THE TURN of the decade was just how Geraldine McLaughlin imagined it.
Although the Donegal ladies’ winning of an All-Ireland Intermediate title was new ground entirely for the county.
Winning a national title at Croke Park was previously beyond the dreams.
McLaughlin had won silverware all the way up the ages, including an Ulster three-in-a-row at Under-16 level from 2007-09.
In 2009, McLaughlin scored 3-5 as Donegal defeated Clare 5-13 to 5-5 in the Under-18 All-Ireland fina, having hit 1-6 in the Ulster final triumph over Tyrone.
“I had won stuff all the way up, we had such a good underage team,” McLaughlin says.
“It was in like 2011, looking back on 2010, that I realised it was an adult competition. I was so naive. You just assume, because you’ve won every year at underage, that it’ll be like that all the time.
“It’s only when you’re in senior for a year or two that you realise: ‘Hold on, this doesn’t happen every year!’.
“We had a class team from under-14 to minors. That has really helped us even up to now.”
2010 and beating Waterford at Croke Park took the ladies game in Donegal to a different sphere.
McLaughlin, Roisin Friel, Niamh Hegarty, Yvonne Bonner, Aoife McDonald and Karen Gtuthrie are among those who have been central figures ever since.
A 2-12 to 0-16 win over the Deise gave Donegal – managed by Michael Naughton – the chance to climb the Croke Park steps.
“That was unreal,” McLaughlin says.
“It was the start of something. It was class running out onto Croke Park with Donegal. We proved then that we were good enough to win bigger titles. It gave us a lot of belief and let people see what we were capable of.”
Donegal would have to wait until 2015 to win an Ulster senior crown – the first of four provincial titles Tir Chonaill’s ladies have won this decade.
In 2014, McLaughlin and Termon saw the whole of the moon.
A magical journey through Donegal was the catalyst for The Burn Road side to win the Ulster crown. The bar lifted once more and on a freezing November Sunday in Tuam, McLaughlin shot the lights out, scoring a stunning three goals and eight points as Termon defeated Mourneabbey to win the All-Ireland final.
The rest is a mixture of haze and giddy memory by the Burn as Termon toasted their greatest hour.
McLaughlin was their star as they beat Mourneabbey 3-12 to 1-13 and it goes, without doubt, to the top of her own list of considerable highlights.
She had played in Croke Park before, having been plucked for a Cumann n mBunscoil half-time game during an All-Ireland SFC semi-final between Tyrone and Kerry. Little did headquarters know that afternoon but a future star – Donegal’s greatest female player – was in their midst.
It was just after the turn of the previous decade that Harry McGlynn – doing his rounds in an attempt to recruit new players – knocked on a door in Clonkillymore.
Brid McLaughlin was bemused.
‘You’ll do well to get a footballer out of this house,’ came the response.
“Mammy was right for a while, too,” McLaughlin recalled later.
“I wasn’t much good. I used to just run with the ball; I didn’t even solo it.”
Under the careful tuition of Christy Gillespie, a Kilcar native who was the headmaster in Termon National School, the young Geraldine McLaughlin cut her teeth to become the razor-sharp attacker she is now. Indeed, Brid McLaughlin would watch three of her daughters – Geraldine, Nicole and Sharon – win All-Ireland medals in 2014.
Harry McGlynn, indeed, did well!
In 2015, Donegal – now under Davy McLaughlin’s management – beat Monaghan 2-12 to 1-10 at Clones to win a first ever Ulster title. Geraldine: 2-7.
“That first Ulster was special,” she says. “People were really taking us serious. We were taking ourselves serious too.
“We were really lucky to get Davy in. He was top class. He had a lot of us during underage. He knew us and he knew we had the talent to win Ulster so he took it upon himself.
“That year was a massive step from years before. We had done everything a senior team should be doing.
“The wait to win was tough. It was strange not winning with the county. We had lost a lot of players after 2010 and that Intermediate final. It was really weird being out early with county and it just didn’t feel right.”
Donegal have won the last three Ulster crowns – 2018 and 2019 under Maxi Curran, who will be back at the helm in 2020 – and have become the top side in the province.
It is not by coincidence, either, McLaughlin insists.
“We have a good hardcore of players there and also have good crops coming through,” she says.
“Back at the start, we would maybe bring too many in at the one time. We’ve had great success now the last few years. We’ve got the balance right.”
After 2018, when Donegal went to an All-Ireland semi-final, the turnover of players was stark. The departures included McLaughlin’s partner in crime, Yvonne Bonner, who headed to Australia to play for Aussie Rules team, the Greater Western Sydney Giants.
The future for 2019 was uncertain.
“We didn’t even know ourselves,” McLaughlin admits. “The new ones fitted in so well. A couple of the young ones are just top class and they blended in brilliant.
“The one this year was as good as the first. Just because we didn’t really know what to expect. We nearly got beat by Cavan, but winning that game (McLaughlin scored 0-14) gave us belief. We had to go out and prove ourselves again this year because we had so many new players.”
The last decade saw Glenfin’s Bonner (2010), Moville sisters Niamh and Ciara Hegarty (2017) and Carndonagh’s Treasa Doherty win TG4 Ladies All-Stars – an honour that has eluded McLaughlin’s precocious talents so far, despite having been nominated on five separate occasions.
Donegal’s 2019 Lady Footballer of the Year, McLaughlin is still only 26. She was just 17 when Donegal climbed the Hogan Stand in 2010 and her age means it’s possible that her best years are still in front of her – a daunting thought for defenders across the land.
“The commitment is huge, but you have to enjoy it,” she says.
“You life just revolves around football. That’s not easy in Donegal. You’re all the time thinking: ‘I have to go to training’; ‘I can’t eat that’; ‘I better not go there, I’ll be too tired tomorrow’.
“You life just has to go around football. It’s not easy, but you couldn’t do it if you didn’t enjoy it.
“I love it.”Tags: