FOLLOWING the heartbreak of a county semi-final defeat in 2018, the past 12 months has seen the Donoughmore ladies footballers taking a giant leap forward.
With county and provincial titles already in the bag, they will look to add an All-Ireland junior crown to their trophy cabinet on Sunday - when they face Mayo’s CL MacHale Rovers at Duggan Park in Ballinasloe (throw-in 2pm).
The team will be led out in the east Galway venue by full-forward Eileen Lyons and while she admits Donoughmore’s target for the season has already been reached, they are not prepared to let a golden opportunity pass them by.
“At the start of the year we set out to win a county, so we’re in bonus territory.
“We’re going to be in an All-Ireland now. We’re going to be in it to win it. We got to a county semi-final last year and we were very disappointed after that. It’s great this year to have progressed. We work hard as a team, we work together,” Lyons acknowledged in Croke Park on Monday.
Donoughmore are certain no strangers to All-Ireland finals, having competed in no less than four senior deciders in the early noughties. After tasting national glory 2001 and 2003, they were subsequently on the receiving end of defeats in 2004 and 2009 showpieces.
Lyons was part of the squad for the latter reversal to Monaghan’s Donaghmoyne, but nevertheless has happy memories of their previous successes.
“I was young in 2001 when they won it, but I remember being at that match and in 2003.
“They were great years for Donoughmore. I would have been on the panel in 2009. There was a very strong bunch of players in Donoughmore that time,” Lyons recalls.
Unfortunately, the team gradually started to break up moving into a new decade and they entered into a difficult period of transition as a result. With playing numbers extremely tight, Donoughmore weren’t able to field a team in the 2017 county championship.
However, there was light at the end of the tunnel. An influx of youth to supplement the experienced figures within the group has had a galvanising effect and Lyons believes the progress made in this time can signal the beginning of a new era at the club.
“We were struggling for numbers then for a couple of years, but it’s great to have a panel back in Donoughmore now again.
“We’ve younger girls coming up. We’ve a mixed of youth and experience. There’s great girls coming through in Donoughmore.
“We’ve a girl, Claudia Keane. She’s on the minor Cork team and others like her. It’s good to have and good to see in Donoughmore.”
Keane is expected to be joined in midfield tomorrow by the legendary Rena Buckley, who continues to exert a major influence at club level in both codes. During a glittering dual career at the inter-county grade, the chartered physiotherapist claimed an astonishing 18 All-Ireland titles.
While seven of these were for camogie - she represents Inniscarra in the small ball game - she earned 11 national football crowns under the guidance of Eamonn Ryan and latterly Ephie Fitzgerald. Additionally, Buckley is a survivor of Donoughmore’s aforementioned senior successes of ’01 and ’03.
She will have her sights set on claiming a 21st All-Ireland in Ballinasloe and despite being captain of the team, Lyons acknowledges the 32-year-old has been one of the driving forces behind the club’s revival of fortunes.
“She’s great. When she talks at training you listen. She’s full of wisdom and a very smart footballer. She’s great to have in the panel. The likes of Aisling Barrett as well, whatever they say in training you listen to.”
Whereas Donoughmore squeezed past Navan O’Mahony’s in their semi-final having initially built up a sizeable cushion, MacHale had eight points to spare at the end of a penultimate round showdown with Edendork St Malachy’s.
Full-forward Rachel Kearns was in outstanding form throughout the course of that contest, accumulating 1-9 to cap an eye-catching individual display.
Rebecca Maughan - one of four nieces of former Mayo manager John Maughan in the line-up - also bagged a goal to supplement a brace of three-point finishes from Sinead Walsh.
Whilst acknowledging the wider threat offered by the Connacht champions, Lyons accepted they will need to keep close tabs on Kearns - who was the sole Mayo representative in this year’s Ladies Football All-Star team.
“She [Kearns] will be a scoring threat up front. It’ll take good girls to mark her. I don’t know much about them to be honest, only that Mayo football is strong.
“We would imagine this will be a very tough team to beat. Anyone that makes it to an All-Ireland anyway, they’re the two best of the junior competition. It will be a tough game.”
It has been an encouraging year thus far for this Donoughmore team, with their passionate supporters driving them on at every available turn. Lyons is hoping they will make their voices heard for one last time in Duggan Park.
“It’ll be great. We’ve had some great support all along in games.
“A crowd coming out, it drives on teams as well. Hopefully more of the same on Sunday. The pitch is supposed to be good in Ballinasloe,” Lyons added.
We struggled for numbers for a couple of years, but it’s great to have a panel back in Donoughmore now again