The Fiona McHale interview: Still chasing the dream

In 2004, Fiona McHale joined up with a Mayo team that had won four of the last five All-Ireland titles. She has long become the oil in the green and red engine, but the medal she presumed would come still hasn’t arrived. Tomorrow, against Dublin, she dreams again.

Fiona McHale pictured at the University of Limerick. Picture: Alan Place

CORA’S Swansong versus Dublin’s Redemption Call. It’s no surprise that, in her 23rd season, Cora Staunton’s virtuosity and longevity dominates the narrative of tomorrow’s TG4 All-Ireland SFC final, even against a side bidding to break a losing streak of three consecutive finals.

Staunton is Gaelic football’s diva — in the proper, non-Beyonce sense of that word.

Manager Frank Browne still recalls a league quarter-final against Meath in 2007 when she spun one over from the 45m flag with the outside of her boot “like Maurice Fitzgerald”. Yet every scene-stealer needs a supporting cast, and the dramatis personae of this Mayo team is pretty compelling too.

There’s ‘Crazy’ for a start.

That’s Yvonne Byrne (34), their former wing-back who scored a penalty to pip Waterford 17 years ago, and now saves them.

Byrne was also gifted at camogie and, refusing to yield to her creaking knees, has refashioned herself as a stellar goalkeeper. Like Staunton, she’s won four All-Irelands (all as a back) but none in the past 14 years.

Another survivor from their last final in 2007 is full-back captain Sarah Tierney (26), a Dublin-based accountant who was just 16 then.

She beat herself up mercilessly last year for conceding the All-Ireland semi-final injury-time free that Sinead Aherne miraculously converted to put a stake through their hearts.

Tierney, remarkably, has captained her primary school, her secondary school and her university to All-Ireland football titles. Victory tomorrow would complete the set and her personal redemption.

Another veteran is centre-back Martha Carter (33), their defensive general, a Sligo-based garda who regularly commutes to training before and after night shifts with never one murmur of complaint.

There’s also a gaggle of new young forwards finally coming into bloom, like the Kelly sisters (Grace and Niamh) and ‘Guns’.

That’s the nickname Sarah Rowe earned when she arrived in as a self-confessed “cheeky 15-year-old” and promptly informed her elders that she could do eight pull-ups.

“Right!” they said. “Do two for us.” She couldn’t even manage one.

‘Guns’ it was so and she’s firing with both barrels now, looking to add an All-Ireland to the FAI Cup medal she won with Shelbourne last year.

Rowe’s cohort weren’t around in 2010, the nadir of Mayo’s wilderness years, when one manager quit and they didn’t even field a team in Connacht, another bizarre twist in this tale.

Their current boss Browne, the most open of books, is a one-off too.

A hurling man from Wexford, he followed the love of his life to Ballyhaunis and appears to have been adopting GAA orphans since.

He has managed the Mayo, Longford, and Roscommon hurlers plus Leitrim’s women. His only previous stint with Mayo’s ladies was that single season in 2007.

He returned three years ago and has left no stone unturned.

His backroom team numbers 14, including long-time liaison officer Laura Higgins, two coaches (DJ Collins and Peter Leahy), a ‘performance manager’ (Aoife Lane), an ‘eye in the sky/stand’ (Niall Heffernan) and even a ‘team chaplain’ in Fr Stephen Farragher.

“On the law of averages, anything can happen, you have to be ready for it,” he says, a life lesson he learnt tragically in 2003 when he and Deirdre lost Emma, one of their two children, to pneumonia at just six months old.

And then there’s Mayo’s Fiona McHale (30), the link-woman with the Rolls Royce engine, a constant with so little to show
for it.

“If there was a transfer market in ladies’ football, Fiona McHale is the one you’d buy for her football skill and brain and her ability to cover ground,” Browne says.

“It’s hard to believe she hasn’t won an All-Ireland yet and only won her first All-Star last year.”

She was 17, juggling transition year, minor football and a weekend job when Finbar Egan called her up in 2004.

“There was a challenge game the following morning. He said ‘can you get an hour off work?’ and I jumped at the chance because I wasn’t going to miss out on playing with this great team!” Mayo had contested the five previous All-Ireland finals and won four.

“You automatically presume you’ll have a medal in your pocket when you join a team like that,” she admits. It’s 14 years later now and all she has to show are four Connacht medals and one final appearance, though she’s won five club All-Irelands with Carnacon.

She rejects comparison with their Blessed Trinity because, unlike Cora, Yvonne, and Martha, she is still chasing the Holy Grail.

A PE and biology teacher who’s been based in Limerick for five years, McHale is one of eight players who car-pool to
training regularly and there’s another gang doing the same from Dublin.

Off-field she has already coached UL to an O’Connor Cup (third-level) title and she’s just returned to student life herself, extending a career break to do a Masters in UL on a topic close to her heart: improving behaviours and health literacy in teenagers.

She’s already leading the women’s game off-pitch too as a founding member and secretary of their players’ union (the WGPA).

Another box was ticked last December when she took that career break to finally do the ‘world trip’, though hers was just five months, to get back in time for championship.

She saw Dubai, South East Asia, Australia, New Zealand and then hit six countries in South America and a week in the Amazon jungle in Ecuador was her high point.

“A group of 12 of us stayed with a local family and it was so different. They spoke Quechua and there was no internet or
social media. They walk to school, the teacher cooks for the kids and every evening we all played soccer together, which they do in their bare feet. It felt authentic.”

Football was still never far from her mind.

It took two days after they emerged to get phone coverage again and the first thing she did was check Mayo’s latest result.

She missed the entire NFL including Cora’s last-gasp free to beat Dublin in Croker. The last time McHale played at GAA HQ was an All-Ireland qualifier against Kerry in 2008.

When she arrived in 2004 she was a wide-eyed teenager, already hero-worshipping new team-mates like Staunton, Claire Egan, Diane O’Hora, and the Heffernan sisters (Christina and Marcella), who’d become household names thanks to TG4’s burgeoning coverage.

“It was great because, as kids, we had visible heroes. You’d see Mayo in the All-Ireland finals on TV. My parents brought me up to Croke Park to see the 1999 final. That was huge.” In her debut season, they lost twice to Galway in Connacht including a 14-point loss in the provincial final.

They beat Cork in the quarter-finals so met them a third time and it couldn’t have been tighter.

Future Arsenal star Niamh Fahey scored a last-minute goal to take it to a replay which went to extra-time. Galway won by a point and went on to beat Dublin in the final.

A year later Cork beat Mayo in the semi-finals and went on to win it.

When they met again in the 2007 final, McHale scored a goal but, like Staunton’s that day, it was in the dying minutes and only helped take the bare look off things.

Once mighty Mayo hit rock-bottom in 2010 when their latest manager quit, the county board — bristling at ‘player power’ — refused to replace him and Croke Park had to intervene. They were given a qualifier berth but Kerry beat them and McHale wasn’t even around as she’d gone to America on a J1.

The wonder, truly, is that any of that team stuck around. Did it not completely sour them?

“People could easily have walked away and said ‘why would I be putting my time and commitment into this?’ but in fairness to the players, they stuck together,” McHale says.

That summer of the long knives is ancient history now but progress has been slow.

Mayo’s women only got hot food after training last year and it’s only thanks to the personal generosity of Andy Moran — who has given them all access to his fitness centre ‘The Movement’ in Castlebar — that they’ve got free gym membership.

Cora Staunton is raised aloft by Fiona McHale after Mayo’s shock win over Cork in the TG4 Ladies Senior All-Ireland Football Championship semi-final. Picture: Donall Farmer

“It’s good for us, and the likes of Cork, Dublin, and Galway at the moment, but that’s only a handful of teams. I know it’s not happening everywhere it needs to be,” McHale muses.

After last year’s dramatic semi-final loss there were fears that their Holy Trinity would finish but everyone decided they had unfinished business. McHale’s father Michael is a team selector and her return was never in doubt.

A 10-point Connacht final loss to Galway shook them but they regrouped and, noticeably, took out the two title favourites — defending champions Cork and beaten league finalists Donegal — in their last two games.

“Getting to a league final and All-Ireland semi-final last year and almost getting over the line, that probably gave the younger girls belief that we could compete with the top teams,” McHale says.

Browne, their indefatigable zealot, talks regularly to Liam Griffin before big games and has been described as ‘a dreamer’, a description that draws a chuckle from her.

”Frank’s a hugely passionate and positive person and ignites that in others. We haven’t been in an All-Ireland final in 10 years and haven’t won one even longer so, if you’re going to get involved in something like this, you have to be a bit of a dreamer and believe things are going to happen for you.

”You could say I’m a bit of a dreamer too given what I’ve actually won playing county. You’d wonder why you’d still keep going?” she admits. “But days like this make all the years worthwhile.

“Once I lost the 2007 final the dream was no longer just to get to Croke Park. It was to win there because there is no lonelier place to be after losing.”

She’s a football junkie, plain and simple, accepting: “It is addictive, it is a form of a drug.

“You win one big game and you mightn’t win again for the next four years, but that one win? It’s one of the best feelings in the world.

“I think sportspeople, if you ask them, are addicted to that feeling and it’s the one thing you’ll miss when you retire. Where are you going to get that same buzz from?”

Mayo’s 2017 mantra is ‘If you work hard and train hard, you’ll win easy’ but they’ll get nothing easy against Dublin.

“We’re still chasing the dream, no more than the Mayo men,” Browne says.

To win just once, as the song goes. Few deserve one more than McHale.

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