Donegal Ladies face a sudden-death qualifier against provincial companions Down in Clones in a bid to keep their All-Ireland dreams alive (Sunday, 3pm).
Eamon O’Boyle’s side have had six long weeks to reflect on their Ulster semi-final defeat at the hands of Tyrone at Brewster Park but are eager to make the most of their second chance against a Down side who controversially beat them on their last run in the senior provincial championship two seasons ago.
Trailing 0-11 to 1-9, Karen Guthrie split the posts but the effort was ruled out by the full-time hooter and as a consequence denied the team then managed by Hughie Molloy extra-time.
This season extra-time was also harsh on the Donegal team. The pros and cons from a 6-17 to 6-10 extra-time loss were particularly obvious but the free-scoring Geraldine McLaughlin is expected to start on the bench following a knee cartilage operation last month. Four days after that loss against Tyrone, the players returned to training at O’Donnell Park and have gradually moved through the gears in anticipation of the qualifiers.
“It’s been a while since the Tyrone match but we have played a couple of challenge matches and in-house games to keep ourselves occupied in the interim,” O’Boyle said. “The girls were definitely disappointed to get knocked out of the Ulster championship the way we did and felt we did enough to win the game in normal time. But we didn’t and everyone was back and showed well for a couple of hard weeks training after we regrouped. We took a look at our situation and decided to concentrate on what we have in front of us. A good reaction was important.”
Eilish Ward, Deirdre Foley and Karen Feeney opted to spent their summers in the United States but there are still plenty of competent performers that can seal a place in the last 12 of the All-Ireland Series, where Donegal or Down will face one of the beaten provincial finalists - Galway, who went down 5-11 to 2-15 against Mayo in Connacht, the Meath team that were beaten 2-8 to 1-10 in the Leinster final by Laois and Kerry, 2-15 to 0-11 losers against Cork in Munster. Tyrone and the winning trio lie in wait in the last eight.
Apart from those absentees, Donegal can rely on the likes of Aoife McDonnell, Guthrie, Niamh Hegarty and Yvonne McMonagle against a Down team that were hammered 5-12 to 1-5 at the Athletic Grounds in Armagh in their semi-final against eventual Ulster champions Monaghan.
Michéal Naughton, O’Boyle’s predecessor, brought three trophies back to the county last season in the form of the NFL Division Two, the Ulster and All-Ireland intermediate crowns. As a result of that success, Donegal rejoined the top flight in both league and championship and can be satisfied with their progress to date.
Donegal lost just twice in their opening seven-game series, against Monaghan and Cork, and managed to win against Galway, Mayo, Laois, Tyrone and Kildare to finished third in the standings. Rampant Cork, chasing a fourth successive league crown, battered Donegal by 7-16 to 1-10 in their semi-final at Tuam Stadium but when the sole objective at the start of the campaign was survival Donegal’s point on the curve might be more elevated than they had budgeted for.
Down are two divisions below Donegal in the league and reached the semi-final before losing to Fermanagh 4-7 to 1-15 in Clontibret, Co Monaghan. Beforehand they had won against Wicklow, Limerick, Longford and Leitrim, drawn with Fermanagh and Wexford and lost only against eventual league winners Clare.
“Down are a decent side,” O’Boyle continued. “They also got the better of the girls a couple of years ago somewhat controversially so hopefully we will get the rub of the green this time around. We’re still in the championship and that’s the most important thing so we must take that opportunity.”