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Using football to deal with loss and coming to Dublin to end Cork's reign, 'not for the day out'

Micheál Naughton has already guided Donegal to history this year and is hoping to lead them to Division 1 league glory on Sunday.

MICHEÁL NAUGHTON IS into the second year of his “two-year” plan with Donegal.

Michael Naughton celebrates at the final whistle Donegal manager Micheal Naughton. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Last year saw him steer them to Division 2 league glory in Parnell Park. 12 months later, he finds himself preparing his side for the Division 1 decider after an impressive campaign in the top flight.

With a league win already under their belts against ladies football kingpins Cork, they now gear up to face the Rebels again on Sunday. This time around, there’s much more on the line though.

This is Naughton’s third stint in charge. He first got involved in the managerial role in 2009, oversaw them take the All-Ireland intermediate gong back to the hills in 2010, returned two years later in 2012, and picked up the reins again most recently last year.

The Sligo native admits that his side’s main aim this year was to stay in the top flight.

But now, just months later, they find themselves having made history. It’s Donegal’s first time in a Division 1 final.

“At the beginning of the year, our aim was to retain our Division 1 status,” Naughton begins. “Basically after that then was bonus territory.

“We just took every game as it came. It’s no different on Sunday. It is history in the making, there’s an awful lot to play for and a lot at stake. It’s another game though, another 60 minutes.

“It’s a stepping stone along the road in the direction that we want to go, with ladies football in Donegal.

“Now they’re [Donegal players] starting to realise that they can compete. That was maybe a factor at one stage, thinking they couldn’t compete with these teams and maybe giving a bit too much respect to the Corks and the Dublins and the Monaghans, the Galways and the Mayos.”

Naughton, who works in the hospitality business, admits that he has a lot to thank football for.

He’s been involved across the board, both in coaching and on committees, since 1998.

The Donegal team celebrate Donegal won the Division 2 league last year. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

“I’m not a drinker, I’m not a smoker, it gets me out. I love football. It clears your head and I enjoy being involved in it.

“I’m involved either at club or county or Ulster level, let it be involved with a team or involved in the administration side of it.

“Ladies football has played a very big part in my life through the years.”

It’s played a bigger part than ever over the past few weeks.

Naughton’s brother passed away following a short illness in March, and he has used football, and his role with Donegal to help deal with his loss.

“You lose your brother and you never get away from that, when you go back home to the house. But football is huge for the mind and for the soul, and to keep you going.

“It gets you out, it’s a distraction with the girls. It gets your mind out of things.

“The game against Mayo, that was the game that was called off for my brother’s funeral. That game meant so much to me, words couldn’t describe [how much it meant] to beat Mayo that day. It was nearly as good as the 2010 All-Ireland.

“It brings a lot of emotion, it brings a lot of passion.  You’re always saying you have an angel there and they’re looking down and praying for us.

“I come from a family of 12. I believe, I have faith, and it’s very important to me. I’d always look to my family that passed, my mum, my dad, my sister Sheila and now Peter.

“I pray to them the day before a match, and always look to them to be there with you on the sideline. It’s willpower and your faith that carries you at times like that. It gives you good strength to go on.”

Naughton is clearly a man of huge passion, a man who loves the game. Football is huge for him.

He actually signed himself out of hospital last year to patrol the line for Donegal’s Division 2 league final victory over Westmeath.

He laughs now that he probably shouldn’t have done it, but there was no way on earth he was missing out.

“Look, that’s football. Football brings huge passion. It brings pride of a jersey, you see a flag flying, the joy on people’s faces when you go back to the county with a trophy. The amount of enjoyment that it gives to families.

“When you’re involved in sport, you can be nowhere better. Anyone that’s involved in sport always does well for life, your career or whatever it is. You bring a certain round of respect, you bring manners, you have discipline.

Michael Naughton Naughton has had three different stints at the helm. Source: Tom Beary/INPHO

“With the GAA family you make friends for life, and no matter where you go in the world, you’re one big family. Whether you go to New York or go to Australia.

“When I went to Donegal, the one thing that got me involved in the Donegal community was football. I started playing with Bundoran when I went to Donegal first. When you’re involved with the GAA family, you’re always thriving, you’re always in a good environment and you always make great friends for life.”

Donegal are a side that have really come to the fore over the last few years. The 2015 Ulster champions have been thriving under Naughton.

After their league win last year, some key players — including sharpshooter Geraldine McLaughin — departed on their travels and missed some of the championship campaign.

This year though, a full buy-in was required at the start of the year.

“In fairness to the girls, when I came in last year it was going to be a two-year plan. When I took the job on, the girls did come to me and said they had plans made to go away. We concentrated on the league last year, and then refocused for the championship.

“We did say to the girls ‘ this year, we’re going out to give it our all and have a full panel of players there. No excuses, nobody going away.’

“Our goal was to retain our Division 1 status, we have that done. Then get an Ulster championship, and be back at the fighting stages come the All-Ireland series. Those were our goals when we met the girls at the beginning of the year, and they’re still our goals.”

The commitment has been paying dividends however, and two of their lethal forwards — McLaughlin alongside Yvonne McMonagle — have been grabbing headlines over the past few weeks.

They’ve caused havoc for any defence they’ve tackled, combining for 5-8 against Galway in the semi-final and 3-10 against Cork in their previous meeting.

“Geraldine and Yvonne are special players, there’s no doubt about it. We knew all about Yvonne McMonagle and we knew all about Geraldine McLaughlin for years. Now the time has come for them to play on the big stage.

Lidl Ladies Football National League Division 1 & 2 Finals Captains Day Doireann O'Sullivan and Geraldine McLaughlin at Tuesday's media day. Source: Sam Barnes/SPORTSFILE

“These girls have huge amounts of talents and now they’re getting a chance to show it. Saying that, we’re not made up of two girls. We have a huge team and a sub bench.”

Even those who know little about ladies football, know Cork are the force to be reckoned with.

They’re targeting their fifth league title on the bounce, and have won ten of the last 12 deciders. They’ve also landed 11 of the last 12 All-Ireland titles.

Back in 2012, Donegal played out a day they’d rather forget against the Rebels. The All-Ireland quarter-final ended 8-27 to 0-2 in Dr Hyde Park.

Naughton was in charge at the time but doesn’t delve into it. Donegal fielded a depleted side, having tried to have the game called off. It was McLaughlin’s sisters wedding so they were missing a few through that and others were off travelling.

It’s history now though.

And there’s more history, positive this time around though, to be written on Sunday.

“Look, that’s past tense. That’s far from our minds. A lot of the girls were around then and they’re still around.

“It’s a Cork team. We know that we can produce the performance that we’re capable of too. We can upset the odds.

“We’re under no illusion — we know that Cork again are raging hot favourites this game. But we’ll take that. We came from Division 2, we’re in a National League Division 1 final. It’s a huge honour for this Donegal team.

“But let nobody be under any mistake that we’re coming to Dublin for the day out, we’re coming up with the ambition to take home a Division 1 trophy — that’s our aim on Sunday.”

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