By Michael McMullan
A LOVE of her county and playing alongside the girls she grew up are the main reasons why Karen Guthrie is still pulling on the green and gold of Donegal.
Based on Fr Seán Ó Gallchoir’s expertly detailed breakdown of her career, Guthrie has a staggering 165 senior inter-county appearances to her name going into Sunday’s All-Ireland quarter-final clash with Dublin in Ballybofey (2pm).
After a disappointing league campaign that saw Donegal relegated from the top flight, they bounced back to regain the Ulster Championship. Wins over Waterford and champions Meath earned top spot and a home quarter-final in the All-Ireland group stage.
Longevity isn’t something Guthrie has given much thought to until now as she approaches the end of a career that began all the way back in 2006.
“It is a combination of things. An absolute love for your county is probably the thing that grounds you most,” she told Gaelic Life, also crediting her underage coach Kenny Griffin.
“Kenny instilled a love Donegal in a lot of us that us still there. A huge factor is the girls you grow up playing with, they are a huge driving factor and there is always that desire to want to be better and to get Donegal to the top.”
Retirement was a word bandied about after last season and she “really struggled” letting go.
For someone with a lifetime of service, looking on helpless from the outside as Donegal began the league didn’t sit easy.
A chat with manager Maxi Curran and weighing a troublesome ankle led to the pause button being pressed until the Ulster Championship. Guthrie is indebted to an “understanding husband” encouraging her to keeping chasing her sporting dreams.
Pitch sessions were swapped for work in the gym. A combination of physio Cathal Ellis and strength and conditioning coach Paul Fisher monitored her progress.
When the championship thrust into action, it was as if she’d never been away and a 1-4 tally took Cavan down.
They suffered defeat against Armagh who they’d meet in the decider.
Another injury niggle curtailed progress but Guthrie’s resolve helped her lineout and kick two points as they surprised and her fifth Ulster medal was secure.
It made up for missing out on group training and the testing times getting the body tuned. Also lingering was the regret of having last year’s final won twice only to be reeled in by Armagh.
“We were probably favourites going into the 2021 and 2022 finals and came out on the wrong side,” said Guthrie, fully respectful of the talent in the Orchard squad.
“We were probably underdogs this year and came away (winners), it’s funny how sport works sometimes.”
After losing all seven league games, Guthrie credits the mentality of the group for turning things around and raising expectations ahead to Dublin’s visit to MacCumhaill Park.
Maxi Curran’s parachuting of Niamh Hegarty and Tanya Kennedy in for the Ulster final added to the mix of experience that was already thickened after Guthrie’s own return.
She also looks deeper for the rest of the puzzle, a group of younger players who have stepped up to lead the group.
“There was a lot of hurt after the league, nobody wants to get relegated and it wasn’t for the want of trying,” Guthrie added.
“The girls had put in a serious pre-season to be able to be competitive. Sometimes sport is like that. We were very competitive against Galway, Kerry and Meath earlier on in the league, losing by fine margins.”
Before they knew it, Donegal were relegated.
Then came the acid test of finding the mentality of parking the disappointment and going after the next challenge.
“It was lovely to be able to turn it around this year and the team was backboned by our youth,” Guthrie said.
“A lot of our younger girls have really come to the top. I know the league campaign wasn’t ideal, but they really stood up and have became massive leaders for us.”
Guthrie namechecks Roisin Rogers, Amy Boyle Carr, Tara Hegarty, Katie Long and Susie White as the county’s future.
“Our big priority was for them to have something to show for their year.
“There are so many of the girls who have worked so hard to get back to the top and from that perspective it was lovely,” Guthrie said, contrasting it to losing both the league and Ulster finals last season.
On top of losing to Meath in the league final it was the Royals who ended their All-Ireland dreams in the semi-final.
As well as ending Donegal hoodoo, their win over Meath opens the door on a home quarter-final, something Guthrie can’t ever remember seeing in the past.
Ballybofey brings familiarity. County finals are played there. It’s a home game for MacCumhaills’ duo Katie Dowds and Abigail Temple Asokuh.
“From a support perspective as well, you can draw in a lot of the underage teams for the half-time games, get a big crowd and bring a bit of buzz,” Guthrie adds, hoping the county will come out and get behind them.
“I think it is huge. Our family and friends saw us through the start of the year when things weren’t going overly well. For them to be able to be there and not having to travel is a nice one too.”
Donegal, like all camogie and ladies football teams, will be playing under protest and “fully back” the GPA stance to improve player welfare through the drawing up of a charter ahead of the 2024 season.
Guthrie feels a unified response is the only avenue to “ignite” any kind of change.
“You are chatting about players at 19 years of age what are going through college and starting out on their inter-county careers,” she concluded.
“You have both sides of the spectrum so you want to make the future better for them. That’s the big one, we would love to be able to get the organisation to a better stage than what it has been.
“That’s where the push is on. We want to make the future better.”
In the short term, Sunday is about Dublin and getting into another All-Ireland semi-final.
For Fr Seán, he’ll tally a 166th appearance when Karen Guthrie steps over the sideline. As Maxi Curran said about her 1-4 against Cavan, there is no substitute for class, on the field or off it.