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Losing by 49 points to Cork was the best thing that happened to Donegal Ladies

Donegal face Cork again in today’s Division 1 league final.

DONEGAL DEFENDER EMER Gallagher was in her late teens when she was selected to mark Cork football legend Juliet Murphy in the 2012 All-Ireland quarter-final.

The scoreboard at the final whistle shows an overwhelming Cork win Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Two years on from their All-Ireland Intermediate triumph, the Donegal Ladies panel was in depleted shape, and struggling in the senior ranks.

Retirements, injuries and a desire to travel were the key afflictions that contributed to the drop-off, with 16 and 17-year-old players coming in to bolster the numbers.

Waiting for them in Dr Hyde Park that fateful day was a Cork side who had already collected six All-Ireland senior titles, and were also the reigning holders of the Brendan Martin Cup.

Donegal’s already diminished chances of springing an ambush were further damaged by the wedding of forward Geraldine McLaughlin’s sister. McLaughlin — Gallagher’s clubmate — was on bridesmaid duty that day, while a number of players from the Termon club also missed the game to attend the wedding.

Speaking to The42 ahead of today’s Division 1 final between Donegal and Cork, McLaughlin said she was given an indication of the result, when someone in the church gave her a worrying glance as she walked down the aisle before the ceremony started.

Gallagher chose to avoid researching the Cork side ahead of the game, such was the feeling of dread, and the Donegal management delayed briefing her about her task to mark Murphy, until they were in the dressing-room.

Briege Corkery with Emer Gallagher Donegal's Emer Gallagher tries to tackle Cork's Briege Corkery. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

As she walked out onto the field to take up her position, a heightened feeling of apprehension began to kick in.

“I remember even going out onto the pitch,” she tells The42, ”and people were saying, “just stick tight.” Whenever people are saying that to you, you know that you’re gonna be marking someone very good. Just seeing her (Murphy) and her persona on the pitch. How she even held herself, I knew it was gonna be a rough day.”

It felt like for every step that I was running after her, she was two steps further away from me. It was a big eye opener for me.

“I think it was more after the match that I realised exactly how good she was. I think I purposely didn’t do much research (on her) beforehand because I don’t think I would have been able to play if I’d known how good she was.”

The hour of torture produced a scoreline of Cork 8-27 0-02 Donegal.

Naturally, Gallagher summarises the occasion as ‘a match that everyone wanted to forget.’ The players who represented Donegal that day departed the dressing-room in silence, unable to articulate the words that could encapsulate the emotion of it all.

They were disconsolate, and bereft of any leaders in the match-day squad who could offer up some words of comfort.

Five years on and Donegal are a transformed unit with Division 1 silverware to play for in Parnell Park later today. Gallagher reflects on that slaughtering in 2012 as a poignant moment in the history of Donegal ladies football.

“I don’t think we’ve ever seen a defeat like it in Ladies Football but it was a massive eye opener for us. It was a bad year for us and it wasn’t a good vibe whatsoever and we could only go up from there really.

I remember it was on TV as well but, it was probably the best thing that ever happened to us in a sense, because it showed us what we could be with hard training and commitment. Cork were just at ease for the whole game. They were everything you wanted to be as a footballer and everything you wanted to be as a team.

“If you look at the team that fielded in 2012 where there was a 17-year-old playing against Juliet Murphy, it puts in perspective how much we’ve grown. I don’t know if we even had any subs that day. It was worse case scenario going down there.”

The regeneration process commenced the following year, where frank discussions were had between the players about what they wanted the county team to become and how they were going to achieve it.

Source: LadiesFootballTV/YouTube

In 2014, Gallagher’s club Termon captured the All-Ireland senior club title, which was later followed by a first ever senior Ulster title for Donegal the following year.

Gallagher explains how the club’s success helped contribute to the progression of ladies football at inter-county level in Donegal.

“A lot of people said that to us after the All-Ireland that it put Ladies Football on the map in Donegal.

“Winning the All-Ireland with Termon, it wasn’t about being the fittest team or the most talented team, it was our character. We were winning games by one point or two points and we were playing teams that had previously won two or three All-Ireland club titles.

“The thing about the year we won the All-Ireland was that it’s not as if we walked out of Donegal.

“Getting out of Donegal was actually one of the hardest parts about winning the All-Ireland and anyone that does get out of Donegal is great competition for the All-Ireland. The kind of mentality we had that year was, “each game is a bonus.” Winning the county title was our aim and every game after that was a bonus.”

Donegal earned their promotion from Divsion 2 last year, and heading into this year’s league campaign, the players adopted a similar mindset to the one which yielded All-Ireland glory for Termon.

Retaining Division 1 status was the initial target, but as they progressed through the rounds, a new confidence took hold. Pivotal victories over provincial rivals Armagh and Cork, instilled a belief in the squad that further riches were within their grasp.

“We didn’t really know what level we were at,” Gallagher continues, “or how good we could be. Armagh is a real bogey team for us and every year we play them, they’d normally beat us by a point or two points.

“Overcoming Armagh just gave us a lot of confidence to tell us that we were a lot fitter than we thought.”

Donegal captain McLaughlin is renowned for clocking up impressive personal tallies, and in the Lidl Ladies National Football League Division 1 semi-final, she posted 4-04 on the way to a comprehensive win over Galway.

According to Gallagher however, McLaughlin doesn’t linger over those numbers for too long.

One thing with Geraldine is she hates praise. If you ever ask her, “how much did you score in that match?” She just says, “I don’t know, not very much, did you see the ones I put wide?” She’d be the first one to put herself down. She’s the most grounded player I’ve ever seen and that’s why she’s so good, she doesn’t let anything go to her head.”

“She doesn’t understand how good she is.”

While having McLaughlin in your attacking line is ultimately a plus, having her as an ally at club and county level brings its disadvantages as well. Given their respective positions on the pitch, Gallagher – who normally plies her trade at full-back – often finds herself with the unenviable task of marking McLaughlin in training games.

The assignments are always a sticky challenge but Gallagher prefers to look at how those encounters strengthen her for match situations.

I’m lucky enough to mark her at club and county. At training, whenever you see Geraldine coming, you’re kind of saying, “oh God, here we go again.” In reality, the way I look at is, if I can manage to win three balls off Geraldine in this training session, I’m not gonna come up against a better forward.

“You are marking the best at training and getting that practise week in week out it is so good to be able to mark that standard of a player at training.”

Although Donegal have flourished in Division 1 this season, the players have never been tempted by any notions that winning the league crown is a certainty.

After that 3-16 to 0-12 victory over the reigning All-Ireland champions earlier in the campaign, Gallagher recalls how captain McLaughlin tempered the emotions of the Donegal squad in her post-match speech.

“After the final whistle blew, she said, “”girls, there’s no medals won yet.”" It was kind of a testament to everything we’ve trained for this year. Every match we’ve won, we’ve reminded ourselves that nothing is won yet.”

That sense of composure will be needed again today, when medals are the prize on offer.

“As of yet, if we lose on Sunday, there’s no point in us having topped the league because we’ll have fallen at the final hurdle.

“To beat Cork at that stage of the league doesn’t really mean anything unless we go out and perform against them on Sunday.”

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