud of her, thrilled for her and her family. It’s nothing less than she deserves with what she’s done for Mayo this year and the club as well.

I don’t think she realises it, but the effect she’s having on the younger players on the team – we have quite a young team. Even the younger girls in the club, our U13 girls were in the county final a few weeks ago, and Rachel — she has no relations on the team — but she was there watching the game; they lost by a point, unfortunately.

“For the young girls to see her at that game [is inspiring]. At training, she’s telling the younger girls to carry the ball or this was good or that was good. What that means to them is unreal and I don’t think she realises how much of an effect she’s having on them.”

“Sure, she has [underage] caps for Ireland in soccer,” Larkin adds when it’s noted just how talented Kearns is. “She has an All-Ireland title in boxing as well.

tg4-all-ireland-ladies-football-all-stars-awards Kearns receiving her All-Star award on Saturday night. Source: Brendan Moran/SPORTSFILE

“At school, she would have thrown her hand at basketball. She’s one of those who will be good at whatever she does.”

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While Larkin is from Crossmolina like Kearns, she says that it makes no odds which parish you hail from in the club now.

It’s not tough to bring players from three different teams at all. 

“You hear the talk from years ago that there was a bit of aggro with managers being from one side and players from one side getting more game time than the others,” she explains.

“When there was a team in Lahardane, the girls from Crossmolina went there and played and when there was a team in Crossmolina, the girls from Lahardane came down.

“This year, I keep saying it, with the amount of travelling we’re doing — 30-plus girls — we couldn’t be getting on better. There’s no divide. It’s easy enough because we go to school together and generally play at underage together.

And the support of the parishes is absolutely unreal. There’s flags, there’s bunting, there’s car flags. It’s nearly just as well that I’m in Dublin because I’d be gone mad if I was seeing that every day at home!

A physiotherapist in the Rotunda Hospital, Larkin works with women who are pregnant and others who have just had babies.

“It’s very different to your pitchside physio but it’s nice to do a bit of it all,” she smiles. “I’ve done a bit of physio this year for the Ardagh team, once or twice for Crossmolina and Lahardane as well.

“We have another on the team who is a physio for those clubs as well. It’s nice to do a bit of it all, dabble in the women’s health and the sports side of it.”

dmore Larkin with Donoughmore's Eileen Lyons at yesterday's captains' day.

The entire focus is on her own game on Sunday against Cork’s Donoughmore — for whom Rena Buckley plies her trade — of course [throw-in 2pm, Duggan Park, Ballinasloe - live on LGFA Facebook Page], where Larkin is relishing a tough encounter.

It will be our toughest challenge this year,” she assures. “We know there are big names on the other team, savage experience. We’re going to give it what we have. We think we have what it takes to come out on top. The talent is there.

Above all else, she sees an extremely bright future for CL McHale Rovers.

“The way I look at it; there are two or three college girls on the team but other than that, it’s either girls who are still in school or the likes of me, out working,” she concludes.

“There’s definitely a good mix of youth and experience. Definitely, we’re going places.

“In Edendork [in the semi-final], our U12 team played against the Edendork U12 team at half-time and they came out with the win – they had a great game. There’s a couple of stars at every age group coming up.

Them seeing what we’re doing no is only going to drive them on. The future is bright for McHale Rovers.

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Emma Duffy

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