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Dublin: 6 °C Wednesday 19 December, 2018

Putting her soccer career on hold to chase All-Ireland senior glory with Mayo

We sat down with Mayo’s Sarah Rowe, as her side prepare to face Dublin in the All-Ireland final tomorrow.

Lottoland Sarah Rowe 01 Source: lorraineosullivan

THE LAST TIME Mayo lifted the Brendan Martin Cup, Sarah Rowe was just eight.

Sitting in the Merrion Hotel, she smiles as she looks back through the years to that September day in 2003, even though she admits that she hardly remembers it.

Her memory is slightly fresher of her county’s last All-Ireland ladies senior final appearance in 2007. Rowe actually played at half-time in a Cumann na mBunscoil game that day as Cork won the second of their 11 titles in the 12 years that would follow, in the main event.

The finer details of the senior game are hard to recall, but she still remembers that losing feeling afterwards. And of course, that admiration she had for the players in the green and red jersey, even though they were on the beaten side.

“I remember playing in Croke Park and looking at the older girls saying ‘I really hope that’s me when I’m older,’” she smiles. “But it was obviously such a dream, and something that was so far out of my reach at that time, but now it’s actually real life.

“I’ve memories of them losing the final. I remember things like that. Even when you’re not playing, they don’t leave you.

“I don’t remember them ever winning it but I do remember looking up to the likes of Yvonne Byrne and Cora Staunton, the girls who I play with now.”

Of those younger years that Rowe can’t recall a whole pile from, Mayo reached five deciders in-a-row, winning four of them. They were notable absentees in the 2004 — Galway were victorious — but then came Cork’s remarkable period of dominance.

“Mayo were the team,” she continues. “Cork were the ones to knock them off their pedestal. Cork came along and Cork never looked back, basically.”

There was that gap year in 2010, in which Dublin lifted the title, but then it was back to business for the Rebels as they clocked up six-in-a-row.

But fittingly for Mayo, it was Frank Browne’s charges who ended their bid for a seventh consecutive title with a two-point semi-final win in Breffni Park almost three weeks ago.

Marie Ambrose with Sarah Rowe Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

“We always said ‘Well, they’re the ones that knocked us off that pedestal so now it’s our turn to knock them of theirs,’” she continues.

“I always felt that we were the team that could’ve beaten Cork because we matched them for physicality, we’ve a similar style of football. I always thought we could.”

And to add another layer to that win, it was the exact same venue and the exact same stage in the championship that Mayo had been edged at last year.

Dublin — their opposition tomorrow — broke the Westerner’s hearts with the last kick of the game as Sinead Aherne slotted a free-kick over the bar to book her side’s date with the Rebels.

“We were saying ‘Well, we have time now to change history,’” Rowe says of the mood in the camp before this year’s clash in Cavan.

“We were in the exact same changing room, exact same warm-up area, exact same everything, but we had time to change it.

“We had so much hurt bottled up from the year before that we were like ‘Under no circumstances do we want to be sitting in this changing room after, having lost the game.’

“We were all sitting in the seats that we normally sit in Breffni. We just got up and moved and said ‘Different seats, different result’. It was as if it was set up for us. It felt like that.”

And the emotional scenes when the final whistle went?

“I just couldn’t really believe it. I was so overwhelmed by all of the feelings. I couldn’t process it…. the fact that we were in a final, that it was All-Ireland final day, that this is something that I’ve always dreamed of.

“The fact that we beat Cork as well — such a formidable force, a team who we have massive respect for and aspire to be.”

It is indeed something that the Kilmoremoy forward has always dreamed of, and made all the more sweeter considering the decision she was faced with towards the end of last year.

Having played international soccer with Ireland through the underage ranks and lined out for Shelbourne in the Women’s National League, the 22-year-old felt that she should stick to one sport or the other.

After winning the league last year, the north Dublin side qualified for the Champions League, and then came a huge decision — European soccer or inter-county football.

Shelbourne v UCD Waves - Continental Tyres Women's National League Source: Stephen McCarthy/SPORTSFILE

“I kind of said ‘a jack of all trades, master of none’. I needed to focus on one and GAA has gotten so much more professional than it ever was. It demands a lot more of you, of your body. I don’t think I would have been able to do both, and perform well at both.

“I just said I’d sacrifice this for this year because it could be the girls’ (Cora Staunton, Yvonne Byrne and Martha Carter) last year, I don’t know. I was just like ‘I need to give Mayo a proper go’.

“Hopefully I’ll go back to soccer now once all the dust settles. I do miss it. But I just think that the GAA has stepped it up a notch, it’s nearly gone ahead of the soccer in terms of professionalism.”

Her career in the green jersey has been a fruitful one, from playing a central part in the U19′s memorable campaign at the Uefa European Championships in 2014 to earning her place on the Women’s National Team squad on several occasions.

As she’s mentioned, she feels that there have been big changes across the board over the past few years.

“When I used to play with Ireland it was different, it was very professional, you got more or less anything you needed. I loved that set-up and I thrived of that.

“When I used to go back to a GAA pitch in the middle of Belmullet in Mayo, I’d be thinking to myself ‘What am I doing here?’ when I was in such a professional set-up. You were so well treated but you trained hard and got treated well outside it.

“But the GAA now has gone nearly as professional as the soccer, if not more. It gets more publicity, you get a bit more recognised for what you do. It’s more local. I 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’. Then when you’re playing for Mayo it’s like ‘These are my best friends, they all are from Mayo, we all share the same interests, we all care about Mayo, it’s for Mayo’.

“You come up all the way through, it’s not just like you’re friends here for two or three years and then you’ve other friends here, they’re friends that you’ve had for life, and friends that you will have for life. For me anyway, it means an awful lot more.

“But then obviously, to represent your country at that level at soccer is another thing — you’re proud of doing that as well and proud of representing your country. But there’s something just really nice about playing the GAA and the GAA culture.”

Sarah Rowe Source: Tom Beary/INPHO

With the possibility of a soccer scholarship in America however, Rowe could be easily swayed.

She’d love to play and do a Masters across the pond after finishing her PE and Biology degree in DCU next year, but she’d also consider going down the professional route.

“I don’t want to look back on my career and think of what I didn’t do, what I could have done,” she says. “I don’t want my soccer career to pass me by, so I do have a decision to make in the next few months.”

But the focus is firmly on the present, on Mayo and on the sixty minutes of football that stand in the way of that coveted All-Ireland senior title tomorrow.

The draw of lifting the Brendan Martin cup with her county is the strongest for now.

“Definitely,” she agrees. “It’s the people, it’s the friends, the girls on the team, we’re so close. It doesn’t matter what age you are, Cora (Staunton) and Yvonne (Byrne) were up in Dublin last night and they stayed with me — they’re 35, I’m 22 — but it doesn’t even feel like it, we just all feel the same age.

“There’s great craic around the camp, there always has been, there always will be. That bond is deep.”

With the sense that it’s a matter of now or never for Staunton, Byrne and Carter, Rowe is fully aware that this could be the last time she lines out alongside her childhood heroes in the green and red.

“When Cora, Martha and Yvonne go it’ll be a sad day, we’ll miss them terribly, but we have to get on with it,” she says.

“If you were to be a predicting woman you’d feel that there wouldn’t be too much longer left in the three girls. But they’re great craic, they’re great people, they bring all of that to the team as well.

“Just their experience and things they think of that half of us wouldn’t think of. They help to keep everyone grounded, they’ve played in finals — both winning and losing.

Sarah Rowe and Hyeji Hong Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

“They say losing is the most… it’s the place you never want to be ever again. They’re like ‘Croke Park is the best place in the world, but it’s only the best place in the world when you win’.

“We’re living and learning from them every day…. and laughing at them as well!”

There’s a great sense of camaraderie between the group, and that’s firmly backed up through a piece Staunton did with The Mayo News in June.

“Sarah ‘Guns’ Rowe thought she was Adele and decided to go up and do some karaoke. Let’s just say singing isn’t one of her talents!” the 35-year-old said of their team holiday to Portugal.

And Rowe’s response to that claim: “I’m not exactly a singer but I might have had maybe one or 10 drinks! I was convinced to go up on the karaoke, I was easily lead at the time.”

They’ve come a long, long way as a unit from that team holiday before the business end of the season landed.

There was their disappointment in the Connacht final as they were beaten by Galway and forced through a more difficult route through the qualifiers rather than direct to the All-Ireland quarter-final stages.

Opposition came in the form of a transitional Kildare side in early August, last year’s All-Ireland intermediate champions who have since been relegated back to the second tier.

The difference was 21 points in the end, but that’s quite an unfair reflection on the Lilywhites, who battled gamely before Mayo pulled away in the second half.

Next up was a huge six-point victory over Ulster champions Donegal, and then came the remarkable win over Cork.

“It’d be no good to us now, to be honest,” Rowe says of their hard-fought campaign, if they fail to close the deal this weekend.

“It’s 2017, we have no silverware yet. We haven’t really won anything. We’ve performed well in the last two games, but I still think that there’s more in us.”

Lottoland Sarah Rowe 05 Source: lorraineosullivan

And they’ll need to summon everything they have in them to stop Mick Bohan’s Dublin.

Having lost the last three deciders, the Sky Blues will be looking to finally put that hurt to bed and climb the steps of the Hogan Stand.

Mayo have plenty to drive them on themselves, however.

“We’ve had momentum going into every game — Donegal being favourites, Cork being unbeatable, the formidable force that they are, and now Dublin, the hurt from last year [losing to them in the semi-final].

“There’s constant hurt in the county every year. We’ve had a great team the last few years but we just haven’t gotten out of the blocks. We’ve under performed.

“The value of playing in Croke Park [in this year's league] will stand to us. It’s not going to be a shock now, we’re not going to go onto the pitch and be all starry eyed about the fact that this is Croke Park, the best stadium in Ireland.”

She’s made no secret of the fact that those U19 European Champions were a magical period in her life. But would winning that coveted All-Ireland senior title trump all?

“We performed extremely well in four out of our five games at the European Chamships, but we didn’t win anything. They were the best two or three weeks of my life, but we came home with nothing.

So basically, yes.

“We’re feeling great the past few weeks, but we haven’t won anything — to win it would be unbelievable. It’s going to be an absolute battle?

And does she have her Adele song chosen if they win on Sunday?

“Hmm, depends, I might go with a bit of Britney Spears…..”

Sarah Rowe was speaking at the launch of Lottoland’s ClubPlay Fundraising initiative for sports clubs where clubs will receive 7% of lottery ticket sales as well as be entered into quarterly giveaways with thousands of euro to be won.

Source: The42 Podcasts/SoundCloud

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‘I’ve been watching from the sidelines for the past two years, wishing I was out there’

Torn between Champions League and inter-county football: A day in the life of Sarah Rowe

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