Belfast Telegraph

Living the dream and getting paid: Why Aussie Football rules OK for Joanne Donnan's next challenge

Fermanagh GAA star Joanne Donnan on how her sporting journey is now set to take her on big move Down Under

Joanne Doonan at CrossCoders Women's AFL Camp. Credit: INPHO/Tommy Dickson
Joanne Doonan at CrossCoders Women's AFL Camp. Credit: INPHO/Tommy Dickson
Declan Bogue

By Declan Bogue

On Saturday at her home ground of Patrick McManus Park, Kinawley’s Joanne Doonan will look to push her club into an Ulster Intermediate ladies’ football final when they meet Monaghan’s O’Neill Shamrocks (throw-in 2pm).

This club run has come at the back end of a strenuous county campaign when she captained Fermanagh to the All-Ireland Junior final defeat to Louth. But football is not due to stop at any time.

Once Kinawley finish up, she will be on her way to the Women’s Australian Rules Football League where she will be one of 18 Irish players — and counting — to join up with Carlton Blues in the third year of the competition.

The expansion and success of the WAFL has been one of the most encouraging stories emerging worldwide for female sport, and Doonan becomes just the third Ulster player in the league with Carlton’s home games played at the iconic 122-year-old Ikon Park, with a capacity of 24,568.

It’s been some journey so far for her, when she says: “Funny, my cousins would joke now about how much I used to hate football when I was younger.”

She started out with the boys. With only three girls in her primary school class, she mucked in and played up until under-14 level.

Kinawley became stronger at ladies’ football and various mentors at first St Aidan’s school in Derrylin, then Mount Lourdes in Enniskillen, accelerated her development.

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But with her club, she has no memory of ever losing a game and by the time she was in her last year of under-14s, a tranche of players were already playing with the senior team.

Five years studying at Queen’s improved her further, training alongside the likes of Caroline O’Hanlon of Armagh and Tyrone’s Niamh O’Neill, and in her final year she captained the university to the Shield title at the O’Connor Cup.

Her own career has grown in tandem with respect and standing for the ladies’ game, as she explains: “The publicity around it, the media, the newspaper coverage, I suppose even the companies wanting to be involved with the sport, the equality involved, there’s been a massive push. It’s been fantastic.

Joanne Doonan with her boyfriend, Fermanagh footballer James McMahon
Joanne Doonan with her boyfriend, Fermanagh footballer James McMahon

“Girls growing up now wouldn’t understand the struggles we would have been having even five years ago. Girls now expect a certain level of standards. There would have been girls delighted with getting fed after training, but that is what we should have been getting as a base level, let alone celebrating it.”

It’s taking time, but the establishment of the Women’s Gaelic Players’ Association has moved things on. Doonan has a unique perspective on how far they can progress, with her boyfriend being the Fermanagh defender James McMahon.

“Don’t get me wrong, I understand there is more revenue going into the boys and they get the bigger crowds and all that. But even on a basis of food after training, there is fantastic work going on with the Women’s GPA trying to support us but even setting a baseline with all players…” she explains.

“I was travelling down from Belfast twice a week for training, and there were others (men) travelling once — but they would have got more expenses for travelling down once than I got going twice.

“But Fermanagh are good when it comes to ladies and they would give us the expenses when they can for girls coming from Dublin and Belfast.

“Whereas when you talk with others at the WGPA meetings, some of them are stuck to even get a pitch for training.

“It is just crazy what some counties have to go through. But the last, say, five years has been amazing and the more people asking you about football at home and taking an interest in it. Younger ones, looking up to players.”

That last line has particular resonance. Growing up, the full-forward modelled her game on Peter Canavan. Now, things are coming full circle.

“It’s funny,” she says. “There is a wee primary school (St Ninnidh’s in Derrylin) here and they were writing letters to somebody ‘famous’, but obviously they were just local people. A wee boy wrote to me and it was especially brilliant to see that.”

She’s worthy of role model status. A devotion to strength and conditioning leads to badgering her boyfriend for a look at his own gym programmes and the work on her extras paid off at the ‘CrossCoders’ camp last May, when applicants could go for trials to see if they had what it takes to play Down Under.

Doonan’s 2k run time of seven minutes 38 seconds impressed them, as did her agility tests, when she finished top.

Some weeks previously, the organisers sent through YouTube videos of ball drills, so she went and bought a Sherrin ‘footie’. She would then send them videos of herself doing the skills and pointers would come back.

On the Sunday of the weekend camp, she had a phone interview with Carlton.

Jason Hill, an AFL agent working with CrossCoders, kept up contact, continually asking for clips of her playing and asking if she could come over to Melbourne to meet with Carlton representatives, which she did in the middle of August for further trials.

While there, she played a Victorian Football League game where even the scale of ambition took her by surprise.

“There are a few girls that I played with before, so it was great to get an insight into what they were thinking and see how you would fit in with all the girls but thankfully they were lovely. It was easy, so good to see their set-up, even their gym for training,” she enthuses.

“They have one coach for activation, one coach for kicking drills, another for tackling and so on. That’s even for the VFL.”

On her journey back, she was awaiting a connecting flight in Hong Kong when she logged into her emails. There it was — the contract offer from Carlton.

It means leaving behind her job as a process engineer in Belfast, but she can live with that for the opportunity to play as a full-time athlete. “Pre-season now will be November,” she explains.

“I think the games start in January and they run until maybe April time and then it depends on getting to a Grand Final and stuff like that, it might run on longer.

“They have four new teams this year, so the season might be longer than previous years and then the way they are looking at it, the more teams are in it, the longer the season will go on.”

The growth of the game is such that they are targeting full-time football in the next few years.

“In a few years’ time they might not be looking abroad to recruit players, they might have enough in Australia. So I have been lucky to have got in at the right time, now, before they go all-Aussie,” says Doonan.

“There are still Irish guys going over there so maybe it is something that girls can always aspire to.

“It is only semi-pro there for the women so training is only three times a week, they are long evening sessions, but it has to fit around your work. It’s what I am doing here, but I am getting paid for it, so it’s going to be living the dream, isn’t it?”

Indeed it is.

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