*Mark Roche celebrates scoring a goal for Avenue Utd. Photograph: Natasha Barton

AVENUE UTD are chasing a third Clare Cup title in a row, having weathered a long stretch without silverware when representing the club, Mark Roche is eager for them to grasp their latest chance of success.

Back to back Clare Cup titles were achieved by Avenue Utd after overcoming Newmarket Celtic (2022) and Lifford FC (2023), David Russell’s side won the double in 2022 to end a nine year trophy drought for the club’s junior side.

Having been part of the team for twelve years, left winger Mark Roche is one of their longest serving players alongside centre-half duo Conor Mullen and Dylan Casey. “I didn’t feel it going but there was a lot of tough years that would remind you that it was a long hog, there’s been a lot more success now than at the start but in the middle when we weren’t winning it did feel like a long time”.

Strengthening both their squad and mentality has been key to Avenue’s reunion with silverware, Mark maintained. “Our squad this year is as good as any I’ve played with, some of the lads on the sideline are really pushing for places. There used to be a stage where you turned up and got on the team without merit but there’s none of that anymore”.

He looks to home and his younger brother Jamie when expanding on this, “my younger brother Jamie didn’t the start the FAI game against Tallaght or Newmarket or some big games last year or this year but ask anyone who has been our player of the year and they will say it’s been him”.

On their mentality, Sparky said there is now an annoyance within the club if they go a season without winning a trophy.

Mark Roche celebrates. Photograph: Gerard O’Neill

To be chasing a third Cup title in a row is a position Mark doubted that he’d be in as an Avenue player. “I remember we lost the 4-0 to Newmarket one year, we had trained really hard that year and it really put us down but we are more resilient now, a lot of us have dug deep for years and we’re getting the rewards now”.

Based in Dublin where he is a business and geography teacher, Sparky admitted that his business acumen has been a big help in assisting brother Gary to become such a popular figure in St Francis Credit Union in Ennis, “I’m the reason he’s there, all credit to me,” he remarked.

Commuting between Clare and Dublin does take a toll, the thirty one year old admitted. “To be honest this year “going up and down from Dublin I picked up a couple of injuries, it’s a long drive up and down, the money I’m spending on physio is increasing and I’m spending a lot of my time stretching”.

Roche told The Clare Echo, “I’ve been carrying knocks for some big games but I’ve been doing of work as of late to make sure I’m right and I’m just hoping it was a once off year in terms of the amount of injuries. He added, “I’ve been very lucky in the past when it came to injuries, it’s just the last couple of games that I’ve picked up injuries, I’ve spoken to the physio and done whatever was needed and I’m still feeling fit”.

Saturday’s final in Frank Healy Park pits them against their rivals Newmarket Celtic. “The rivalry is huge, there is no two ways about it, when you win you’re happy for a day or two but when you lose you’re not right for a week and down through the years I haven’t been right for a couple of weeks”.

Both sides have a mutual respect for each other despite the rivalry, he maintained. “I have huge respect for them, I know it got ugly in some of the games but none of us want to be involved in that. There’s a huge mutual respect between the players, I’ve played with a lot of them with Clare like Eoin O’Brien, David O’Grady, Eoin Hayes, Colin Smyth and Shane Cusack, they are all great lads, we’d have a great chat if we met but on the pitch I won’t sugar-coat it there is a hatred there. It has made us a better team, it has upped the standard and it is good for Clare as a whole. We are rivals but we’ve huge respect for each other, to do it for so long too, I’m into my thirties and I see them doing it year in year out. I’ve twelve years done and some of them are going for seventeen years”.

There have been many meetings of the two sides during his twelve years on the Avenue side and two constant figures at those games are Mark’s parents, John and Marie. “They go to all the matches, my mother is usually away with the running but any time she can be there she is, my father we call him Eamon Dunphy, you could score a hat-trick and he’d say why didn’t you get the fourth”.

Constant support from John, a striker on the Avenue side which reached the 1990 FAI Junior Cup final is one “of the bigger reasons I’m still involved. If I was thinking of leaving, he’d still be able to guilt me into staying,” Sparky quipped. “Mannix, Jimmo Purtill, John O’Malley and Brian Punch, these lads are always at the games, they will spur you on, we’ve got great support the last couple of years and it is great to have the family involved, we lost Alan (cousin) this year, his father Seamus is still up at every game, Eamnon Dunphy eile. The family involvement makes it all the better”.

His two younger brothers Gary and Jamie are likely to receive more criticism from him than what he might dish out to any other player, Mark admitted. “Me and Jamie struggle to play down the same wing to be honest because we’d be giving out to each other but we’ve improved a bit. They are as harsh on themselves well maybe not Gary, you could lose 4-3 but if he scored three then he’d be happy and you know that yourself”.

An extra time semi-final win where two goals by Steven McGann in the dying stages saw them survive against Bridge Utd. “To get over the line was massive,” Roche reflected. “Bridge are really coming, there’s no secret about that, they are a really good team. Eoghan McNulty is a brilliant coach and I’ve been involved with him with Clare and they have one of the best goalkeepers in Ireland in John Mulready who doesn’t get enough credit in my opinion”.

Gary, Mark, Marie, John and Jamie Roche. Photograph: Joe Buckley

Lining out in the Cup final is the target for Avenue Utd each season. “It’s the bread and butter, we’re on for three in a row and that is a huge thing. We want to do the double, the first goal was winning the league, the second was the cup and anything else is a bonus,” he outlined. “To be honest we’ve been lucky in this cup campaign, against the Bridge it could have gone either way and we were very poor against Ennistymon, to win the league we had six away games to win the title. You’ll have poor performances but when you have the mentality that we now have where we’re a little bit harsher on ourselves it is a big help because down through the years we’ve lost those games, we can now see out games and win”.

Ninety minutes separate Mark from winning the double for the second time in his career. “Some of the lads joined the squad in the last two or three years whereas some of us had a long stint without winning leagues or cups, we know this is a huge game. The likes of Dylan, Mully and myself have been there for years, we came fourth one year and we’ve lost semi-finals to other teams”.

During those years when success was in short supply, the interest shown from Limerick clubs posed very tempting offers for players such as Sparky. “There was a stage when I said was it worth it, a lot of lads went into Limerick, there were a lot of opportunities and even Newmarket lads will tell you that, you’d have to question it when offers come but the love for the club and the loyalty comes through”.

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Subscribe for just €3 per month

If you’re here, you care about County Clare. So do we. Did you rely on us for Covid-19 updates, follow our election coverage, or visit The Clare Echo every week for breaking news and sport? The Clare Echo invests in local journalism and we want to safeguard its future in our county. By becoming a subscriber you are supporting what we do, will receive access to all our premium articles and a better experience, while helping us improve our offering to you. Subscribe to clareecho.ie and get the first six months for just €3 a month (less than 75c per week), and thereafter €8 per month. Cancel anytime, limited time offer. T&Cs Apply. www.clareecho.ie.

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