JOANNE Doonan was roughly 10,500km away (thanks Google) when her club team Kinawley recently claimed their fifth senior championship title in a row in Fermanagh.
It was a bittersweet experience in one sense, but it’s fair to say that the Doonan, who won two All-Ireland Junior titles with Fermanagh, has made peace with her decision to head to Melbourne for a second stint in the Women’s AFL (AFLW).
She lines out for Essendon, Conor McKenna’s former club, and is enjoying her time in every respect – game-time is plentiful and the Australian lifestyle suits her down to the ground so she’s in no rush back home.
“It’s definitely different here but it’s a lovely lifestyle. I love dogs and everywhere is so dog-friendly, I live close to the beach which I obviously wouldn’t get in Fermanagh, there’s cafes in every corner. Melbourne is actually a bit quieter than Dublin or even Belfast, but there’s so much to do in regards to sport, there’s Triathlons and things like that. I have to say it’s a very tempting lifestyle and you can see why people stick around.”
While the Women’s AFL is still only semi-professional, the training itinerary is still very different than in the GAA.
Doonan, who recently started a Masters Degree in Sports Performance at Setanta College, said: “A lot of our girls work during the day, so we predominantly train in the evening time. You get to the club around 3.30pm on the evenings we train, and leave around 9.30 or 10pm after getting dinner there. We put in more hours than back home.
“We usually do a pitch and gym session in the one night, so the training load is different. During the day you’re just resting or recovering, or doing a bit of work and studying.”
She continued: “I work two days in the gym in a programme called ‘Moving through Motherhood’, it’s for pregnant or post-partum mothers.
“It’s a nice wee community and I’ve also started a Masters, so that’s taking up a lot of my time. It’s coming up to the end of the season and I’m starting to wonder where I’ll fit everything in as I’m hoping to have a few trips away and nights out. I meet up with the other Irish girls in the AFLW quite a lot as well. It’s great, and some of my Irish friends in Melbourne work from home so I’ll call around before heading to training.”
Doonan had a previous stint as a rookie footballer with Carlton, but the emergence of the Covid pandemic put paid to her plans and she flew back home earlier than scheduled. She only played in two games that previous season, but things have been going much better this time around in a hybrid midfielderforward role for Essendon.
“One of the drivers for me is that I had unfinished business in a way. Looking back, I’m not sure I was in the right headspace, or had the confidence to know what I brought to the table. It was harder, there were no full-time coaches there, and I felt I was playing catch-up with everyone.
“I definitely think things are going better now, I’m a lot more comfortable and aware of what I can bring to the table from my experience playing Gaelic Football. They’re obviously both team sports and things like leadership and communication skills are very transferable so I’m a lot more content this time around.”
Further to that, she says that the Australian Rules came is actually becoming more like Gaelic Football in a tactical sense.
“The fitness and strength levels of the Irish girls are already up to scratch when we head out, but when I played for Carlton, they didn’t play through their own hands much so it was difficult to acclimatise. I find it’s starting to get more free-flowing, and the likes of Brisbane are dominating because they’re so fit and fast. They use the ‘mark’ rule but it’s also common for those girls to play on and transfer the ball through the hands so it’s not a world away from Gaelic.”
In another sense it’s very different, however, due to the head-spinning ‘interchange’ system where players regularly hop in and out of the game.
“It’s interesting, it’s like being a substitute, but not technically as you’re guaranteed to be playing. It’ll be be a short rotation where you play for four or eight minutes, you rotate with another player and then you come back in.
“The idea is that the whole team is as fresh as possible at all times. It’s a physical game and you want to be able to go at full pelt repeatedly. It’s definitely a lot different than being on the pitch for 30 or 35 minutes of a half, and there’s four quarters as opposed to two halves.”
The Women’s AFL has grown in scope and reputation in recent years, and while it’s not fully professional like the men’s game, Doonan says that they’re respected just as much around the club.
“There’s been a massive emphasis on having a one-club mentality. I’ve found that with Essendon anyway. There’s been a lot of interaction with the men’s team, we try to mingle together. The impression I get is that things are improving, and we’re treated much the same as the men. There’s still a way to go, and obviously we’re only training in the evenings and don’t have the same full-time coaches, but I feel things are definitely going in the right direction.”
Doonan also gave her take on the pointed comments made by former Meath manager Eamonn Murray after they retained their All-Ireland senior title. Vikki Wall, their most important player, made the move Down Under shortly after their win, and he described the situation as “dreadful” and added that “I don’t know why you’d want to play that sport because it’s dreadful stuff to watch. I can’t understand it. There’s no skill at all.” When it comes to the big decisions, Doonan says that players as individuals should follow their hearts.
“Obiviousy everybody is entitled to their opinion and I can totally see both sides of the argument but in my eyes and maybe I sound selfish saying it but life is too short to be doing things to please other people.
“If you stayed at home and saw the Irish boys and girls playing AFL, something you really wanted to do, and you didn’t do it because of a manager, it just creates resentment.
“There’s so many factors that come into play but I honestly think you have to do what you want to do.
“If you look at those Meath girls, they’ve basically tried everything they can in Gaelic, and now they have the opportunity of making a career out of sport as well.
“It might be to the detriment of Meath football but it’s up to the individual and once you make that decision, you have to go with it and expect that some people mightn’t be happy. But whatever you do, it’ll be old news at some stage.”
She also said she was lucky that the people in her life, including her management at Kinawley and Fermanagh, were encouraging of her decision to park her GAA career.
“Thankfully everyone was sound. I probably made up scenarios in my head, thinking everyone’s going to hate me and be disappointed, but as soon as I said I was going back out, I couldn’t believe the overwhelming support from club and county. Everyone genuinely just wanted to see me do well and it was nice to have that backing.”
She stays in regular touch with her family, but it’s hard to be too homesick with a thriving Irish community in Melbourne.
“There’s people you might see at home and you’d barely acknowledge each other,but here they’re offering you a bed and everything. It’s a great Irish community, there’s always someone checking in and seeing how you are.
“At the club, some of them take the hand about your accent, but if you slink into an Irish bar, you nearly forget you’re in Australia. It definitely depends on where you are. It’s definitely becoming more normalised, there’s younger girls on the team who even had Irish teachers when they were younger, it’s funny to see that influence on them, and they’re a lot better at understanding us than a few years ago.”
The question for Fermanagh and Kinawley fans is when she’ll be back on home soil. Kinawley won last year’s Ulster Intermediate title by a point against Steelstown, and the Erne County, in Doonan’s absence, fell to defeat in this year’s All-Ireland Junior final, so her sides have been in some big games. Despite that, she’s in no major rush back home.
“In a selfish way, I’m conscious I already have an All-Ireland Junior with Fermanagh.
“When I first joined up, Fermanagh were at Intermediate level and that would be the next step. I know it doesn’t help when girls go away, and it’s hard missing out on things, but it’s maybe time for a lot of those younger girls to come in and make their mark on things.”