19 Aug 2022

Niamh McLaughlin: ‘After all that we’ve been through, we’re still here’

By Saturday evening, Niamh McLaughlin could be the first Donegal captain to lead her team to an All-Ireland Ladies SFC final. An hour in her company makes you realise there’s a book in her, with a career that has taken so many twists and turns at the very top level in two codes. But there’s still chapters unwritten ...

By Saturday evening, Niamh McLaughlin could be the first Donegal woman to lead her team to an All-Ireland Ladies SFC final. An hour in her company makes you realise there’s a book in her, with a caree

Niamh McLaughlin, left, celebrates with Evelyn McGinley after the TG4 All-Ireland Ladies Football Senior Championship quarter-final against Dublin last Saturday Photos: Sportsfile/DonegalLive

It’s not the first time Niamh McLaughlin has been asked the question.

“Yes, of course I think about it,” she says when asked if she lets her mind wander in any way with the progress of the Republic of Ireland Women’s National Team, of which she could well have been a part. 

“But not in a regretful sort of way. I always loved playing football, whether it was Gaelic football, or soccer, well football.” 

From the early days, McLaughlin played football with current Donegal teammate, Castlefin’s Tanya Kennedy, and Ciara Grant from Letterkenny, who has recently joined Hearts having won both the Scottish Women's Premier League championship with Rangers and the Women's National League title at Shelbourne in the last 12 months.

“It was only years later, my mother [Caroline] said that Ciara and I were actually at the same nursery when we were children,” McLaughlin says. “We played together the whole way through for Ireland, as well as with Donegal underage teams.”

In 2009, both Grant and McLaughlin were goalscorers as Donegal defeated Tyrone 2-13 to 0-10 in the U-16 Ulster final before coming through an epic All-Ireland semi-final against Galway at Sligo’s Markievicz Park, 5-12 to 4-11.

Golfer Paul McGinley, whose putt at the Belfry sealed the 2002 Ryder Cup for Europe, was there to give John Joe Doherty’s senior mens’ side a pre-match pep-talk for their fourth round qualifier, also against Galway. Dubliner McGinley’s father Mick is from Dunfanaghy and mother Julia, a former Lady President at Dunfanaghy Golf Club, hails from Rathmullan. During the girls’ curtain raiser, McGinley was photographed with an excitable 12-year-old in the background called Bláthnáid McLaughlin, there to cheer on her big sister Niamh.

Meath in the final would prove a step too far, although only by inches as a team that also included Kennedy, Geraldine McLaughlin and Emer Gallagher lost out 4-8 to 3-9 in Tarmonbarry, Co Longford, calling for a penalty that only left match referee PJ Rabbitte shaking his head.

Despite being from Donegal, attending Thornhill College in Derry meant Niamh McLaughlin wasn’t considered for selection for the Irish schoolgirls. However, with her talent plain for all to see from a young age in the colours of Greencastle FC, she was trucked to the international meets in the midlands, even though she was technically ineligible for the schoolgirls.

In 2010, McLaughlin and Grant were in Neon, Switzerland, for the Uefa Women's U-17 Championships. Three wins in the first qualifying round on home turf against Denmark, Turkey and Slovenia cleared the initial hurdle. The second round, based in Simferopol, Ukraine, saw Ireland top their group, with wins over Sweden and the hosts, with McLaughlin scoring a penalty against Poland in a 1-1 draw. 

A Megan Campbell goal sealed a memorable 1-0 semi-final win over Germany and the final against a Spain side captained by Ivana Andrés, currently of Real Madrid, a scoreless draw preceded a heartbreaking 4-1 penalty shootout loss. Rianna Jarrett and Jessica Gleeson saw their spot kicks saved by Dolores Gallardo, the Spanish goalkeeper. 

Aged 17 in 2011, McLaughlin would catch the bus from Letterkenny or Derry to make the lonesome trip to Mayo a couple of times a week, as part of the Castlebar Celtic squad in the inaugural Women's National League, in an attempt to cement her chances of becoming a senior international.

“They were the closest league side to the north-west, so away I went,” she adds. “Sometimes getting to Castlebar to join the team and then straight off to Cork or Dublin or wherever. It felt like the only option at the time.”

By then she had already suffered two anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries - ruptured and re-torn - yet was still considered such a worthwhile presence, she spent September 2010 firstly in Trinidad & Tobago with the Irish squad at the Fifa U-17 Women’s World Cup before the whistlestop month ended at Croke Park in her tracksuit bottoms as one of the babies of the Donegal panel who defeated Waterford to win the All-Ireland Intermediate Football Championship. 

“I didn’t know what ACL meant the first time,” McLaughlin, who now works as a physiotherapist with the HSE, says. “An x-ray showed there was no break and that was supposed to be OK …”.

Whilst much has been made about the levels of dedication and amateurism in Gaelic games, the ladies have had to fight for everything. But there’s a bond there that’s unbreakable. Full-back Evelyn McGinley lined out in May’s Ulster final just days after her father passed away; Emer Gallagher this week mentioned the immense support she received when going through her own ACL injury over the last year and the fact some players simply don’t want to retire as it means they’ll not be a central part of the group any more. Family plans are shelved. 

It’s still common even now - after a night’s training in Convoy or whatever venue dotted around the county - for the Donegal footballer to put the key in the door after midnight and tip-toe around the house so as not to wake anyone. 

Donegal captain McLaughlin will turn 29 later next month, meaning she’s three years older than her GAA club Moville, who are housed at Carrick Field overlooking the Foyle. Her father Davy, who managed her with Donegal and was part of Maxi Curran’s backroom team until last year, always had an interest in Gaelic football and would pop to matches here and there.

Last Saturday, his daughter Niamh captained Donegal in a coup of immense significance, where an extremely disciplined tactical performance coupled with some daring breaks and an eye for goal at Páirc Seán Mac Diarmada in Carrick-on-Shannon laid the foundations for a 3-7 to 1-7 victory over a Dublin team who’d played in every All-Ireland final since 2013. 

This year though, they’re gone with Donegal now due to face the team that usurped them as champions last year, Meath, in Saturday’s All-Ireland semi-final at Croke Park.

“There’s a line Maxi uses,” McLaughlin adds with a pause: “‘It’s better to be constantly good than occasionally brilliant.’ When we play to our potential we can match anyone and we’ve shown that lots of times in spells. But against Dublin we had to put in a consistently good 60-plus minutes and we did. He’s always saying that line!” 

At ladies’ inter-county level, it’s often overlooked, that in some ways Donegal are infantile, yet in others grossly experienced. It took until 2015 for a first Ulster SFC win, with three more having followed since as well as two one-point final losses.

On the other hand, there are now seven centurions - Gallagher, Yvonne Bonner, Geraldine McLaughlin, Karen Guthrie, Niamh Hegarty, Nicole McLaughlin and Katy Herron - on the panel and Niamh McLaughlin, who debuted  under Micheál Naughton in 2010, is also one of those who graduated from the school of hard knocks.

She juggled footballing commitments with study, firstly a Bachelor of Science in Physiotherapy, which rolled into a Masters of Science in Strength and Conditioning at Northumbria University. 

In 2017, in Taipei, China, at the World University Games, McLaughlin stretched to shield a ball for Ireland against Great Britain and a familiar, unappreciated, feeling swept through her body. 

With adrenaline still overriding actuality, she returned to the field momentarily, but knew it just wasn’t right. A third ACL injury, this time the left knee with the two beforehand being in the right. She has the scars to prove it. 

“It just felt like it wasn’t there,” she adds of the sensation in the knee. “I knew I had been through this before - more than once - and I could do it again. As a physiotherapist now who deals with this sort of thing a lot, I understand the process. 

“I believe that following my previous recoveries it didn’t take me back as a footballer, so it was just a matter of going through the steps again.”

Only last month, in a 0-10 to 1-5 victory over Waterford, Bláthnáid suffered the same fate and now faces a similar journey. On Saturday last, she was hopping around Carrick-on-Shannon wearing the Donegal team gear with a smile on her face before and certainly after the win over Dublin. 

“She’s keeping well,” Niamh McLaughlin says of her sister Bláthnáid. “And I’ll be there to help, as all the girls will.”

Either side of China, when the chance was there, McLaughlin honed her football skills further in a fun environment of futsal and she lined out for both Newcastle United and Sunderland, with the latter offering an employment in S&C. 

There was also a chance to move home to work at Dublin’s Santry Sport Clinic, which would present less logistical difficulties in joining up with Donegal, who had blazed their way to the 2018 Ulster title - hammering Armagh 9-21 to 4-8 in Enniskillen - and onto a first ever All-Ireland SFC semi-final, where they went down to Cork.

Whilst at Santry, she worked both within the inpatient ward and outpatient Sports Medicine Department under Dr Ray Moran, who has performed cruciate operations on a host of sporting people and, a bit more leftfield, on Jon Bon Jovi. McLaughlin penned a deal with Shelbourne down the road at Tolka Park.

By the time 2020 rolled around, manager Curran had assembled most of the Donegal jigsaw. On March’s second Sunday at Fr Tierney Park in Ballyshannon, they posted a 2-6 to 0-8 victory over a previously unbeaten Cork side with Amy Boyle Carr and Geraldine McLaughlin the goalscorers. On the sideline that day was Niamh McLaughlin, chomping at the bit to get on, which she did for the final five minutes. 

On a personal, sporting and professional level, things were also clicking into place. But then, the world was stopped on its heels with the outbreak of the pandemic. Santry, with its 70 beds, had an agreement with the HSE, provided for overflow patients not infected with coronavirus and days at work rolled into weeks.

When football eventually got the green light, albeit with a lengthy list of provisions, Donegal and Dublin went under the lights at an eerie Breffni Park that October. With the championship shaved to only permit the winners of the three-team group that also included Waterford into the semi-finals, the clash with the then back-to-back All-Ireland champions was essentially a quarter-final in all but name.

In the peculiar year it was and on the night the match fell on, Halloween, Donegal were left spooked; eliminated by a freakish Sinead Aherne goal when her effort at a point cannoned down off the upright and spun past Denise McElhinney and in for goal to prove the point of differential in a 2-13 to 2-10 Dublin win. And with the bounce of a ball, Donegal’s season was over.

Before the calendars were in need of replacement, McLaughlin had taken up a physiotherapists’ position with the HSE in Letterkenny. 

“When I lived in England I thought I wouldn’t be coming back to Ireland and when I lived in Dublin I didn’t think Donegal would be an option,” she says. “But here I am. I just felt at the time and feel now, in my role as someone who works with, although not exclusively with, high-level sportspeople, this was an opportunity. 

“Donegal didn’t really have that but maybe that’s because it wasn’t on offer. I just thought I have had the injuries, the experience of them from both sides, in an area in which the treatment continues to evolve”.

In a totally unrelated conversation as recently as Tuesday, Emer Gallagher, who came back in on Saturday for her 100th inter-county appearance after almost 12 months on 99 stuck on the sidelines, said of her own experience: “Sure our captain Niamh McLaughlin has actually done her cruciate three times. She was a huge help.”

Donegal - by their own admission - have been occasionally brilliant, but had developed a reputation of sometimes leaving themselves too much to do, yet often almost managing to do it once it came to that jittery spell when it’s time to throw the kitchen sink.

Perhaps one of the most striking of those incidents came last August, when, having only lost in the province once since 2015, Donegal found themselves nine points down to Armagh in the Healy Park rain. In a grandstand finish, they pulled themselves together and came within an inch of parity, eventually losing by the bare minimum 3-12 to 3-11. 

Afterwards, the future of the team looked uncertain with Curran’s situation unclear with his tenure at an end, while Geraldine McLaughlin admitted, with a shrug of the shoulders, in the post-match interviews that perhaps her time to step aside had arrived.

By the time the Lidl National Football League rolled around in February of this year though, Donegal were still relatively in sync, with only 2018 All-Star defender Treasa Jenkins gone, while Deirdre Foley and Yvonne Bonner were coming back in. Niamh Hegarty was absent in the early passages, but would return towards the end of the League campaign. 

A competent yet unspectacular opening win over Galway was followed by victory over Westmeath and then a narrow loss in Bekan against Mayo. Against Dublin in the league semi-final at Clones in March, the script was like before, or so it seemed. 

Four points up at a stage in the first half, just like they were five ahead in the previous meeting - the All-Ireland quarter-final last August before Dublin put on the press to win out 2-12 to 2-7 - Donegal had been to the well and looked like coming back with an empty bucket. They had been reeled back in and Dublin were marching on, 1-10 to 0-8 ahead with three minutes to play. 

However, Emma McCroary reacted to a loose ball that ricocheted off the crossbar to goal and then Bonner pinched the resultant kick-out to score a second. From nowhere, Donegal had won and on they went to the Division 1 final against a Meath side who had also upset Dublin, in last year’s All-Ireland final.

Donegal trailed by seven points at a stage at Croke Park, with Meath’s willingness to work as a diligent defensive cluster and spring into a numerical offensive unit apparent, as was the experience of having got it right at Croke Park last year when it mattered most. 

McLaughlin kept her nerve to score a penalty and clenched a smile for the cameras afterwards having been named player of the match. But it was Meath who took the trophy home, winners on a 2-8 to 1-9 scoreline, adding to the All-Ireland.

“Last year, watching Meath do what they did had us buzzing,” she adds. “They were brilliant and really opened up the All-Ireland again and that gave everyone hope, us included. They did what they did so well. They’re really well coached.

“We wanted to win the league, of course, but we know now this semi-final will not present us with something totally new. But like I said on Saturday, we believe that if we can play to the best of our ability, then we are as good as anyone. It’s something we talk about here - myself and the likes of Karen Guthrie and the other more experienced players - all of the time. Maybe we can do something special.

“That’s why, after all that we’ve been through, we’re still here. We showed last week what a good team we are if we stick to the plan and that’s what we need to do this Saturday again.”

After so many twists and turns, Niamh McLaughlin, like Donegal, is still here and they’re just days out from their biggest opportunity yet. You get the feeling they’ll have no regrets.

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