By Frank Craig
Geraldine McLaughlin has an unassuming demeanour that lowers guards.
Like a Michael Murphy, Seamus Coleman or a Jason Quigley, she’s more often than not obliging and very helpful when ever she’s asked for a word or an opinion.
Beneath that personable front though is a fierce competitor. That’s hardly a revelation to anyone that knows her. But like the aforementioned company, there is a ruthless contrast when it comes to her on-field persona.
It’s October and it’s the Ulster Club SFC final in Killyclogher.
There is a palpable sense of trepidation on opposition faces when the huddles break and the Termon talisman makes her way towards whatever attacking outpost she’s to be stationed at. Her reputation precedes her.
Most scribes in the dingy pressbox have heads down, busy typing teams. But this is a juncture in Gaelic football that fascinates me. The ball is still minutes away from being thrown up but physiological battle lines are already being drawn.
It’s in the full-forward line on this occasion that she’s veering towards. Regardless, the opposing No. 6 is deep in conversation with Monaghan star Cora Courtney and some last minutes instructions and reassurance is given.
But the responsibility that no one wanted, the futile exercise of putting the shackles on the best forward in the country, is now hers and hers alone.
After a pulsating contest, Donaghmoyne eventually squeeze out the Donegal girls by 1-11 to 1-9. McLaughlin accounts for all of her side’s nine-point tally.
Her 60 or so minutes are a sporting tour de force. She’s aggressive, she’s direct and she’s relentless. But on no occasion was there a hint of frustration or disgruntlement expressed at those around her if a pass was misplaced or a ball dropped.
She’s pure quality and she may well at times stand alone for both club and county. But she’s the very definition of a team player, and in every sense of that term.
On the final whistle she doesn’t sink to her knees. Disappointment and her extreme but, ultimately, in vain efforts should mean it’s an instinctive reaction. But no, her first thought is to check on her more younger team mates.
At the time of writing, news of her performance at an AFLW combine in Dublin has reached us. It makes for impressive reading.
She was the fastest of the 13 players on trial, in the both the 20m sprint (3.22 seconds) and agility test (8.56 seconds).
Indeed, those numbers are so good they would have placed the 26-year-old second in each test at October’s NAB AFLW Draft Combine in Melbourne. And McLaughlin is now firmly on AFLW recruiters’ radars for the 2021 season.
With Donegal back in pre-season, she downplays her recent flirtation with Aussie Rules. Tir Chonaill teammates Yvonne Bonner and Katy Herron are currently Down Under and it seems like there is a good chance McLaughlin will give the professional game a go too in the near future.
“I got a call, an invite,” she said. “I’d given the Australian thing no thought whatsoever before. That’s the truth. But they rang and I thought why not? I just thought it’ll be interesting to see, an experience and maybe I’ll pick up something that’ll be of use.
“But it’s not something I need to give too much thought to this year. But I enjoyed it.”
Donegal open their NFL Division 1 account with an away tussle with Mayo on Sunday, January 26. And that, she says, will be vital preparation as Maxi Curran’s girls look to hold onto their Ulster championship crown.
“We’re really looking forward to it. There will be new players coming into the panel. And there are a few that are probably only going into their second or third season.
“Division 1 will again be a big help to them. It can only sharpen you. It’s great experience, especially for those
2019’s was a provincial title won from the most uncertain of bases. At this stage last season Donegal, All-Ireland semi-finalists the year before, were suddenly threadbare and looking severely vulnerable.
A spate of departures meant that so many of their more experienced heads were stepping away. For that reason alone, McLaughlin says there was something really special about their eventual Ulster success.
“It definitely was (extra special). Last year… I’d put it right up there with our very first Ulster title back in 2015. The year before there was probably an expectation. Last season there wasn’t.
“We were completely written off from very early on. People thought we’d no chance and there was no pressure on us. We’d so many missing.
“We’d some tough games along the way but a lot of those young girls went out and made names for themselves, proved people wrong.
“Winning it was a fantastic experience. It put a huge medal in the back pockets of so many right at the very start of their Donegal careers which was fantastic.”
Back in November, the LGFA confirmed a revamp of the 2020 TG4 All-Ireland Senior Championship structure.
The new series will now consist of two groups, with six teams in each, and the top two teams from each group will progress to the All-Ireland semi-finals, following a minimum of five games.
The provincial championships will be played on a knock-out basis, with the winners seeded in the draw for the All-Ireland series.
The bottom team in each group will contest a relegation play-off, unless they are a provincial winner, and thereby exempt from relegation.
Interestingly, there will be no Championship in Leinster for 2020. The last number of finals there have been one-sided affairs contested between Dublin and Westmeath but the Midlanders‘ relegation to the Intermediate ranks has left the reigning All-Ireland champions the only team competing at senior level in the province.
McLaughlin has legitimate concerns regarding the new format.
“I don’t know if it’ll help us. If we managed to win Ulster there’d be four or five championship games then in a group. We’ll just have to wait and see how all that shapes up.
“There is too much football to be played before then to worry too much about it. But if we managed to win Ulster we could well already have four championship games under our belt.
“Then you’d be facing into another five to reach a semi-final? There is no Leinster championship so Dublin will go straight into the All-Ireland group stages. For a summer championship, that sounds like a lot of games. But like I said, we’ll just have to see how that all pans out.
“If you happened to pick up a few injuries those players’ summers could well be over because the games will just be so close together.”
There has been a lot of attention paid to Luke Keaney’s injury plight in recent weeks. The former Donegal star was at one point trying to balance his playing commitments with Donegal’s U21s and seniors, University College Dublin and his club, Four Masters.
Ultimately, the demands on his body told and Keaney, who underwent five major surgical procedures across 18-months, was forced to retire in his mid-20s.
McLaughlin previously juggled those same club, county and collage footballs. Older and wiser, she now admits that it was counterproductive.
“When you’re there and in the moment, you want to play everything. But sometimes you need to listen to your body. There is no doubt there were days it was telling you, you weren’t fit to play.
“But things have moved on. To be fair, with the Donegal ladies, we are very fortunate now to have the right people working with us. It’s all about the science. They’ll look at our workload and see what we’ll do the next day.
“It’s still hard to get the balance. Because you will have club games and training in between all of that.”
With Maxi Curran confirming a number of high-profile returns in recent weeks, McLaughlin admits that the prospect of Yvonne Bonner lining up beside her once again in the 2020 championship excites her.
“Without a doubt. It’s a massive boost. Yvonne is probably one of the best players in the country. Ciara Hegarty is another brilliant footballer.
“To be honest, at the time, when they left last year it was such a blow. So when you hear the likes of those are coming back it’s a massive boost. They won’t be there for the league but they’ll be welcomed with open arms after that.
“Championship is the main thing any ways. And all those girls will come back in, in very good shape. She and Katy will be playing professional football every day so they’ll come back even better players. I’m sure of that.
“They’ll bring things back too that will no doubt help us. We’ll all be picking their brains and we’ll learn something I’m sure.”