BY CHRIS MCNULTY
FRANCIE Friel likens Sunday’s All-Ireland club final against Mourneabbey to an exam.
As his squad prepare for the game of their lives, there are few hints of nerves or apprehension evident in the biting November air by The Burn. They have their study done. Rather than cram in the work in the days and hours beforehand, their syllabus that is Championship football has been rhymed and rehearsed so often it comes as second nature now.
“Look, that doesn’t mean that we’ll win the game but it’s a good start,” says the Termon manager ahead of a game that ranks as the biggest in the club’s 51-year history.
“They’re relaxed and the reason they’re relaxed is because they know that the work is done. It’s like going to an exam and we’re prepared for all eventualities. It’s not like the man going into the school and he’s: ‘I hope that doesn’t come up; I don’t have that learned’.
“The girls know what they’ve done all year – hopefully that’ll take us across the line on Sunday. We’ve done a lot on fitness and on the mind – we’ve left nothing to chance.
“People would ask me coming up to games this year: ‘Are you nervous?’ and I’d say: ‘No, because I know we have the work done.’ You only become nervous when you’ve something you haven’t done and the work isn’t done.
“This is a serious bunch of girls. It’s not even funny what we’ve done. It’s scary the amount of work that has gone into this.
They’ve done everything that has been asked of them. Everything.”
At the start of the season, once the Donegal Championship draw paired them with Moville, Friel encircled ‘Moville, August 17’ on a flip chart one night at training. That was their way during this history-making campaign that has rolled on into the dark November nights.
Friel says: “I said at the start of the year that I didn’t want talk about Championships. At that stage, nothing mattered only Moville. When one name has come off, another has gone on. We’ve never mentioned titles or anything like that; it’s just about the game we’re in. Once you look ahead in football, it’ll kick you.”
Friel was a member of the Donegal senior backroom team in 2013 and has been a part of the under-21 set-up under Maxi Curran. The time spent between those dressing room walls has been invaluable for a man who has always held a love for coaching.
“2013 was just unbelievable with the amount of stuff I learned,” he says.
“It was a real eye-opener. There really was something new learned every day in training. It was a great learning curve.
“From I was 19 or 20 I’ve always been interested in coaching.
“I would be wild into learning different things, different methods. I’m big into rugby and boxing and just interesting in finding out about the different sports. There is so much you can take from other sports. Look at the discipline the rugby is played with at the minute and the same with boxing, the boxers need to be so disciplined out of the ring.”
It’s just over a year ago since Friel agreed to take on the job. He’d assisted Trevor Alcorn in the last campaign and retained his friend and neighbour, as well as Paul ‘Smiley’ McDaid. The trio set to work immediately on righting the wrongs. Termon were at the winning post against Donaghmoyne in the Ulster final, but the Monaghan side snatched a draw. The replay in Trillick saw Donaghmoyne roar to a 4-14 to 1-4 win.
“It would have been easy to go and hide, but to a woman they haven’t done that,” he says now.
“We have over 100 sessions done this year and I could count on my hand the amount of sessions girls have missed.
“I watched the video back of the Donaghmoyne game looking to see where we went wrong and there were just a couple of wee things that we needed to tidy up.
“One of the things that we had to do was to get fitter. To get fitter you have to train harder and you have to train longer. That’s exactly what we’ve done.
We laid the plans out for what we wanted to do; what we needed to do. We needed to put our lives on hold to see where it’d take us. In fairness, everyone bought into what we’ve done.
“What we’re doing is what most successful club teams are at. Football has changed across the board and has gone up so many levels, in men’s or ladies.”
Friel has been involved on and off with the Termon ladies set-up for years; it’s part-and-parcel of being immersed in the ways of the club.
He’d given them coaching at Loreto Convent in Letterkenny, where many of the squad went as students. The Ulster final win this year came a day before the second anniversary of the death of his wife, Elaine (Winston), who sadly lost her battle with cancer in November 2012.
She, too, was in tune with football’s ways and meanings and had looked after teams in the Letterkenny school. A daughter of former Donegal star Joe Winston, she could have been no other way.
Football has been like a release for Friel and has helped the grieving.
Victory on Sunday would be the icing on the cake after a year of emptying the tank.
“They’ve always realised and known that they were good, but when the heat came on they didn’t believe it as much as they do now,” he says. This year, getting over Donaghmoyne was a huge monkey off the backs. They were two points up last year in the final, but they maybe didn’t believe they could see it out and it blew up in our faces in the replay.
The likes of Laura Gallagher, Olive McCafferty, Emer Gallagher, Roisin McCafferty, Grainne McCafferty, Roisin Friel, Maureen O’Donnell and the precocious Geraldine McLaughlin have all played for the county side and he has a full panel from which to select on Sunday morning.
“The fifteen is quite settled, but there are always places up for grabs,” he says.
Shannon McGroddy came in this year from Milford and has, in Friel’s words, been ‘a serious acquisition’.
He says: “What a talent. She has savage energy levels, is strong, super fit and she can take a score. She can be a serious operator.”
McGroddy netted one of the goals in the 3-11 to 2-12 semi-final win over Kilkerrin-Clonberne. O’Donnell hit seven ice-cool frees – ‘She’s been there, done that, nothing fazes her and you just can’t buy that experience’, Friel mentions – but again it all came back to McLaughlin’s peerlessness.
“I go on record to say that she’s the best player in Ireland,” Friel says with absolute certainty.
“She is so sore on herself. She wants to win all the time, even in training. She’s a gem. We’re lucky to have her. She’s getting these scores with four players on her.”
His star pupil is ready for the test and the master himself, Friel, the popular Donegal Creameries employee, feels that his side is ready to join hope with history at Tuam Stadium.
Before the county final with Glenfin he’d a nagging worry. In the three weeks between semi-final and final, Termon cranked up the preparation. “I said that day that we wanted the game over after 15 minutes,” he recalls. By then, Termon were 3-8 to 0-2 in front.
“We went out to blow them out of the water because we didn’t want it point-for-point,” he says. “That’s when the whole thing kicked off. Up to the All-Ireland semi-final, that was our best performance. Everything went right.”
Mourneabbey make the trip to Tuam as another highly-rated outfit from Cork’s ladies football conveyor. Termon, though, feel as if their time as come.
“This will be a serious team and we’ll need to bring our ‘A’ game,” their manager says.
“If we deliver the performance that we’re capable of I know that we can win – it’s all about performance.”