THE PHONE CALL came out of the blue. A few days beforehand, Monica McGuirk had made the decision to take a break from one sport.
This was at the start of 2018. An accomplished goalkeeper in the Women’s National League [WNL] at the time, she was stepping away from the top-flight of women’s soccer on these shores. Temporarily, anyway.
“I just decided, ‘Look, I’m just giving soccer a break. I just maybe need to reset and look at it again in a year or two,’” she explains ahead of today’s mouth-watering Division 1B league meeting with Dublin, a repeat of last year’s All-Ireland final.
“I hadn’t decided to focus on Gaelic or anything like that, it was just a decision I made myself.
“I’d say within a week [Meath manager] Eamonn Murray got wind that I wasn’t playing soccer so he was straight on the phone to me, and he was like, ‘Just give me two weeks and see how you go. If you like it, you like it, and if not, you can walk away from it.’
“And I haven’t looked back.”
An All-Ireland senior crown, two All-Stars and plenty more medals and accolades later, she’s happy to do so for the purpose of this interview.
McGuirk had always balanced both, but up to that point, soccer came first. That was a well-known and widely-accepted fact. She played underage Gaelic football with Meath, and had been in and out of the senior set-up since 2009 or 2010.
Irene Munnelly was the Royals’ number one, an All-Star arriving for the long-serving ‘keeper in 2011. Her understudy was swayed towards association football, signing for Peamount in late 2012.
Reaching the FAI Cup final and lining out in the Aviva Stadium in 2014 was a certain highlight, though Peas were beaten 2-1 by Raheny United. Ireland captain Katie McCabe scored a sensational free-kick that day — “That was me alright. Horrible,” McGuirk laughs — while she had the best possible view of one of the most famous goals in the history of Irish football: directly in line with Stephanie Roche’s Puskas wonder-strike.
Two seasons at UCD Waves followed her time at Peamount, before she made a brief return to Greenogue. She caught the eye in the league week in, week out, so much so that she was called up for Ireland trials, but a coveted call-up never materialised.
Dejection in the closing stages of the 2014 FAI Cup final.
Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO
“At the end of 2017, the beginning of 2018. I just said, ‘Look, I’ve had enough now,’” McGuirk recalls. “My soccer career wasn’t going the way I wanted it to go, they weren’t pushing me to the limits that I felt I needed to be pushed to.
“I was constantly getting knockbacks, not getting selected for the Irish team and stuff like that. I wasn’t getting selected but yet I was able to turn around and play with the same players in the National League. D’you know what I mean? I was basically told I wasn’t good enough.
“I got callbacks to the last stages of everything and then just being told [no] at the last thing. A lot of it was to do with certain things like I needed to get fit or I’d have to lose weight, things like that.
“I’m just like, ‘This is me. If this is not what you want, then that’s fine, I’ll understand that.’ I’m a bigger person, I know who I am. But like, I’m strong. I had those knockbacks – I wouldn’t say that’s the reason why I gave up soccer, I kept going at it. I was still 26/27, I still gave it a good 10, 12 years. But it was the best decision I ever made.”
It came shortly after that fateful phone call with Murray, who had taken over as Meath boss at the end of 2017.
Munnelly had retired by then, and while a couple of goalkeepers were coming and going, there was no nailed-down replacement with the 2018 National League already underway.
“Not that he was under orders not to ring me, but he knew my situation,” McGuirk grins.
“I was playing for Peamount in Dublin, and I live in Duleek. That is a separate commitment, it’s nearly the same as Meath. There’s one or two girls that currently do it in the National League now, the likes of Lucy McCartan from Westmeath.
“If it works for her, it works for her, but I don’t think it would work for me personally. The commitment was too much. And you’ve no personal life. None of your own time to do your own thing.”
She admits that she could have easily fallen away from sport altogether, as so often happens, left disillusioned and disenfranchised after putting so much in for so little in return.
But thankfully, McGuirk has gotten it all back in spades since her 100% commitment to Gaelic football.
In September 2018, she switched one national stadium for another and graced the hallowed turf of Croke Park. She did the same 12 months later; back-to-back All-Ireland intermediate finals ending in heartbreaking defeat to Tyrone and Tipperary respectively.
It was in the pre-Christmas Covid finals of 2020 that the Royals finally got their hands on the Mary Quinn Memorial Cup and achieved promotion back to the senior ranks. And we all know what happened thereafter, simply stratospheric heights hit in 2021.
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McGuirk celebrating Meath’s goal in the 2021 All-Ireland final.
Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO
Celtic Crosses and a pair of All-Star awards – from 2019 and 2021 – now sit in McGuirk’s cabinet, taking pride of place after her up-and-down journey to this point.
The Duleek Bellewstown clubwoman, who works as an Operations Manager in Aura Leisure Management’s site in Drogheda, does keep in touch with former team-mates and other figures from the previous chapter.
“They obviously see what I’ve achieved through social media and stuff like that as well,” she adds. “It’s selfish even for myself to know that I was able to go and perfect it in this sport.
“I know in the back of my mind, I was good enough and I am good enough. I didn’t just get the two All-Stars because they were given to me. D’you know what I mean? I feel like I’ve proved to myself now that I know I was good enough.”
It’s fair to say that she’s had the last laugh after the setbacks, and that the success and personal accolades, in particular, hold that extra bit of significance?
“Yeah,” McGuirk smiles. “Especially the first one [All-Star]. The first one obviously, I didn’t have all the girls there. I was intermediate. I just felt I was voted and that was it.
“I felt honored just to be up there among the best, but then when they called out my name, I could not believe it. We didn’t win the All-Ireland that year either. And then to get one this year along with the other seven players was amazing, that was just a great night.”
A great night, indeed, and given the upward trajectory McGuirk’s career is on, there should be many more on the horizon.
– Meath v Dublin, Páirc Tailteann, Navan, throw-in 4pm, live on TG4.