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'Just a whirlwind' - Sealing AFLW deal in Oz to booking All-Ireland final spot in a week

Fermanagh captain Joanne Doonan becomes the 15th Irish player confirmed for the 2020 season Down Under, after signing for Carlton Blues.

ON SATURDAY 24 August, Fermanagh captain Joanne Doonan captained her side to the All-Ireland junior football final at Croke Park with a win over London in the last four. 

The Saturday beforehand, she was in Australia chasing a coveted AFLW contract.

joanne-doonan Fermanagh captain Joanne Doonan at May's CrossCoders camp in Athlone. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Her around-the-world trip paid off, thankfully, as Doonan sealed the deal with Carlton Blues, with the club announcing their newest signing, and first-ever Irish addition, this morning.

What a week. 

“I don’t think it’s sunk in,” the 25-year-old tells The42, the excitement building ahead of the club’s official announcement.

“Maybe it won’t until… well, it might over the next few days with Carlton doing press releases and stuff like that, I’m like, ‘Oh my God, this is actually happening’. I think when it was confirmed, my focus was straight back to Fermanagh and I haven’t even thought about it since like. It probably won’t sink in until after the All-Ireland probably.

“Obviously it’s a massive thing. Jesus, I was completely relieved like. I’m fully focused on the football rather than thinking, ‘Oh God, am I going to get it? What else should I be doing to try and get it?’ I suppose it’s a relief too.”

An absolutely manic few days.

***

For Doonan, this entire venture started ahead of the CrossCoders trial camp in Athlone in May. After the success of the inaugural edition in 2018 and the progress Irish players made there, the programme hosted their first-ever overseas camp on these shores.

With her application in, she bought a Sherrin and got going,

“I said the best way to practice is just to get a ball,” she says. “I got that, was learning from skill videos and was recruiting my friends to stay on after football and do the videos with me. They were great and I got as much feedback as I could before the camp.”

As the time drew closer and closer, however, the Kinawley star grew more apprehensive.

“I wasn’t even going to to the camp then,” she laughs now. “When you see the caliber of girls, you’re like, ‘Oh my God.’ You think of the standard of players that didn’t get picked last year and it’s like, ‘What have I let myself in for?”

antrim-v-fermanagh-lidl-ladies-nfl-division-4-final Doonan captained Fermanagh to Division 4 league glory this year. Source: Oliver McVeigh/SPORTSFILE

The thoughts of it all were killing her, but she kept telling herself that there was nothing to lose. Encouragement came from all around too; her boyfriend, James, singled out in particular.

In the end, she just went.

“Once you go and once you get out of your comfort zone, I was like, ‘There’s actually nothing to fear’. When I went down everybody was lovely and everybody was so nice. When you are there you’re like, ‘Maybe I could actually have a chance here’. 

“Obviously it’s a lot different to Gaelic football, just trying to learn the game. It was so exciting the whole thing. It just felt so professional, getting a wee teaser. It was just amazing, seeing the way they live and all.

“They kind of give you that teaser of what you could have if you drive on. I was trying to leave no stone unturned, especially when I went to Australia as well. Thankfully it worked out.”

She most definitely caught the bug there, and basically hasn’t let the Sherrin out of her hands since. Practice, practice and more practice. 

When nothing came off the camp Doonan was a little deflated, but with championship in full swing here she had plenty to keep her going. Jason Hill and Lauren Spark of Crosscoders kept her interested, though, and kept her hopes alive.

And then came the trip Down Under. Doonan had notched up significant interest off the back of the camp and when the opportunity arose to go to Australia and chase that coveted professional deal, it was one she grabbed with both hands.

“Obviously Australia was a big step, and it was a wee bit risky to go so close to the semi-final,” she continues. “But I just felt, ‘Look, it’s once in a lifetime.’

“I would have regretted it if I didn’t. The fact that I wasn’t missing a game, it worked out well. I’m definitely glad I did it, it was a fantastic experience.

“Even if I didn’t get picked, it was unbelievable to see the professional set-up over there compared to county football here. It was amazing.”

antrim-v-fermanagh-lidl-ladies-nfl-division-4-final Source: Oliver McVeigh/SPORTSFILE

She landed the night of Friday, 16 August, stayed the weekend and flew home on Tuesday. The definition of a flying visit.

But, clearly, she did enough to get everything over the line.

“It was hectic,” she nods, “it was good to get a feel of what training will be like and see everything. I fitted a lot in for the three days, I was home before I even realised.”

She met some of the club’s staff and top players including Darcy Vescio and Katie Loynes, trained with the VFL team and received a really warm welcome all round.

“They got onto me straight away which was really nice,” she smiles. ” It was just absolutely lovely when I was training with them. Hopefully the others will be the same and as welcoming.”

Luckily, there was no jetlag upon her return to home soil, with a huge All-Ireland semi-final against London in Clones on the cards that Saturday.

It’s pretty much every athlete’s dream to turn professional, to play sport 24/7; eat, sleep, breathe it, and be paid to play. And it was no different for Doonan, who works as a process engineer just outside Belfast.

She explains how her Fermanagh side weren’t given strength and condition programmes, it falls on them to develop on that sense. She’d spend her days Googling various methods to improve.

“I think it’s so hard because girls at home, you’re committing so much, you’re the next best thing to a professional athlete bar the fact that you’re not getting paid for it,” she adds.

“It’s the same with the men; you commit so much to it, you’re doing all these extra sessions and stuff outside of it. It’s on your own back how you want to improve as an individual. To actually go now and to be in an environment where you can get individual programmes, individual coaching; it’d be interesting to see how well you could progress.

joanne-doonan At the CrossCoders camp. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“This year, I was trying to steal some of the lads’ programmes to keep me ticking over and try something else. It will definitely be unbelievable to just live the professional life.

“With our visas you can’t work on them so you’ll be literally just playing football.

“It will, literally, be a dream.”

She speaks glowingly of the help Hill and Spark of CrossCoders have given her — “I definitely wouldn’t have been able to do it without them” and how “fantastic” the Trojan work they’re putting in is.

Of the 15 Irish girls locked and loaded for 2020, CrossCoders have played a starring role in the process for 12. Just looking at the sheer amount of girls flying the flag over there is something that pleases Doonan.

“It’s brilliant. The more the merrier, I would think. They’re leading examples of how good it is and how good the girls could be in that environment. I suppose they are role models for everybody else to give it a go. You have nothing to lose regardless.

“I suppose three years ago the AFLW wasn’t really a thing so there was never anything to think that we even could be professional athletes. Now, you see the likes of Sarah Rowe going out at the start of the year, Aishling Sheridan, Kate Flood and all of them getting signed this year; it’s so achievable now. It’s brilliant to see and hopefully it does get more recognition and more girls do try out for it.”

“My argument to our county was it’s a win-win,” she continues.

“You’re only going to come back in better shape.

“A lot of the girls’ main attributes are they have that drive, they have that willingness to better themselves in time. This is just another stepping stone in that. I can’t see anyone coming back in worse shape.

“It can only benefit the counties and drive other girls on that’s training with them girls.”

2019-tg4-ladies-football-championship-launch At this summer's TG4 All-Ireland championship launch. Source: Brendan Moran/SPORTSFILE

With pen put to paper and the dotted line signed, football is most definitely the main focus as an All-Ireland junior final clash against Louth awaits on Sunday, 15 September.

Back to Croke Park after running out on the hallowed turf of HQ two years ago. That day, Fermanagh drew with Derry and it took a replay in Clones for the former to be crowned champions.

“It’s just brilliant to get another crack at Croker,” Doonan smiles. “Obviously we were there in 2017, and won in the replay but we haven’t obviously won in Croke Park.

“It will just be unbelievable… London were a really tough side [in the semi-final], but thankfully we finished it out. And Louth are a massive outfit, you can’t be underestimating them. Just getting back to Croke Park again is huge. We have a relatively young team. I think there’s six or seven of us there from 2017.

“You see it’s everyone’s dream to play there. Some people might never get to, so to have another chance here is just fantastic.”

She’s well aware of the challenge Louth will bring, hoping to right the wrongs after losing out in last year’s decider. They’ve locked horns on many occasions through the years, and she knows how important of a player fellow CrossCoder Kate Flood is for them.

“I’d know Kate well from playing with her over in America too, she’s a fantastic player. We have to keep focusing on our own game, that’s all we can do. We can’t control their outcome, so we just work on our game and hopefully bring our game on the day.

“Hopefully we keep improving, there are a lot of areas for improvement and we know that but obviously it’s just another three weeks of work and that, it’s great to have.”

Obviously, the focus is on that and the build-up to 15 September, but Australia is definitely in the back of her mind amidst the madness.

joanne-doonan Fermanagh first, then it's on to Australia for Doonan. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

A hectic few weeks, and there is no let-up ahead.

“It’s just a bit of a whirlwind at the minute,” she laughs. “I think it’s actually easier now because I think if I had to have been doubting, or maybe thinking about the draft if I didn’t get a rookie contract, maybe I would have been distracted.

“Now I can actually plan and I know that’s there regardless of what. I can just focus on football now for the next few weeks, try and get the best outcome for the team in that sense and then it falls into looking towards Australia.

“It’s definitely an exciting few weeks to come.”

A big move, a big challenge. One Doonan will welcome with open arms.

“I think it’s good to get out of your comfort zone,” she concludes. It’s good and it’s a challenge, but it’s exciting.

“It’ll be great to get cracking.”

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Emma Duffy

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