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Dublin: 16 °C Saturday 21 September, 2019
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'I don't take losing badly but for a month or two, I was still really cut up about it. That's not me'

Donegal’s Aoife McDonnell is hoping to make amends in the TG4 All-Ireland senior championship this year.

“I DON’T TAKE losing badly myself personally, but that is the one game that will always stick out in my head that I took so badly.

“For a month or two later, I was still really cut up about it. As I say, that’s not me.

“Look, you take that hurt and move on to the next year and let that be a bit of motivation for you.”

Aoife McDonnell Aoife McDonnell. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

It’s a little short of a year to the day. 19 August 2017 the date, Cusack Park in Mullingar the venue and Mayo the opposition. Aoife McDonnell remembers it so well.

This was it, Donegal’s chance to shine on the big stage and showcase exactly what they were about. They fell painfully short in the Lidl Ladies National Football League Division 1 final as Cork stormed to their fifth title in-a-row.But that was in the past.

This was different. This was championship.

Off the back of a successful Ulster campaign with the silverware nestled safely in The Hills for the winter, Donegal were bursting with confidence. Whispers travelled around the country that they were well and truly gunning for more glory and considered themselves serious All-Ireland contenders.

As McDonnell herself said in a WGPA video for their BehindThePlayer campaign:

“We’re at a stage where we know if we play 100% to our potential, then I actually think we are probably the best team in the country at the moment.”

Source: Women's GPA/YouTube

The belief was there and each and every player on the panel had bought into the cause. McDonnell herself had been prized home from a third stint in Australia. She was living the dream Down Under, happy out with a permanent teaching job but one phone call made her reconsider everything.

Micheál Naughton, who was manager at the time, came looking and shortly after, she was back on home soil in her beloved green and gold jersey. That’s how much it means.

Everything was going to plan. Eyes on the prize; the coveted Brendan Martin Cup.

But the dream came crashing down that Saturday afternoon in Mullingar as Mayo put the Tír Chonaill women to the sword and ran out six-point winners.

Of course, the Westerners went on to stun Cork — who were bidding for their 11th title in 12 years — in the semi-final but their hearts were broken in the September showpiece after a flurry of late Dublin goals.

That pain, that hurt, the bad memories from that day never stray too far from McDonnell’s mind. As she says herself, she’s not a sore loser but this was different.

Aoife McDonnell lifts the trophy McDonnell captained Donegal to the All-Ireland intermediate title in 2010. Source: James Crombie

It took time to get over it and to go again but here they find themselves navigating similar waters almost 12 months later.

At the time of our conversation, we’re at the 2018 TG4 All-Ireland championship launch in Croke Park. It’s just over two weeks since they sent out a huge statement of intent in the Ulster decider, putting 9-21 past Armagh in a scintillating display to lift the trophy for the second year running. Serious All-Ireland contenders, it seems. Once again.

“A few goals in it, alright,” McDonnell smiles to The42. She’s not getting carried away though.

“There could have been a lot more, probably from Armagh’s point of view as well. A lot of them came off the crossbar and what not.

“Look, from our point of view it was a great game. We did what we set out to do. I’d say the scoreline definitely flattered us a bit, I wouldn’t be reading too much into that. We’re not getting overly-confident with that going into the All-Ireland series now because we know the teams we’re up against in our group are really strong.

“We’re focused on that so the Ulster final seems like a long, long way behind us at this point. It’s nice to have it but it’s not our main aim for the year. Our main aim is to get to an All-Ireland final.”

Armagh v Donegal - TG4 Ulster Ladies Football Senior Championship Final In action against Caroline O'Hanlon in the Ulster final. Source: Dáire Brennan/SPORTSFILE

Under the new management of Maxi Curran and Damien Devaney this year, Donegal have already opened their All-Ireland championship campaign at this stage.

2017 All-Ireland intermediate champions and this year’s Division 2 league winners Tipperary proved stiff competition last Saturday but McDonnell’s side did enough to edge past with three points to spare.

“We probably needed that,” she told Jerome Quinn after the tight battle. “We knew coming into it that it was going to be tough. Tipperary have been on the up and up the last year or two so we were under no illusions.

“We’re just happy to come away with the win but there’s probably a lot to work on there.”

That win saw them safely into the All-Ireland quarter-finals but a showdown against Kerry at Dr Hyde Park later today (throw-in 3pm, live on Spórt TG4 Youtube, deferred broadcast on TG4) decides who’ll top Group 1 before we head for the knockout stages.

Bare in mind this was all said before a ball was kicked in the group, but all is still relevant ahead of their head-to-head with the Kingdom, who have battled great adversity of late.

Aoife McDonnell At the 2018 TG4 All-Ireland championship launch. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

There were controversies with the county board, relegation to Division 2 of the Lidl Ladies National Football League and Graham Shine’s resignation as manager. But after a positive Munster campaign in which they saw off a strong Waterford challenge and reached the decider against Cork, they’re back on track.

They also beat the Premier county on a scoreline of 3-12 to 2-10 in the group, showing that they most definitely mean business and this clash could come right down to the wire.

“It’s a really interesting group with a lot of travelling to be done,” McDonnell said in the build-up to the championship.

“They’re (Kerry and Tipperary) probably teams that we haven’t played that much or know just as much about, it’ll be the same for them. They’re definitely two strong teams, they’ve got great players there. You could start rhyming off names but just as teams, they seem to work really well together.

“I know Kerry had a bit of a tough year but they seem to have brought everything together now. There’s going to be no easy games, but it just makes for a way more exciting championship. I’m glad that the format’s changed.

Geraldine McLaughlin Geraldine McLaughlin dejected after that loss to Mayo. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

She adds, almost coming full circle: “Last year after the Ulster final we had a seven-week break and we lost all momentum — I’m not blaming us losing on that but it was a factor for us, we kind of went off the boil.

“I do think it’s great having a new structure and it’s going to be good for ladies football.”

It’s a new year, a new championship. The dream is alive once again. And climbing the steps of the Hogan Stand to lift the All-Ireland title, like she did as captain in the intermediate grade in 2010, is most definitely a possibility.

But she won’t get too ahead of herself.

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Emma Duffy

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