By Damian Dolan
With All Star nominee Rachael Kearns in McHale Rovers’ ranks, Oisin know they’re up against it in Sunday’s All-Ireland Junior Club quarter-final at Old Bedian’s (2pm).
That the Manchester club are even 60 minutes away from an All-Ireland semi-final, though, is an achievement in itself, given the team’s future was only recently under threat.
Left “decimated” by the loss of 18 players the club struggled to field at times last year. A team meeting was called and the message clear. Something needed to happen.
The decision was made to voluntarily step down to junior from intermediate, but even then it looked like the team would struggle again this year, until an influx of new players and the return of some former ones helped to transform its fortunes.
The turnaround has been “massive” says Niall Farrell, who is in his second year managing the team, having helped out for two years prior to that.
“We didn’t want another season where we didn’t field in one or two games, and then you’d really start to feel the death-nail for the club,” Farrell told the Irish World.
“But the girls rallied to make sure that didn’t happen.”
From operating with a panel of just 16 or 17 players last year, they now have 30. The rewards for their efforts have been tangible.
Lancashire junior championship and league winners, Oisin defeated St Anthony’s of Reading to be crowned All-Britain champions for the third time in the club’s history.
They then saw off Holland & Belgium Gaels in the All-Ireland preliminary, 3-19 to 1-7, to set up Sunday’s quarter-final.
“The players have worked really hard and it’s been a good season,” said Farrell.
“It was a struggle getting out of Lancashire, we had some very tight games, but once we got a head of steam up we’ve done well.”
The win over Anthonys was particularly impressive – Oisin winning by 8-13 to 1-3 at Pairc na hEireann.
Siobhan Polly and Jennifer Noone both claimed hat-tricks while the other goals came from Lucy Martin and captain Clodagh Gormley. Sarah Fahy scored 0-4.
It was the team’s “best performance this year” says Farrell, who comes from Derry and coached the Oisin men’s team before getting involved with the ladies.
“Everything just clicked for us. We got quick three quickfire goals, and they missed their goal chances in the first half. That gave us a cushion,” he said.
“I don’t think there was that much between the teams – if we’d have played ten times I don’t think we’d have got that score.”
Sunday will be Oisin’s first All-Ireland quarter-final since 2015. Having beaten Glasgow Gaels in the All-Britain final by 0-14 to 1-10, the Manchester side defeated Belgium by 2-16 to 2-3.
That set up a thrilling quarter-final final clash with Galway’s Moycullen at Old Bedian’s. Moycullen came through, but only just, winning by 2-10 to 1-9.
Jennifer Noone, Siobhan Polly, Clodagh Gormley, Ciara Mullen all survive from that run.
“The experience will stand to us, but to be honest we’re going to be up against it. There’s not too many teams at this level who have a Rachael Kearns playing for them,” said Farrell.
Connacht and Mayo junior champions McHale Rovers – an amalgamation of Ardagh, Crossmolina and Lahardane – will present a sizeable obstacle.
Kearns, who helped Mayo to an All-Ireland senior semi-final, put in a player of the match display as McHale beat Claregalway in the Connacht junior final by 4-8 to 0-11.
Kearns scored 1-5 (2f) and Sinead Walsh 2-1. Sisters Rebecca, Katrina and Shauna Maughan are the nieces of John Maughan, who managed Mayo to All-Ireland finals in 2004, 1997 and 1996.
“And it’s not just Kearns, they’ve got Sinead Walsh, who is a Mayo underage player and has been racking up the goals,” said Farrell.
“And John Maughan’s nieces are good footballers. They’re going to be a very good team.”
But the Manchester girls’ are on the crest of a wave themselves, and are in no mood for their ride to end just yet.