By Damian Dolan
As baptisms of fire go, Rebecca Mills’ introduction to the London Ladies and the All-Ireland championship would have left some cowering in a corner.
After a two-year exile from competition on the back of winning a junior All-Ireland in 2008, London’s expeditionary force into the 2011 intermediate championship was despatched over the top with high hopes.
But minus all but one of their All-Ireland winning team they were duly despatched with short-shrift.
The exception was Ann Murphy, who but for breaking her foot recently in her job as a firefighter would have joined Mills in lining out against Limerick on Sunday in Mallow in the sides’ All-Ireland junior football championship semi-final.
St Brigid’s GAA Club Kiltoom was the setting as Roscommon racked up 15-26 in a first round beating. London failed to register a single score.
Antrim and Leitrim likewise filled their boots, although not quite to the same extent, and it was left to Limerick to bring the curtain down on London’s sobering and chastening campaign with a 9-15 to 0-4 hammering at Ruislip.
After the euphoria of 2008, it was not the way London wanted to announce themselves on the intermediate stage.
But one to emerge from the debacle was Mills. At just 16, she made her London debut as a half-time substitute amidst the carnage in Kiltoom.
Despite her tender years, Mills started against Leitrim and Limerick – the last time London and the Treaty County crossed paths in the championship.
“It was a really tough year; it was hard to get a team up and running again after such a long break,” Mills told the Irish World.
“I remember getting absolutely hammered in some of the matches.
“We didn’t have the stability of a team, because they’d taken those two years out, and it was tough. That’s definitely one of the hardest times we’ve had to go through.”
It was a year which left its mark on Mills, now 23, but only to deepen her desire to pull on the London jersey.
From Willesden Green, Mills’ parents both come from Belmullet in Co Mayo. She started playing Gaelic when she was 11.
A lack of clubs, however, meant Gaelic football was mainly reserved for “down the park” with her brother Clive, who plays senior for Tir Chonaill Gaels.
His exploits with the Gaels and London at underage, alongside the likes of Liam Gavaghan and Philip Butler, were having an influence.
School offered another avenue and it was at a schools Gaelic tournament that Mills’ performances earned her a place on the London Feile team. The rest, as Mills puts it, “is history”.
Then Tara Ladies manager Karen Togher approached her about playing for the club, and it while at Tara that she made her London debut in 2011.
When Heston Gaels came on the scene, she followed her friends from university in joining the new club, and captained them to junior league success.
When Heston folded she joined Parnells last year and ended her debut season by picking up a senior championship winner’s medal.
For London, she was part of the team that reached the Leinster final in 2013, only to lose out to Longford. Mills starting at corner forward in Glennon Brothers Pearse Park.
She took a year out in 2016 to go travelling to Thailand and missed the All-Ireland semi-final loss to Antrim.
“It actually broke my heart seeing the girls going over to Ireland playing the matches. I wanted to get back involved again,” she recalls.
She returned to experience the heart-breaking semi-final extra-time loss to Fermanagh a year ago.
“If ever we were going to have a chance of getting to Croke Park that was our year,” said Mills.
“It broke every single one of our hearts. We’d trained all summer and all year for the junior championship, and then to lose by a point in the last minute was absolutely heart-breaking.
“But it’s given us the fight and the drive to push on and get ourselves over the line this year and into that All-Ireland final. We want to be able to look back without any regrets.’
New London manager Paddy Bowles recognised her qualities, starting Mills in all three of the Exiles’ junior championship group games.
She’s justified that faith with some excellent performances, as well as chipping in with two crucial points in the Exiles’ thrilling victory in Antrim.
Forming part of an exciting forward line, Mills says there’s more to come from this London team.
“Louth was only our third match together, and they had a league campaign behind them which helped them massively. We’re still learning how to play together and from our mistakes,” she said.
“We know that we’re not far off the standard we should be, and that gives us the motivation to keep driving on and working hard in training, to get up to that standard.”
If they can, then only a third-ever All-Ireland title could be heading to London, after the successes of 2008 and 1993.
And as only one of three London-born players on the Exiles team – Ann Murphy and Tir Chonaill Gaels’ Jess Carey being the others – Mills knows only too well as a product of Feile herself what it could mean to those following in her footsteps.
“It will be a massive point for us to make to the London minor team to show them that if they do keep playing the sport the whole way up, you can actually win an All-Ireland,” she said.