'There's something in your heart that tells you that you're not ready to give it up'

Donegal captain Karen Guthrie gets her 14th season of inter-county football underway tomorrow.

A CROKE PARK return nine years after a day to remember for Donegal.

Karen Guthrie and her side are ready for a long-awaited trip back to HQ, a first appearance there since lifting the All-Ireland intermediate crown in 2010.

Karen Guthrie with Melissa Duggan Karen Guthrie facing Cork last year. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

Since then, they’ve scaled unforeseen heights at senior level and come close time and time again. Glenfin star Guthrie is entering a remarkable 14th season in the Yellow and Green, and what better way to do so than against back-to-back All-Ireland champions Dublin under Saturday Night Lights?

“It’s massive like,” she smiles. “Unless you’re really hitting heights at the top and reaching the All-Ireland final, you wouldn’t get the chance to play in Croke Park. It’ll be special, it’ll be brilliant.

“We’ve a lot of new additions to the team, a lot of young girls. Imagine starting your county career and your first game is in Croke Park, it’s magic.”

It’s all about the team, never about her.

Magic, indeed though. And an experience Guthrie will well and truly relish considering the hard slog she’s put in through the years. As she speaks, her enthusiasm shines through and it sounds like she’s enjoying her football more and more with age.

There’s 15 new additions to the team and that brings a bit more life to the set-up. It brings freshness, they’re keen, they’re eager; it’s a nice lift, and Guthrie stresses that rejuvenation time and time again through the conversation.

A few days beforehand, she was looking at a photo of the 2012 development squad she coached. Now, there’s five or six of those girls in with the seniors, playing alongside her.

Feeling old, she smiles.

“Oh God. You notice it when you’re looking at all the times and everything. It just keeps everybody sharp. They’re really, really keen to do well,” she adds, noting that she finds herself looking over her shoulder on occasion.

When the question is eventually asked of how long she’s at it, she takes a split second, but no real hesitation, to think before informing the two writers before her that that this will be season number 14.

Time flies.

Karen Guthrie celebrates at the final whistle Celebrating the intermediate All-Ireland win in 2010. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“It’s grand,” she laughs as shes’s complimented. She doesn’t exactly want praise.

“You know what, I would say I probably enjoy it now more than I ever have because of the professionalism of it. You finally have everything you ever wanted.

“It’s really enjoyable, there’s new, young girls there. They’re great to have around the place. It keeps us fresh. Every year, there’s a change. 

“Listen, maybe your final year… if it is my final year… to play in Croke Park in your first league game is something pretty special and we’re very lucky.”

Year on year, options are weighed up. Go again or call it a day? It’s a natural thing across the length and breadth of the country as a player’s prime comes and goes. There’s a sense of rotation and transition as the baton is passed on to the minors breaking through.

But Guthrie’s prime has most definitely not passed. She’s the type of player that has it all; a commanding midfielder who makes her presence known in the middle third of the pitch, her strength and physicality as important attributes as her engine. 

Likewise, she can slot seamlessly into a more attacking role and pop over a few scores here and there. The decision to return for 2019 wasn’t a tough one. It may not have even been a decision, it just happened.

Particularly when Maxi Curran committed for a second year at the helm. It was clear then.

“There’s something in your heart that probably tells you that you’re not ready to give it up,” she smiles. “The uncertainty of it all. I don’t know, I just take it a year at a time at this stage.

“The day will come that I’ll not be able to compete at that level, that will come. In my own heart, well I’d still like to think that I’m obviously able to. It is what it is. That day will come where I’m not able….”

For now though, she’s more than capable. She was pivotal last year as Donegal powered to back-to-back Ulster titles and reached their first-ever All-Ireland semi-final.

Cork brought the dream crashing down in the last four but luckily enough for Guthrie, her club went on quite the run.

Maria Hoey with Karen Guthrie Battling against Galway's Maria Hoey in 2016. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Also AFLW star Yvonne Bonner’s club, Glenfin had an incredible journey both in the county and in Ulster, before being edged out in the provincial decider by kingpins Donaghmoyne.

“Fantastic,” her eyes glisten when she thinks of the enjoyable run, but concedes that the Monaghan side were better on the big day.

“After losing to Cork, things were pretty low for a while. It was lovely to go back to the club to give you something to look forward to. When you’re in season, you get tired and you’re like, ‘Jesus, things are tipping on’ but when you lose it and you don’t have it, when county finished, your prospect of not having football is a pretty depressing thought.

“The club is always the thing that lifts you and brings you back into normality again. It was lovely. We had a great run.”

There’s highs and there’s lows, ups and downs, good days and bad days; that’s sport. One thing’s for sure: you have to stay level-headed.

“It’s part of the process,” she remarks on managing it all and the emotions that go hand in hand with winning and losing.

“I know someone used to always say, ‘Don’t get too high with the highs or two low with the lows.’ It’s really important to try somewhere along the middle of the road.

“It’s very easy when you lose a game of that magnitude, when your hopes are built very clearly on a certain date and game, a time in the calendar year that you can put everything on that.

“When you don’t have that any more, you can very easily slip into a very low period. Everything else in your life kind of feels insignificant when you lose football and it’s not the way that it should be.

“There are more things that are important. When you still have your family and your friends… you just get up and get on with it. It is important to stay somewhere along the middle of the road.”

Guthrie — a sports development officer with Donegal Sports Partnership — shares the opinion of most of her inter-county peers that double-headers are a huge boost, and one of the many things that has brought ladies football on leaps and bounds in recent years.

Karen Guthrie celebrates Smiling with Yvonne Bonner in 2010. Source: James Crombie

The profile has risen something serious while matters both on and off the pitch have improved ten-fold. Everything is on the up.

“Massive,” she says of the development, adding that they have a second double-header fixture against Cork in Páirc Uí Chaoimh.

“It’s huge for the development of the game and just to live the profile as a whole. That’s been slowly,kind of steadily building since probably the All-Ireland the year before last.

“The LGFA have been doing huge work behind the scenes to try and push the double-headers and thankfully the men’s county boards have been very open and welcoming to that, no different to our own.”

It’s all about bringing the game to a new audience, and showcasing the skills — which have risen immensely over the past few years — as best as possible.

“They really, really have,” she agrees with the rising standards on the field. “The investment of money has been a huge help. You’ve all those different facets, whether it’s strength and conditioning, nutrition and everything looked at now.

“Obviously as a result your skill set improves. The younger girls, they’re coming in with a whole new different idea of the game too. It’s been brilliant. 

“That’s just another step on the ladder. To have the game televised, for eir sport to be lifting a few of the games is brilliant.”

Curran, a familiar face from the men’s game after working alongside Jimmy McGuinness and Rory Gallagher, came on board for his second stint in charge of the ladies last year and is back for more in 2019.

His impact has most definitely been felt, and his past experiences and vast knowledge has been a huge addition for the Tír Chonaill women.

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Maxi Curran and Rory Gallagher Maxi Curran with Rory Gallagher in 2017. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“It’s been huge in terms of professionalism. Maxi coming from a men’s background, it’s been a real eye-opener. In terms of all of the different facilities and the provisions that are on offer for the girls now is just huge. 

“It was really exciting last year and now you’ve kind of embedded in a wee bit. You get used to it. Last year was all new, this year you’re used to it and you never want to go back. There’s been a bit of pressure on probably him and the county board to try and maintain those standards and try and push on a wee bit. 

“We were just saying there, there’s girls coming into our squad this year that have started on a gym programme. When we were 16, there was no talk of it. We genuinely didn’t start until I was 26, 27 and now they’re 16. They’ve 11 years on you already in terms of a building block. 

“Ah, it’s really exciting and he brings a very different dynamic to the whole thing. As well for the profile, it’s nice to see men from the men’s game transferring over to the ladies game. You’ll see that more and more as the game develops.”

It really is night and day. Black and white. Then and now. Looking back to 2005 when Guthrie started out in the senior set-up, versus now when she’s captain, there’s no comparison.

“Ah, night and day, night and day,” she nods. “To be fair, the grant scheme the WGPA have secured has been a huge addition. It gives you a cushion to be able to do them things.

“Even the pitches you would have trained on then in comparison to now. You’d be training on the side of a hill and now we’re nearly pampered a wee bit! ‘Not training tonight, too soft.’

“We’re well looked after, even in terms of the food provisions after training and games. I would hope long past when I stop playing that that continues. I’d love to see that the girls coming through would be just as well looked after — if not better — in the coming years.

“I can’t see that ever changing now. Once you give players a wee taste of something, they’re keen to have it all the time then and it would be hard to imagine going back to the way it used to be. Not to say that it was bad then, it was just the way that things were naturally at that time.”

She adds: “You knew no different! You’re just like, ‘That’s the way that it is’.

“There’s been loads of wee things over the years that have changed that. I suppose Maxi coming in and that has been a huge thing. But the managers before that would have fought tooth and nail to try and get you the best.”

dublin donegal Guthrie and Sinead Goldrick at Tuesday's launch.

When you have the best, you can compete with the best and then become the best.

It’s been an interesting few years for Donegal. So close but yet so far, they’ve been knocking on the door and really establishing themselves as serious All-Ireland contenders through the summer.

But it hasn’t just quite happened. 

Now, it’s about trying to push on and get over the line. That said, it could still take time.

“That’s the ultimate goal,” she agrees. “I suppose we were really disappointed after last year but admittedly we’re just not the finished article yet. 

“We’ve a lot of changes to our squad this year. In one sense, you took a step forward last year but you might have to just restock this year and try and build and go again.

“With that, everybody else is going that bit further. Cork are going to be a year older and a year better as well. They have youth on their side too, I think their average age against us was maybe 23, 24 and I think a good portion of our girls were, like me, around the 30 age bracket. Thankfully the younger girls will bring our average age down this year which is nice! 

“It’s just about starting all over again and trying to have the highs again,” Guthrie concludes.

That it is.

Simon Zebo joins Gavan and Murray for a special live recording of the podcast in Dublin’s Liberty Hall Theatre to preview Ireland’s Six Nations opener against England:

Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

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Emma Duffy

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