Wednesday 20 November 2019

Aiming to go from Down Under to top of the pile

Living the dream in Australia isn't always enough to resist the call to play for your county

Aoife McDonnell: ‘I’ve always said that there is the makings of an All-Ireland winning team in the group that we have now.’ Photo: Brian Farrell
Aoife McDonnell: ‘I’ve always said that there is the makings of an All-Ireland winning team in the group that we have now.’ Photo: Brian Farrell

Marie Crowe

Aoife McDonnell received a phone call at the end of last year from the Donegal football manager Michael Naughton. She was on her third stint living in Australia, playing Aussie rules for the Sydney University Bombers and teaching too. Life was good.

But Naughton wanted her to come home. He was planning on a big push to really go after the All-Ireland title and McDonnell was part of his plans.

Living in Australia suited her personality; she's a sports and fitness lover. The type of person who gets up early to go running, the one who rarely takes a break, not even on Christmas day. And Down Under she found a lifestyle and culture where she thrived. The sun and sandy beaches were an added bonus.

Naughton's call made her think about home and what she could achieve in the Donegal jersey. Even though she was well set-up in Australia she always craved home, or more specifically she craved Gaelic football and the joy and satisfaction that it brings. So when the manager told her that he had a panel of players who were committed for the season she was sold. McDonnell booked her flight and by this year she had packed up her things and returned to Donegal to focus on football and ultimately winning an All-Ireland.

"A lot of the players who had left the set-up over the last couple of years came back," she says. "They had just needed to go away and do their own thing for a while. It was good for them to go to America for a summer, get whatever experiences they needed to get. I've always said that there is the makings of an All-Ireland-winning team in the group that we have now if we have everyone available to us.

"I had no problem committing when I knew everyone else was too. It's got to the point where everyone has gone and done their own thing and they are back now and we all have the same goal."

It's been going well so far. Although they the lost the League final to Cork, the Ulster crown is residing in Donegal after a comprehensive victory over Monaghan and an All-Ireland quarter-final awaits. But they will have had a seven-week break since winning Ulster and the long lay-off is far from ideal preparation for championship.

"It's hard to keep any momentum going but it gives you a chance to play for your club. We will have a couple of challenge matches over the next few weeks too."

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This year the championship is wide open. Cork are no longer as dominant as they have been and the chasing pack have upped their game.

"I think Cork are going through a bit of a transition," she says. "They still have a lot of great players there but they are maybe missing a few experienced players this year that they may have been able to call on before.

"At the same time I think everyone else has raised the bar. You see it happening in men's football too. People have to adapt or they get left behind. More teams are adapting and making the most of the benefits that are coming from the WGPA, like the funding."

Since the establishment of the WGPA in 2015 McDonnell has noticed the promotion of the game increase. She believes they are doing the game a great service and it will go from strength to strength. Of course she has first-hand experience of the AFL and how they identified a market for their women's game, developed it, and are promoting it successfully.

"Thousands turn out to watch the women's game in Australia. There is a real audience for it over there and I think it could be the same here. When people see ladies' football they are surprised how free-flowing it is and the lack of cynical play, but it's important to get it out there and for people to see it.

"With big-name sponsors like Lidl involved and TG4 it's great. They are doing so much to promote football at all levels and it's brilliant for girls coming through to see that sort of thing. Especially when they could be playing different sports, but they are seeing the girls playing for their county and they have someone to look up to. It makes a big difference."

There is still a lot of work to be done in ladies' football, but the Association is progressive. However, the fact that ladies' football is not under the GAA umbrella is a big issue for McDonnell.

"It's put across that we are one big community and that annoys me because we are not. The reality is very different. It would be much better if we were always working in synchronisation. We would love equality. When my playing days are done, it will be something I will be pushing, trying to get equality in sport."

So once the football was sorted at home, there was the small matter of a job. She managed to get teaching work and also set up her own business called Atlantic Way Experience. Based in Donegal, it offers a range of English language and sports programmes. The aim is to help improve language skills through classes, workshops and educational excursions to scenic and cultural sites in Ireland.

There are camps, too, with sports including Gaelic football, basketball, soccer and general activities. McDonnell is enjoying the challenge of the new venture; it gives her another focus outside football.

It means life is a little more hectic than it was in Australia but she's fine with that. For someone as driven and determined as this footballer there will always only be one outcome and that is success.

Aoife McDonnell features in the WGPA's #BehindThePlayer series, which explores the lives of players both on and off the field of play. See Aoife's video profile at wgpa.ie or on WGPA social media channels.

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