In her new role as office administrator with the Ladies Gaelic Football Association, Cavan star Aisling Doonan drives past Croke Park to and from work every day.
A look through the window at work brings the famous stadium into focus and Doonan has bittersweet memories of playing there.
In 2011, she was captain of the Cavan team that lost the TG4 All-Ireland IFC final to Westmeath but two years later, the Breffni girls beat Tipperary to gain senior status.
Ever since, Cavan have been making steady progress and with one round of fixtures remaining in Division 2 of the Lidl National League, they’ve already secured a top four finish, along with pacesetters and Sunday’s opponents Donegal, Clare, and Westmeath. Cavan have slipped up just once this season, against Clare, and the semi-final pairings could pit the two counties against each other again.
It could also be Donegal in a semi-final, as Doonan notes, which is a scenario she hopes to avoid as it would mean two successive meetings with Cavan’s Ulster rivals.
Doonan, 29, reflected: “We’ve been doing very well so far, making great progress again and we’re back to where we want to be, in the semi-final stages. We dropped points against Clare which was disappointing, they were the better side on the day.
“We need to be beating Donegal. We don’t want to be playing them twice in a row.
“We’re at a better level than this time last year, new girls have come into the panel to mix with the girls there for the last number of years.”
Armagh finished as Division 2 champions last year, to gain the promotion slot available, and they scored a 2-20 to 1-8 semi-final victory over Cavan. But Doonan points to the examples of Armagh, and Ulster champions Donegal, to highlight what can be achieved with good players, organisation and belief.
The prolific forward insisted: “That is the goal, long term we need be playing Division 1 football to be competing for the All-Ireland. Initially, it was about getting up to that (senior) stage. We had great development and minor squads coming through and when we won in 2013, a lot of that underage talent began to come into the senior fold.”
And with a number of Cavan players featuring for their various colleges in the O’Connor, Lynch, and Giles Cup competitions, that momentum is carried forward from March into the summer. Doonan, a two-time O’Connor Cup winner from her UCD days, added: “There have been huge strides — the most important thing is we are moving forward, not just happy with where we are. The main goal is to play Division 1 football and that’s another stepping stone. We’re not happy anymore with a win or two in the championship — we want to get through to the latter stages. Looking at Donegal winning Ulster last year and Armagh making huge strides in a short space of time shows it can be done.”
And Doonan’s new job means that she’s at the coalface of Ladies Gaelic Football even when she’s not training for and playing in matches.
She explained: “When you’re passionate about ladies Gaelic football, you want to be involved in it. I’m only here a few weeks but I love it. When you’re passionate about something, it’s great to make it your working career as well.”
And at grassroots level in Cavan, Doonan sees plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the years ahead. Last June, Cavan beat Cork to win the All-Ireland U14 A crown, the first time an underage team from the county tasted glory in the A grade.
“We can see the conveyor belt coming through. We’re cleaning up in Ulster at underage and there are more players coming through to join the older players like myself, Roisin O’Keeffe, and Rosie Crowe.
“We didn’t win anything at underage but now these girls are used to winning, they come in and there’s no fear in them.
“It pushes you on to the next level and if you’re not putting the effort in or meeting the required standards, you’re not going to be picked on Sunday.”
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