Guthrie and Donegal’s young guns doing the county proud
Despite 15 new faces on the panel this season, county are back in the league semi-final
Donegal’s Karen Guthrie scores a goal during the surprising league win over All-Ireland champions Dublin at Croke Park. Photograph: Tommy Grealy/Inpho
It was back in February, just before the current Lidl National Football League campaign got under way, that Karen Guthrie found herself smiling at old photos she happened upon in her family home, the youthful faces staring back at her a reminder for the Donegal captain of how speedily the years fly by.
It was in 2012 that Guthrie helped out with coaching the Donegal development squad, working with its under-13, under-15 and under-17 players.
“So I was down home one day and I found photos of the under-13s from back then. They were just kids. And five of them are on the senior panel with me now,” she laughs.
“It’s hard to believe. But it’s so nice to see them coming through, that’s the whole idea of the development squad, to give these young girls a springboard to the intercounty scene.”
That group of five were among 15 new faces in the panel named by manager Maxi Curran ahead of the league campaign, and when he announced his team for Donegal’s opening game against Dublin at Croke Park there were just six survivors from the starting line-up in their last competitive game, when they lost to Cork in the All Ireland semi-final the previous summer.
Injuries and the desire to freshen up the squad by bringing in a batch of minors partly accounted for the raft of changes, but there had been a significant loss of more experienced players too, among them Yvonne Bonner who had left for Australia to play with the Greater Western Sydney Giants.
“We’ve had a mass exodus in the last while with girls’ lives taking different paths,” says Guthrie, “so the girls who have come in have had huge shoes to fill.
“It’s never easy when you lose players like that, you really need to retain your squad to be able to maintain momentum and kick on. We made big inroads in 2017, when we reached the National League final, and then last year when we made the All Ireland semi-finals, so you would naturally be expected to do something in 2019.
“But with so many changes and all the young players coming in our only target going in to the league was to be safe, to make sure we’d be playing Division One football again next year. That was the priority, we genuinely weren’t looking beyond that.”
They’re sitting top of the table, level on points with Dublin and Galway, and with a game to spare – against Galway next Sunday – they’ve already qualified for the semi-finals, Cork completing the line-up.
Winning in Croke Park, albeit against a similarly understrength Dublin, with the help of player of the match Guthrie’s 1-4, kick-started what has been an impressive campaign so far.
“Even with all the work we had done behind the scenes, we were still pretty nervous going in to that game because of all the changes, so we were delighted with how it went and things have been pretty positive ever since.”
The only blip along the way – and it was a sizeable one – was a 3-16 to 0-4 defeat by Cork last month in Páirc Uí Rinn, Donegal failing to score a single point from play. That, then, was the mother of all reality checks.
“It’s a definitely a day we would rather forget,” says Guthrie, “but we have to learn from it too. You have to meet fire with fire when you go out there and we just didn’t do it that day. We were missing players, but we should still have been competitive – instead, we were really poor. But we got back to winning ways against Westmeath, the girls responded really well because it’s not easy recovering from a hammering.”
Guthrie, a sports development officer with Active Donegal, is now in her 14th season with her county, having joined the senior panel when she was just 16. For much of that time she was stationed in midfield, but is playing further forward this season, with no little reward: she has a tally of 3-26 from Donegal’s six games so far.
The game against Galway will determine the semi-final line-up, and from there Guthrie and Co will attempt to emulate 2017’s achievement of reaching the decider.
Beyond that, there’s the small matter of the forthcoming championship, the initial target to make it three Ulster titles in a row. And beyond that?
“One game at a time,” she laughs, “starting with Galway on Sunday.”