By Mark Higgins
Crossmolina/Lahardane/Ardagh MacHale Rovers to give them their full title, captured their first-ever Connacht championship last weekend when beating Galway champions Claregalway in the provincial decider in Ballyhaunis.
Their reward is a trip to Manchester this weekend to take on Oisin CLG, the Didsbury-based Lancashire and All-Britain junior champions, in an All-Ireland junior championship quarter-final.
MacHale Rovers are an amalgamation of the ladies clubs that once existed in Crossmolina, Lahardane and Ardagh. The club has been growing steadily over the last few years and has tasted some notable underage success, most recently winning a county U12 title earlier this year.
At present, they are fielding teams from U8s right up through junior level, with a total of 164 ladies footballers registered with the club through the grades.
Rovers are the last Mayo club left flying the flag across the divisions of ladies football, with county senior champions Carnacon and intermediate champions Kilmoremoy both having fallen in the provincial championships.
Considering that the club’s junior team was disbanded for a number of years and only reformed as a competitive side in 2018, their lifting a Connacht title and progressing into the All-Ireland series represents an enormous achievement for the north Mayo amalgamation.
They got the better of Tourmakeady to win the first-ever county title at adult level last month before beating Leitrim champions Aughawillan in the Connacht semi-final to reach the provincial decider against Claregalway last weekend. Despite the Galwegians being a much bigger club in terms of numbers, MacHale Rovers produced a dominant display in the final to run out 4-8 to 0-11 winners, with Sinead Walsh bagging a brace of goals and Rebecca Maughan and Rachel Kearns also hitting the net.
Mayo forward and 2019 All-Star nominee Kearns is the undoubted star of the team. The versatility of the former Irish underage soccer international is legendary – she has famously played in every position from goalkeeper to full-forward for Mayo — and her leadership and scoring power has been crucial to MacHale Rovers in this campaign to date.
Walsh, meanwhile, was on the Mayo U16 team this year and is a player of whom big things are expected in the coming years, while Rebecca Maughan, who completes a dangerous full-forward line, is another excellent footballer.
Rebecca is one of four Maughan sisters on the MacHale Rovers panel alongside Katrina, Shauna and Lisa, while the Larkin sisters, goalkeeper Niamh and midfielder and team captain Marie, are also hugely influential.
The side they are up against on Sunday, Oisin CLG, play under the auspices of the Lancashire County Board and can trace their foundations as far back as 1904. Their men’s team recently claimed their third Lancashire county title in-a-row and can claim, among their former players, none other than Oasis brothers and Charlestown ex-pats Liam and Noel Gallagher (Noel told the Irish Examiner in 2015 that he kicked a point for the Oisin U16s in an exhibition game against Kilmacud Crokes at Croke Park in 1983).
The Oisin ladies team, against whom MacHale Rovers will line out this weekend, won the All-Britain junior championship last month by beating St Anthony’s of London in the final. They since secured their place in the All-Ireland junior championship by going to Belgium to win an All-Ireland preliminary-round match against the European champions.
The winner of Sunday’s quarter-final will advance to the All-Ireland semi-finals, which are fixed for the weekend of November 9-10.
“There’s huge excitement in the club and around the area at the moment,” said MacHale Rovers chairperson Ita Gordon this week. “We’re getting great support from local businesses and everyone is looking forward to the game in Manchester next weekend.”
The Rovers are expecting big support in Didsbury. Local busman Willie Barrett has organised a supporters bus which was sold out as early as last Thursday afternoon. The supporters on-board are facing into a long day’s journey; they will drive to Dublin, get the ferry across the Irish sea, support their team in Manchester and catch the boat back home, all the space of a single day.
Anticipation for the trip has been building around Cross, Ardagh and Lahardane since full-time in the Connacht final and Ita is expecting excitement levels to hit fever pitch in the coming days as throw-in draws closer.
“The girls have been around to all the national schools in the area with the Mayo and Connacht cups and they’ve got a brilliant reaction from the young kids,” she said.
“At the end of the day, what we’re all trying to do is to get young girls active and engaged with sport, so for them to see this team enjoying this kind of success, it shows them the opportunities that are there for them through sport.”
A trip like the one coming up this weekend doesn’t come without its costs, especially considering that nobody in the club was really expecting to have to travel to Manchester up until a few weeks ago.
“It’s a huge cost for the club that we hadn’t budgeted for, so we’ve undertaken a massive fundraising effort. We have everyone coming on board, local businesses and the school,” offered Gordon.
“We have less than two weeks to organise everything, so planning to get between 30 and 40 players and management over to the game, between transport, meals and accommodation, is a big cost.”
With that in mind, the club has been busy organising a number of fund-raising events over the last week and have also established a gofundme page which had, as of Thursday evening, already raised nearly €4,500, well in excess of its original €3k target.
“An awful lot of people have got behind us and supported us. We’re very grateful for all the support and goodwill we’ve received,” continued Gordon. “For me, the great thing is to see all that momentum weighing in behind the girls and everyone wishing us well.”