BY CHRIS MCNULTY
SEIMI Friel didn’t quite know what to expect when he pulled up to The Lagoon one evening in 1992.
Someone had suggested that, with Donegal football riding on the crest of a wave, organised ladies football should be given a go.
It was an uncertain Friel that wandered into the McCaffertys’ famous public house where a club meeting of the Termon GAA club was about to explore the option of setting up a ladies team for The Burn Road club.
By the end of the night, Friel and James Harkin had been appointed as the team managers. Now, all they needed was a team of players.
Last Sunday night, the same Seimi Friel wandered into the same Lagoon but, 22 years on from that formative meeting, it was in much different circumstances. The hundreds gathered outside and the blazing bonfires provided the backdrop to the most glorious of nights in the 51-year history of CLG An Tearmann: Their senior ladies were All-Ireland champions.
“It’s something that I thought I’d never see: a Termon take home an All-Ireland club title,” beamed a proud Seimi Friel this week.
“There’d have been the odd couple who’d have been negative about it to begin with, but most people backed it. It took us a while to get it going, but it wasn’t that long until we had training organised and we were on the road.
“Donegal was on a high in football terms because the senior men’s team had been in three or four Ulster finals in a row. Everything was going very well on that front so it was mooted about starting ladies football.”
Termon won an Under-12 Division 2 title in 1988, beating Kilcar 1-3 to 0-2 in the final. Playing among the boys of the time was Niamh Cullen, who happened to be one of the stars of that squad. Patricia Gallagher was another who was making waves on the same team.
At the times, it was only an adult ladies team they fielded in Termon, but they’d a good base to start from.
When the Donegal senior ladies team reached successive All-Ireland junior finals of 1993 and 1994 (they lost to London in ’93 and to Meath in ’94), Termon was well represented by the likes of Deirdre Galligan, Eilish Harkin and Noelle Alcorn.
Friel says: “There was a big interest in it at the start. Once the novelty wore off, people started to drift away. We had been on the end of a couple of brave drubbings – St Eunan’s were very strong at the time.”
Termon lost a shield final to Killybegs in 1993; lining out in the maroon that day was Maureen O’Donnell, who scored two points in last Sunday’s win over Mourneabbey.
By the end of the decade, the Termon team was in decline and in ’99 they were disbanded.
Behind the scenes moves were already afoot to attempt resuscitation. Those efforts were spearheaded by Harry McGlynn, a man name-checked by many of the champions of last weekend as having introduced them to the O’Neill’s.
“A few people decided to get the underage going again,” McGlynn said.
“We went around to see what we could find and we got twenty under-12s and another five 13-year-olds.”
Around the same time, the Cumann na mBunscoil organisers were beginning to hold separate competitions for girls – and it was here that Termon NS thrived.
Girls from houses McGlynn had visited gave the likes of Geraldine, Sharon and Nicole McLaughlin; Roisin, Olive, Therese, Petra and Gráinne McCafferty; and Dara Kelly to the school’s teams. Under Christy Gillespie’s tuition they flourished and they were to remain unbeaten for the next five years or so in all competitions, the majority of last week’s team having been drawn from this period.
“In the 90s girls played with the boys in school and Termon NS won a title with Maureen O’Donnell a star,” Gillespie, who’d tasted plenty of success with Kilcar himself, remembered.
“There was no grand plan with us at the outset. As one of the girls pointed out at the weekend, there wasn’t a whole lot else to do in Termon at that time but maybe there was beauty in that! It was just all about gradual improvement.”
“They really wanted to learn and to build on their football skills. They used to work all the time perfecting the basics and working on their weaker side also. The skills actually came easy to them. They always had a great interest and as a teacher I was just facilitating that.”
Indeed Emer Gallagher’s words – ‘all there is in Termon is a football pitch and Kevin’s shop as we call it’ – ring true.
They found football. They answered their calling.
“They all loved football,” recalled Harry McGlynn.
“They were so interested in everything about football and all they wanted to do was to play football.
“They were very eager and it actually got to the stage where they didn’t want to stop at all – one season we trained on for about three weeks after the season had finished. They just had the love for football.”
For Gillespie, last Sunday took him back to an afternoon in 2001 at Ballyshannon. Termon NS were up against Dooish NS. As one of the feeder clubs for Glenfin, Dooish were strong. Rivalries and friendships formed have continued to the present day.
At the time, Michelle McDermott was the rising star in Termon, but she was sick and couldn’t start. Stuck for numbers, Gillespie called on the seven-year-old girl from second class who’d been training away with the group. She’d never played in a competitive match before then. Needs must and all of that…
Termon won that game, edging it after McDermott – who was this season the physio with Glenswilly’s senior men’s team – came on for a late cameo appearance that yielded 1-3, but it was the performance of the his new star that sticks in the mind.
It was her first ‘proper’ game but it was marked by two goals – Geraldine McLaughlin had arrived.
“Even then she had that natural predator’s instinct” he remembered. “Once she got the ball there was only one thing on her mind.”
Along with McGlynn, the likes of Celine McFadden, Eileen Kelly and Eileen McLaughlin were heavily immersed at the time. 2000 was a tough year; they didn’t win a game. In 2001, they lost an Under-12 ‘B’ final against MacCumhaills after a replay. By 2002, the senior ladies were fielding again so the conveyor was in place.
McGlynn said: “It was all pie in the sky talk really, winning All-Irelands. We went up to the Feile in 2005 and we got to the semi-final. We began to think then that we had something special.
“It was still only a dream, though. It was: ‘That couldn’t possibly happen.’
“Even this time last year an All-Ireland seemed so far off. Francie (Friel) got them very focussed and the big one for them was beating Donaghmoyne. It was a mind thing; Donaghmoyne were just in their heads, they had a wee Indian sign over them.”
With the underage flourishing, the senior ladies were also on the rise again.
In 2002, McGlynn was aided by Jimmy O’Donnell when Termon lost to Kilcar in a junior final. Twelve months later they same teams were back and, this time, Termon had revenge. Friel was never far away and, in 2006, he had the reins with Hugh Harkin and Aidan McGrenra when Termon overcame St Michael’s 2-10 to 1-1 to win the Intermediate Championship. Senior football beckoned again.
“Only for the underage football starting up, ladies football would be long gone in and around Termon,” Friel said.
At Termon NS, the team was getting stronger by the year and McLaughlin had progressed significantly from the tiny second class pupil who might’ve been playing before thousands rather than the man and dog that day in Ballyshannon.
Gillespie added: “Around then they were starting to go up to county training too and they improved even more. The trickle became a flow and the flow became a flood.”
Gillespie recognised a special talent within a special crop. Termon was emerging as a leading light in ladies football.
“It hasn’t happened overnight,” he said.
“They’ve been willing to put in the hard work. They’ve got the will and the determination
“There was always an insatiable desire to learn and to improve. And as the old adage goes, “the more you practice the luckier you get!
“These girls have built their own momentum. The most meritorious thing last weekend was that there was no precedent – they’ve made their own history.
“Other teams will attempt to follow them – it will always be because of the team that came before them. I don’t think they actually realise what they’ve done.”
With Moville, Glenfin, Newtownbutler, Castlewellan, Donaghmoyne and Kilkerrin-Clonberne left in their slipstream, Termon went into Sunday’s game brimming with confidence. Gillespie did a radio interview on Raidio na Gaeltachta on Saturday and Sean Bán Breathnach wondered at the end if Termon would win the following day.
‘They won’t lose anyway,’ was the just of his response.
“It wouldn’t have mattered who they played last week – they weren’t going to lose!” Gillespie ventured this week.
McGlynn could feel it too – and when McLaughlin cracked home a hat-trick and a 3-8 total that surely belongs in a record book somewhere the title was theirs.
“I was a proud man on Sunday, of course,” McGlynn said.
“Every seemed to be: ‘Is this for real?’ ‘Is this really happening?’ It is a bit surreal.
“We knew at half-time that we were in with a chance even if we were four behind. It happened in the Ulster final, too, where we were behind and we came back to win. We knew if we could get ball into Geraldine that she’d score. They weren’t going to hold Geraldine for a whole game.”
And they didn’t. Four years ago, McLaughlin and Trevor Alcorn, then the manager, made a pact the night Termon lost the All-Ireland semi-final to Inch Rovers of Cork. McLaughlin asked Alcorn to stick around; he said he would and they could land the Holy Grail eventually.
Alcorn maintained his involvement as part of Francie Friel’s backroom and last Sunday McLaughlin lit the touchpaper on the biggest stage of all.
Some hours later, James Doherty’s coach snaked its way through Donegal and the sense of anticipation filled the air.
From the Mountain Top in Letterkenny, into Kilmacrennan and onto their final stop, the bonfires straddled the roadsides to greet the history-making heroines.
Those same roadsides have been straddled in times of tragedy, too. The Termon club has been hit hard over the years.
Two years ago, Francie Friel lost his wife, Elaine, to cancer just a few weeks after a senior player, Andrew Duffy, drowned in a Dublin canal on the night of Donegal’s All-Ireland semi-final win over Cork. On Monday last, Friel and his squad returned to Loreto Convent in Letterkenny where Elaine taught and coached those players who stood holding the All-Ireland Cup. McLaughlin broke down as she spoke. The emotion was understandably raw.
Go back to May 2002 and tragedy gripped one Sunday night. Eight-year-old Karen McGlynn – one of Harry’s daughters – was knocked down and killed while crossing the road near her home. She’d played with many of last Sunday’s victors and had a talent herself. On the day of her funeral a number 13 shirt was draped over her coffin. Her memory lives on and the Karen McGlynn Memorial Cup is played for every year.
It was a different sort of a procession that made its way to The Lagoon on Sunday night; a convoy not a cortège this time.
Fuelled by those days of darkness, Termon burned brightly long into a night some clubs could only dream of. Finally, Termon could rejoice as a club and as a parish. The emotion was clear in the eyes of players like Therese McCafferty, clearly overcome as she disembarked the bus.
Termon were dreamers once themselves.
As Geraldine McLaughlin, fittingly the captain, raised the Dolores Tyrrell Cup before the throngs of supporters, Gillespie smiled at the memories of Ballyshannon; McGlynn recalled Bríd McLaughlin telling him he’d ‘be lucky to get a footballer in this house’ (three of her daughters now have an All-Ireland medal!) and Friel pushed open The Lagoon’s doors as he had 22 years earlier.
They’re dreamers no more.
“I didn’t think it was possible,” Friel said. It was because they made it so.