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'Two seasons' in 2020, learning from past hurt and welcoming back 'massive leaders' for championship

Donegal defender Emer Gallagher believes the ‘hurt’ of 2019 will stand to the three-in-a-row Ulster champions this year.

AFTER A GUT-WRENCHING end to Donegal’s 2019, star defender Emer Gallagher is forecasting an “exciting” 2020 for the three-in-a-row Ulster champions. 

Emer Gallagher 2 Donegal defender Emer Gallagher. Source: Sportsfile.

It’s a campaign they have to look at as “two seasons,” she insists, with season one being the league and championship coming in season two, “because we’ll have two very different teams”.

Maxi Curran’s side have lost key duo Yvonne Bonner and Katy Herron to the Australian Football League Women’s [AFLW], so they’ll be without them for much of Donegal’s Division 1 league campaign.

Bonner, who had a stunning debut season with Greater Western Sydney [GWS] Giants last spring, opted against coming home for the 2019 championship, as Donegal failed to reach the All-Ireland quarter-final in a massive shock. 

But the 32-year-old forward will return to the side — who will be captained by Gallagher’s Termon clubmate and “unbelievable athlete” Geraldine McLaughlin — this summer.

“It’s a huge boost,” Gallagher tells The42 of Bonner’s return. “The one thing with Yvonne is… she’s obviously an outstanding player, but it’s her work ethic.

No matter what she does whether it’s a gym session, or thinking she needs to get a little bit fitter herself, she’s just 100% in with everything. I’m not one bit surprised that she’s been so successful out in the AFLW because she just has the right mindset for it. She’s such a leader.

“Whenever she comes back in June, obviously she’s going to be in peak condition, but it’s her leadership that we’re really looking forward to getting as well. She will chase any ball back as far as the net. It’s just that drive and that want to win that we’re really looking forward to. 

“Katy Herron will be coming back as well, and Katy’s obviously a massive leader on our team too and someone that we will miss in the league. But we have to work with what we have at the minute. It’s going to be exciting to get the girls back.”

aap-best-of-2019-aflw-giants-blues Yvonne Bonner lining out for GWS last season. Source: AAP/PA Images

While Bonner is at GWS alongside Mayo great Cora Staunton, Herron is preparing for her first season at Western Bulldogs.

And Termon defender Gallagher is hoping that they can bring vital experience and learnings back from their respective Australian set-ups to help their beloved county. 

“These girls are basically living as professional athletes out there, they are doing serious training,” she nods. “But the important thing is they’re keeping very close contact with our team.

It’s not as if they’ve gone on a six-month holiday. Everyone on our team is very aware of the fact that they are going to be coming back in the peak of their fitness and they’ll have a lot to offer.

“It’s about keeping that close bond, that the [new] girls know who they are, and whenever they come back in it’s an easy transition. I know that will happen because the girls, they just have that good work ethic to do that.”

The county have also recently lost Aoife McDonnell and Ciara Hegarty to Autsralia for various other reasons, but Gallagher is enthused by the “young talent” and “really promising prospects” that have come into the set-up for 2020.

While their Division 1 league campaign opened with defeat to Mayo, the Tír Chonaill got up and running against Waterford in Dungarvan on Saturday. A last-gasp goal helped them over the line, as newcomers established themselves on the scene. 

And that all helps in banishing the demons of 2019, Gallagher insists, after it ended in back-to-back All-Ireland series defeats to Tyrone and Mayo.

“We were very hurt after that, but I think that will really stand to us this year,” she notes. “We’ve seen what can happen whenever you have your bad days, we had two-in-a-row.

You train for so long and your hope is championship always. To just not perform like that was very hurtful for all of us, so I think we’re definitely looking at May as our goal this year. We may have peaked a bit too early last year.

“But at the same time, as inter-county players, it’s your own responsibility to make sure that you’re peaking at the right time.”

With restructures in both Ulster and All-Ireland senior championship, the 25-year-old welcomes the changes ahead, with more opportunities available to players.

“I think it probably will work out very well for us,” Gallagher says of the provincial switch-up. “The fact that there’s extra games will give us more time together as a team.

“We have to look at our season as two seasons really this year, season one is the league and season two is championship, because we’ll have two very different teams. We’re going into the league with a much smaller panel, which is great because it means that every girl on the panel will get a lot of game time. It should be to our advantage.

Emer Gallagher 1 Gallagher with Waterford star Caoimhe McGrath at the 2020 league launch.

“We’re not saying that we’re going to go out and win the league, but we’re definitely going to go out and contest every match. It’s all about building on individual performances and structures with every match that we play

“We’re fresh, we have so many options, we’re going to try so many new things. And I think after we have had that experience, we’ll be much the wiser going into championship knowing what works for us and what doesn’t. It’s exciting.”

And on the All-Ireland series revamp, and increase of fixtures there, she adds:

As I said about last year, you train for so long, everything’s going so well and all of a sudden, you lose a match and it’s basically out. You’re thinking, ‘I just gave up eight months of my life for it all to be over in one match.’

“It’s so disheartening for players, because it’s such a long time to get back to that same position. I think with the new system it just makes it more attainable, and it’s easier to have more time together as a team to not make the same mistakes.

I think it’s a positive thing. It will definitely be more demanding on players because we’ve got more games, but I think it will be interesting to see how it goes.

While there is change across the board, Gallagher, an Irish and English teacher in Loreto Secondary School, Letterkenny, is pleased with the continuity at the top in her camp.

maxi-curran Donegal manager Maxi Curran. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“As a senior player, you know what’s expected of you and you’re very familiar with the playing systems that he has in place,” she says of Curran.

“You know the standard that he expects, so I think when the younger girls see those senior players, it’s just word for them. They go with it, and it’s what expected. They quickly follow suit as well.

“I think when you get them in at a young age, it’s a huge advantage for them as players and they’ll progress very quickly too.”

“In the league, we’ll work on finding new talent, making them comfortable with the team, getting them used to team structures and playing systems, and just seeing where they can go,” she concludes.

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Emma Duffy

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