By Frank Craig
Donegal ladies travel to Swinford Park on Sunday as their 2020 League season opens against Mayo (throw-in, 2.30pm).
The reigning Ulster champions went into last year’s NFL campaign seriously short on numbers and expectations, outside the group at least, were low.
However, Donegal defied the odds to not just stay in Division 1 but to also hold onto the provincial crown. No one will be making the same mistake twice in regards to writing them off before a ball has even been kicked.
But the reality is that Maxi Curran is dealing from an even narrower deck this time around.
Last year’s skipper Karen Guthire will miss the majority of the League as she is off travelling Australia. Katy Herron is also in Oz having recently joined Yvonne Bonner in the AFLW.
As well as that stalwarts like Treasa Doherty, Ann Marie McGlynn and Niamh Hegarty are also absent at this stage.
The good news for Tir Chonaill ladies supporters is that the majority of the real big hitters, absent last term and at the outset of this one, will be back in tow prior to Championship.
But until then the group might well have to batten down the hatches in what appears to be a very competitive Division 1.
“Last year, I think after that experience, there won’t be that same level or degree of trepidation,” said Curran on the immediate challenge of retaining their League status. “We only thought we were short last year but the numbers are down a little bit more this time out.”
Back at the outset of 2019 Donegal travelled to Croke Park to take on reigning All-Ireland champions Dublin. A tanking was predicted in most quarters but a new-look Donegal shone and deservingly scored an opening round triumph.
“From the side that ran out at Croke Park that night we’re now missing Karen Guthrie, Katy Herron, Treasa Doherty, Anne Marie McGlynn and Niamh Hegarty.
“Indeed from the team that opened against Cork in the All-Ireland semi-final 18 months ago I’m guessing there’d only be Nicole and Geraldine (McLaughlin) available at this moment. That’s some turnaround.
“The plus side to this hopefully, like we seen last year, is that girls have to stand up and be counted when those type of players aren’t around.
“Niamh Carr is the example I’ve used but she was a squad player until last season. She finally got her chance and went on to be one of the finds of the season for us.
“We’re not in any way concerned at this moment who is not here. We know numbers will be bulked later on in the League. The aim for us at the moment is to develop players and give ourselves even more options down the line.”
Curran admits that last season’s early upsetting of Dublin had a massive impact on his young squad at a time when their mindset was delicate.
“Going into last year we just didn’t know how the girls were going to respond. I don’t think I’ve ever been involved with a team where one game had such a positive impact on a season.
“If it had to have been a chastising experience, say coming down the road off the back of a heavy12 or 15-point defeat – because that’s what people were talking about. And it was understandable given the circumstances.
“It really made the girls stand up and believe in themselves. There was a realisation that they were capable of standing on their own two feet. There were girls away but suddenly the road ahead of them didn’t appear all that bad.
“So that same feeling is hopefully still there. Because they have the example and the learnings from last season. I spent a summer in Boston when I was 18 and I remember Liam Austin from Down telling me, ‘give me 15 workers over 15 footballers any day’.
“And I think in ladies football, if you’re prepared to empty yourself, outwork the opposition in as many departments as you can, then you’ll be competitive most days you go out.
“Most sides can be got at if there is a wee bit of heat applied and there is consistent energy in the tackle. That’s the kind of thing we’re working on.”
Some fresh faces have had to be promoted in recent weeks and the manager says they will all get their chance to stake a claim.
“We’ve a young, hungry group. The likes of Cathy Ward, Caroline Sharkey, Annie Logue… they are all new faces this year. We’re very hopeful that group will benefit from this League campaign and develop into real options come summer.”
Curran’s backroom team for the campaign ahead consists of: James McGinley (Milford), Joe McLaughlin (Ardara), Gary Walsh (Aodh Ruadh), Alan O’Connell (St Eunan’s) and Nadine Friel (Glenswilly).”
As for the weekend’s opposition, Mayo have also had their plans disrupted by a cluster of girls heading Down Under for the Spring months.
“For the last few seasons Donegal and Mayo have probably been neck and neck for that fourth spot,” he explained. “Dublin, Cork and Galway have been that wee step above.
“Mayo are in a similar situation to ourselves with girls away. They have four playing Aussie Rules at the moment. Sarah Rowe, the Kelly sisters Grace and Niamh (West Coat Eagles) and Aileen Gilroy (North Melbourne Kangaroos). They have another girl, Dayna Finn, away playing basketball for Ireland.
“It’s a period of transition for them as well. But whoever wins on Sunday will give themselves a massive start in their bid to stay up.
“We’ve three home games and four away. We’re a little unfortunate that the three at home are Dublin, Cork and Galway. So it’s looking like a very difficult league for us.”
Mayo v Donegal
Waterford v Donegal
Donegal v Galway
Westmeath v Donegal
Donegal v Cork
Donegal v Dublin
Tipperary v Donegal