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Dublin: 12°C Tuesday 11 May 2021

'I was in college and my Dad rang me saying, 'There's a letter from Arsenal here''

A devastating injury hampered Shaunagh McCarthy’s first year with Cork City – but a letter from Arsenal’s Hector Bellerin lifted her spirits.

2019 IS UNDOUBTEDLY a year that will always stand out in Shaunagh McCarthy’s memory. It’s been nothing short of a roller coaster ride for the Cork City youngster. 

The 20-year-old made the jump to Women’s National League [WNL] football in February, and was living her dream after a colourful sporting childhood, lining out with the Leesiders.

shaunaghccfc Cork City star Shaunagh McCarthy. Source: Cork City FC Twitter.

But just 10 games later, McCarthy suffered a devastating knee injury, and had her promising season cut short.

A letter from a certain Arsenal superstar, Hector Bellerin, on her birthday well and truly lifted her spirits, and boosted her recovery, but one must go right back to McCarthy’s roots to learn just how significant that gesture was for the Cork native. 

“My Dad and my brother, we’re really big Arsenal fans,” she tells The42. “They used to live next to Highbury over in London. They’re the ones that really got me into it and that’s why I became an Arsenal supporter.”

She was born and bred in Cork though, and her fascination with football began where most others do: in the garden back home. 

“When I was two or three my brother and his friends used to play out in the back garden with me,” she grins, mapping her journey to where she is today.

“When I was about five I was brought to Ballincolling, there was no girls team so I joined in with the boys. I went there until my team had to enter the schoolboys’ league, and obviously being a girl, I couldn’t go with them.”

At the age of 10, McCarthy stopped playing soccer and her sporting journey took a different turn. 

She got involved in gymnastics, and her star soon started to rise and rise as she began competing at the highest level nationally, and she soon took the international stage by storm.

McCarthy played a bit of Gaelic football here and there too, and was involved with Cork teams but “never took it as seriously as I did the gymnastics and soccer now,” but the other two sports just naturally came to a close after a few years.

“In gymnastics you just get too old really,” she explains. “Your body can’t do what you could do anymore.

“Well, I had a bit of a back problem. I did acrobatics; you have to lift people and throw them up in the air, catch them again and hold them. My back was kind of giving in. I used to do tumbling, which is all the back flips and stuff.

“It’s taking a big toll on your body, but I just remember being like, ‘I think I’ve done enough now. I’ve represented internationally and nationally.’ I don’t think I could have went any further, so then I said, ‘Ah, sure I’ll venture out into something new.’”

mccarthy2 Shaunagh McCarthy officially out pen to paper for City in March. Source: Cork City FC.

And it was a friend who actually put the football back in her head. A suggestion to rejoin got McCarthy thinking, but she was unsure at first.

“I was really hesitant,” she recalls. “I was like, ‘I’m never going to be good at soccer’ or whatever, because I was concentrating on gymnastics. But I said I’d give it a go anyway because I wasn’t doing anything in my free time after quitting gymnastics.”

“I got a taste of it when I was young, and when I was 16, I went back to it,” she smiles of her second coming. 

She took her friend’s invite up, joined Wilton United and linked up with the Pat Bowdren Park’s U18 outfit. Her talent shone through from the get-go there, and she was soon fast-tracked to the senior team.

“I was straight in between the two,” she remembers her 16th year onward fondly, and tells of how delighted she was to go back to her roots. “I did that for a couple of years.

“This season, in February, I started playing with Cork City.”

So here we are, 2019.

All was going to plan, with McCarthy leading the line at the back for Ronán Collins’ side.

Until mid-July.

“I was getting game time with Cork City and I didn’t want to ruin that obviously because this is my dream,” she continues. “But I was out one day and I literally fell awkwardly on my knee, I came down on top of it and it went outwards.

“I could hear loads of cracks like when you crack your back, I was like, ‘Oh my God, no, that’s my cruciate gone.’ I kept saying it to myself, but was trying not to believe that it was. But the pain, I’ll never forget it, like.”

She knew deep down, but gave it the night to rest before heading to the doctor. The next day, her worst nightmare was confirmed there and then, before she was sent off for a scan to assess the exact damage. 

And worse things got.

“I went to get an MRI and after the MRI, it came out that it wasn’t just my cruciate,” she notes, and you can almost hear her frown down the phone. “I also did my meniscus and tore a shock absorber as well. I went hard alright.”

By that stage, she had almost made peace with the news, though. 

It was the initial confirmation, and hearing the words for the first time, that broke her.

“I burst out into tears when it was confirmed because I couldn’t believe what had happened just after joining Cork City. Everything was going well, I was getting my game, I was delighted with myself.

“Training four times a week and then going to nothing, it was so difficult. I only got to play 10 games, which is a bit disappointing.”

And it was all compounded by that fact that she had never sustained a serious injury before. Yes, there was her back problem towards the end of her gymnastics career, but everything had cleared up since. A few niggles here and there, but no major setbacks.

Luckily enough, though, the wheels were set in motion fairly quickly so McCarthy could begin her recovery from this one. 

“I got my surgery on 29 August, I got it really quick,” she perks up. “I did my knee on 16 July so I got seen to really quickly.”

McCarthy received a major boost as she recovered after going under the knife.

Three months or so into her rehabilitation at the time of our conversation, the sheer mention of his name, the letter and surreal it all must have been, has her buzzing. 

“I was delighted,” she interjects, and doesn’t need much encouragement to share the full Bellerin story.

“My birthday is in September, and my brother was trying to think of something that would be memorable of the year, and what would help me get through it because obviously it’s such a big injury. 

“I had been looking up to Bellerin for so long because I’m not usually a left-back but I was put there this season. I really enjoy it. I was watching what he does because obviously following Arsenal that’s who I’d choose.

“He was the only actual full-back at the time, the rest were just kind of put in there. I was watching him on Youtube, seeing what he did, how he got up the wing and how he got back, his transitions and stuff. A lot of my game is running, I’m quite a quick runner so I enjoy going forward, but I was never one to get back! I had to learn how to do that.”

shaunagh With the letter. Source: With the letter.

So her brother knew exactly who to chance his arm with. He emailed Bellerin himself and asked if he could write a letter, but got no reply. So then he emailed the club and they got it all organised to arrive on McCarthy’s 20th birthday. 

“I was in college and my Dad rang me saying, ‘There’s a letter from Arsenal here.’ I was like, ‘Arsenal, what are they looking for? I hardly got a trial now or something, no, after doing my knee,’” the University College Cork [UCC] student laughs.

“I opened it and the whole letter was typed out and signed by him. I was like, ‘Dad, this is not true. Who did this?’ I couldn’t find out who did it for ages.

“I text my brother, and he replied being like, ‘Happy birthday, I hope it’s a good one.’”

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And not only did it mean so much because he’s her role model on the field, the Spaniard suffered the same cruel fate as McCarthy back in January so tracking his progress helped initially. 

“It was really good because I saw him going through his rehab, all the pictures and videos and being in the gym. It’s motivated me to be like, ‘If he can do it, everyone can do it.’ I want to be playing at that level as well so, gotta keep going.”

After Cork City shared news of the letter on Twitter, it hit the headlines both side of the water, and even further afield. And McCarthy became somewhat of a local celebrity overnight. Her team-mates for one simply “couldn’t believe it.”

“The girls at Cork City were like, ‘Oh my God, are you famous now or something?’ because it was all over Twitter, all over Facebook,” she giggles. “They were asking for my autograph and everything!

“My uncle actually, he lives in America. Before one of the Arsenal games it came up on the NBC, is that what it’s called? It came up before that. He text me straight away being like, ‘Oh my God, you’re on TV in America!’ I was like, ‘That is crazy.’”

Crazy, but made all the more special considering she and her family are lifelong Gooners.

“Oh, it was amazing. Nothing will ever beat it, to be honest. Unless I get to play for them!”

That’s the target, she agrees.

Back in the gym for a month or so and under the watchful eye of the City medical staff, McCarthy is seeing progress each and every day. 

arsenal-v-huddersfield-town-premier-league-emirates-stadium Hector Bellerin. Source: Isabel Infantes

“It’s getting so much better,” she beams. “I’m back walking normally now, I’m on the bike and doing all leg exercises. I’m delighted with that to be back able to move and stuff.

“At least looking forward, I’m getting places. When you’re at the very start, it’s very hard to just sit there — you know it’s going to happen, but just waiting for the day to be allowed go back into the gym, it was a great feeling.”

She has no shortage of team-mates to look to for inspiration, with Saoirse Noonan partially tearing her own cruciate last year and Lauren Egbuloniu also rupturing hers.

“She did hers in April,” McCarthy adds on the latter, “so we’re kind of going through it together at the moment. She’d be out running and I’d be out watching her. I’d go on the bike and she’d text me saying, ‘Well done.’

“We’re doing it together so it’s great to have someone there. And to have Saoirse, who did it before us, she’s giving us all the advice on what to do and stuff.”

So it’s fair to say McCarthy is thoroughly enjoying her time at City, despite her misfortune. 

“I absolutely love it,” she nods. “I love the next level up from Cork Women’s League to National League. It’s a massive step but definitely somewhere I can see myself staying for the future. I love the challenge.”

“Denise O’Sullivan was at our training once,” she adds when the success the club has produced is noted, “and I just was in awe the whole time. I couldn’t even train, I was just looking at her.”

Left unable to train, she’s enjoying helping the UCC soccer team — managed by Dave Bell — in the WNL off-season, and targeting a 2020 return.

“I help him put the cones out and stuff, motivate the girls and go to all the matches,” she concludes. “I’m still pretty much involved, I just can’t play.”

So next year, she’ll be back all guns blazing.

“Exactly,” McCarthy concludes. “It’ll make me want to come back even better.”

There’s no doubt she’ll make 2020 a year to always stand out in her memory, too.

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About the author:

Emma Duffy

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