By Daire Walsh
TEN years on from a whirlwind debut campaign in the white and blue of the Farney County, Muireann Atkinson is hopeful that brighter days are on the horizon for Monaghan.
Brought onto the panel at the tender age of 16 by then manager Gregory McGonigle, on the back of impressive club form for O’Neill Shamrocks, Atkinson was included amongst the Monaghan substitutes for their agonising 1-10 to 1-9 TG4 All-Ireland senior final defeat to Cork at Croke Park in 2013.
Having watched stalwarts like Therese McNally, Sharon Courtney and Ciara McAnespie also bring the Leesiders down to the wire before losing out on a scoreline of 2-7 to 0-11 in the 2011 showpiece at the same venue, Atkinson was now rubbing shoulders with them just two years later.
Their three decades long stint in the senior championship may have come to an end with a relegation play-off loss to Waterford last July, but Atkinson believes Monaghan are capable of re-emerging as a leading powerhouse in the future.
“It was a great experience, it was a great environment to go into. The team was obviously at their peak at that point. It was great to get into it. I came into an All-Ireland final thinking that would happen every year, but that wasn’t the case,” Atkinson remembers of that breakthrough season.
“Definitely going into a high performing environment like that and competing at such a level probably whetted my appetite for competing and for playing for Monaghan Ladies. Maybe that’s why I’m still here today. I’m still longing to get back to that level of performance and that level of competition, which some day, I think Monaghan will.
“The underage coming up is in a good place and they’re competing well. A serious minor team coming up. Some day they will get back to that point. Just at the minute there’s a lot of changes taking place and it’s going to take time.”
Before reaching nine All-Ireland senior finals — and winning back-to-back titles in 1996 and 1997 — Monaghan lifted the All-Ireland junior championship trophy with a 2-8 to 2-6 win over London in 1992. That victory also secured promotion to the top-tier of the LGFA for the following season and that is what Atkinson and her Monaghan colleagues will be aiming to do in a TG4 All-Ireland intermediate championship that contains no fewer than 13 teams this year.
Having preserved their Division 2 status in the Lidl National Football League, Monaghan suffered reversals to Tyrone and Antrim in the TG4 Ulster Intermediate Football Championship.
This means the Farney women will find themselves in Group C of the All-Ireland series alongside Connacht champions Roscommon and the runners-up of this weekend’s TG4 Leinster final meeting between Kildare and Wexford at Laois Hire O’Moore Park in Portlaoise.
While their provincial campaign didn’t end in the way they would have hoped, Atkinson insisted Monaghan have already switched focus.
“We ended our Ulster championship in a disappointing way against Antrim, but all the girls are just eager to redeem ourselves with a better performance in the next round. There’s no better way to get over a loss than to get a good performance and try to get points on the board straight away in the All-Ireland championship.
“I suppose that is the main priority for all teams. I know provincials are important, but at the end of the day, the All-Ireland series is probably the most pivotal competition. It’s definitely one we’ll be targeting for that first day out, whoever it is against.”
A graduate from DCU, where she formed a strong midfield partnership with Dublin ace Lauren Magee on the college’s star-studded O’Connor Cup-winning team of 2018, Atkinson is currently working as a teacher at her alma mater of Our Lady’s Secondary School Castleblayney.
However, she is also in the midst of a master’s degree in strength and conditioning at Ulster University in Jordanstown and has already gained some invaluable experience working with teams in her native county.
“I got that opportunity (to do a masters) through the GPA, which I’m very grateful for. I would have been working with Monaghan development squads and now I’m actually working with the Monaghan Harps club. Looking after all their juveniles, u-13s all the way to u-17s. I’m really enjoying that. They’re a good group of lads.
“With teaching, you get a lovely stint off during the summer and dispersed throughout the year. I don’t really like lying idle to be honest, so it would be something I’d be looking into, working with teams. I enjoy working with teams. I enjoy coaching, and coaching and teaching are very interlinked. Maybe that’s where it came from.
“It would be something I’d look into in the future. I’m enjoying my role with Monaghan Harps and hopefully I continue working with them for the next wee while.”
f course, Atkinson remains a pivotal figure on the field for Monaghan a decade on from her introduction to the adult inter-county scene. After a disrupted 2022, she has managed to remain injury-free in her second season as Farney team captain and feels she is in a good place to help her side reach their targets for the year.
“Last year I was unlucky with a few injuries. We went back to our clubs and I got a whiplash injury, which put me out for about six or seven weeks. Then I came back for one match and then I broke my finger and dislocated my fingers. I ended up having to get surgery on that. That was me out for another six weeks or so,” Atkinson added.
“I was unfortunate enough last year and thankfully this year I’ve been fit to stay on the pitch and fit to help the girls. You obviously want to lead on the pitch as a player. It’s very important to stay there and you can’t help injuries and so on, but definitely it’s working out alright this year.”