Donegal’s great white hope

Susanne White is one of the top players in Ireland yet struggled to make Donegal teams at underage. After parking a love for soccer, she is a beacon of the county’s future. She spoke with Michael McMullan

AN HOUR shooting the breeze with Susanne White is time well spent. A love of sport hangs from every word.

Is it any wonder? Growing up in Killybegs, in a childhood intertwined with Gaelic games, she’s never known anything else.

It’s Friday afternoon. Another week of study is banked. Final year is the championship phase of a psychology degree at Queen’s University, Belfast.

The bank also has a year of work experience as a support worker in a school environment. There is a Masters course in the pipeline.

It’s about keeping the options open. The sport psychology door might open somewhere down the line. An avenue into mental health, feelings and behaviours is another.

Sport brings balance. Bouncing back from disappointments, dealing with dressing room relationships and the emotions of building up to a game are the elements a classroom environment can never replicate. White has walked the walk.

“From as young as I can remember anyway, our house has always been jam packed with us running to football games,” White recalls of the early sporting memories.

Her father Jimmy won championships with Killybegs as a player and as player manager. He managed Donegal minors and was part of their 1987 u-21 All-Ireland winning management. As a referee, he took charge of Ulster senior, minor, u-21 and club finals. There was a Connacht final in there too.

Susanne’s mother is Teresa Hegarty, sister of All-Ireland winner Noel. Also, on that 1992 panel was John Cunningham, an uncle by marriage.

The youngest sister of Maire Dawn, Catherine and Tara, Susanne was immersed in Gaelic games.

“Be it going with Dad when he was away to referee, or with my older sisters going to play football, there was something nearly every evening,” she said.

White had another learning curve. Current Killybegs’ players Ryan and Conor Cunningham were neighbours of a similar age.

“I definitely think that it was very much an influence and a bearing on how competitive I was and how competitive I am today,” she points out.

Hours after school were spent kicking ball with the Cunningham boys. It was an ideal toughening up process. There was nowhere to hide.

She tagged along with them one evening to Killybegs underage training and fitted in like a glove, later tasting success on the boys’ u-8, u-10 and u-12 teams until the club reignited their ladies’ scene.

“I definitely think it’s helped me be the player I am today,” White outlines of playing on boys’ teams.

“You have to try a wee bit harder, because you’re up against a harder opposition. That’s the way it is, but, obviously being a girl, I was up against it.”

With the boys competing against one another, White’s determination to match them kicked in. That’s where her competitive streak began.

After being part of successful Killybegs boys’ teams, ladies football returned in the form of an u-14 side in her final year of u-12.

DADDY’S GIRL…Susanne White pictured with her father Jimmy

Not wanting to move clubs, it was timely and there was also a senior team there as a flagship group, an end goal.

Otherwise, the options would’ve been her mother’s native Naomh Columba or joining her friend Amy Boyle Carr in Naomh Conaill. Neither sat well.

Playing for another club in the county wasn’t an option. Later in her career, while studying in Belfast, White transferred to Bredagh when Killybegs didn’t have a team.

“I always just wanted to play for the Killybegs (senior) ladies team, and when I was too young, when I was 12 or 13, I probably went to every single game as a water girl,” she said.

Days after turning 14, she was handed a senior debut in a challenge game against Naomh Conaill.

The following week, her scoring exploits raised a stir in a first league game against Ardara. Looking back, it was crazy playing on the senior team so young, but White was just mad for road. Football was her world.

“It did cause a bit of a rupture, there were questions whether I was too young to be playing,” White said of the Ardara game. “I must have had an okay game that day as it was causing a bit of havoc.”

Now a mainstay in the Donegal team, she can glance over her shoulder at the inspirational figures and support structures. Her parents trucking her over the county is something she is indebted to.

Football was just a huge part of her. If there wasn’t a game or a training session, she’d be away with her father.

“I definitely think my Dad being so involved in sport had a huge bearing on it,” she admits.

“I think my sisters playing sports definitely helped, it definitely had an influence on me, I wanted to go to watch them.”

There was also an inner desire to emulate them. Memories still linger of being mascot when Killybegs reached the 2011 and 2013 senior finals.

Her influence was based on a combination of factors. Before coverage seeped into the ladies game, Colm McFadden would’ve been a role model.

The Donegal senior ladies also left an impression when they came to offer advice at underage sessions.

“I would have looked to likes Geraldine McLaughlin, and I still do,” said White, who later played alongside her.

“She was an unbelievable player. I’d be watching Donegal games and wanted to find out what Geraldine scored.

“There’s been different people, at different times, in my career that I’ve looked towards.

“It probably started at the root, with my family, then my club. When I got involved and started to go to more Donegal ladies games, and heard about these characters, you just kind of looked towards them.”

The seed had been planted.


It was a change of culture for Susanne when she waved goodbye to the successful boys’ underage teams.

Starting with the Killybegs ladies’ teams was square one with the majority of the team finding their feet in a new sport.

“We weren’t winning games, we were struggling but I do remember we won one title, maybe in u-16s, it might have been Division Five. At that stage, there was just probably a lot of enjoyment at underage,” White said.

She counts herself lucky there was always a team to play for at every level of underage. Not every parish can say the same and the hard choice of which club to transfer never came into it.

Oldest sister Maire Dawn had a stint with Four Masters during the Killybegs blip but once the senior team returned, it gave ladies football a focus again. Young girls knew where the future lay. Players like White.

It came to fruition in 2020 when Killybegs beat Downings to lift the Junior title.

White kicked a staggering 2-9 to lead the charge. Maire Dawn played at midfield with their other sister Tara scoring a goal in a 4-10 to 1-12 victory.

Was it White’s finest hour, or at least one of them? She had als kicked 3-11 against Milford in a minor final defeat coming up through the ranks.

She ponders before modestly sidestepping her performance. It was more pleasing for the club to move out of junior.

“I was probably a wee bit more focused on the team perspective of it,” she said of the 2020 Junior final.

It also caught the attention of county senior manager Maxi Curran again. This time she’d say yes.

A previous invitation to join the senior squad wasn’t taken up. It was her final year of minor football. Important study for the Leaving Cert was also competing for her time.

“That game (final win with Killybegs) definitely had a huge bearing on obviously getting me back into the Donegal team,” she points out.

“That was a very much an important performance that I put in because it highlighted me as a player and it gave me another chance (at county football).”

The previous call was too early. Curran had invited “20 or 25” of the county’s upcoming young talents to a development camp. Over six Saturdays, he’d run his eye over their performances with the view to calling half of them up to the senior squad.

White liked the concept. It was better than a one off trial. She was one of those to impress but, not yet 18, she politely declined. The time wasn’t right.

“I was pure shock,” White recalls of the invitation.

Looking on as Donegal won the Ulster title later that season, there was a hint of doubt in her decision but she still feels it was the right one. Her time would come.

“From an individual perspective, I was never really a standout at underage,” White said of her Donegal underage days. There is also a pride in the progress made since.

At u-14 and u-16 level, she’d be in an out of a team that didn’t have much success. She was often limited to time coming in off the bench.

GOALDEN DEBUT…Susanne White celebrates scoring her second goal in 2-3 tally against Cavan on her first championship start in Clones

There was a lack of self-belief until the call to join Curran’s development camp. He saw White as a future Donegal senior player.

“It was a massive confidence booster and it put so much belief in me as a player,” White states.

The final year as a minor took Donegal to an Ulster A final. White scored three points from an inside forward line that included Amy Boyle Carr.

“That minor season was quite successful but if there was a game I’d ever go back to it would be that one because we should have won it,” she said of the 0-13 to 1-6 defeat as Monaghan edged to victory.

“When I look back at my underage, a big thing that was missing was belief in how good I was and I was probably focusing on things I wasn’t good at.

“It’s just weird when you look back at your underage and there’s girls who would have probably started every game for us and they’re not on the senior team now.

“It’s something that I stand to anyway, I was never one of the best when I was underage but I think my development came a wee bit later. A lot of it was down to just belief.”

White was also a budding soccer player in her underage days. Performances with Donegal Town elevated her to the county team from u-14 to u-18 level. Hopes of FAI U-18 League Cup glory slipped away on penalties in the final.

“I wouldn’t have said that I really enjoyed one more than the other, it was very much maybe like 60-40 to Gaelic or maybe sometimes it was like 50-50,” she said of balancing both sports.

Following her Leaving Cert, there were thoughts of signing for a club and trying her hand at senior soccer.

“Things happen for a reason and I don’t regret not going to soccer because I got the opportunity with Donegal,” she said of the decision.

“I probably would have always leaned a wee bit more towards Gaelic purely because of my household and it was bigger in my house, but I enjoyed soccer.

“Sometimes there’s a wee bit more pressure involved with my club (Gaelic football) team, whereas when I went to play soccer I didn’t really know as many people and they didn’t know me.”

It wasn’t long before Curran had her in his senior plans and when Karen Guthrie was injured for the 2022 Ulster semi-final against Cavan, he gave White a first championship start. It was a dream afternoon with a 2-3 tally in a staring display in Clones alongside her hero Geraldine McLaughlin.

“When you go into a Donegal senior set-up, there aren’t many places you can hide because of the standard in training,” she said.

“When you’re lining up beside Yvonne Bonner, Geraldine McLaughlin, Karen Guthrie, Niamh McLaughlin and all these massive names in Donegal ladies football who have given so much, you just have to up your standard too and you kind of have no choice there.

“It definitely makes you a better player. I was very fortunate to get to play with them girls and they’re some of the most successful Donegal ladies players ever.

“Even though they might not have the silverware to show it, but I can definitely say the way they held themselves up and on the field, you still aspire to do that in your Donegal career.”

From being one of the younger players, she finds herself in the middle bracket as the current Donegal squad find themselves in a period of transition.

White’s 2-23 tally was top of the scoring charts in Division Two of the National League but it wasn’t enough to elevate them into the promotion places.

With the underage structures in the county, the cohesion and communication between the various teams, White sees the future as a case of the glass bring half-full. The minors were contesting an Ulster final with Cavan on Saturday.

“That’s very promising for us,” she points out before looking to their upcoming senior final with Armagh.

Under new manager John McNulty, more players were blooded into the senior side during the league.

Buoyed by their Division One title, the Orchard County will be hot favourites but Donegal’s focus is about eyeing the Ulster final and delivering their best performance.

“That’s all we really can do at this point, it’s all on the day,” said White, feeling Donegal remain a match for anyone on their day.

“Armagh have been impressive in their league campaign, but I’m sure their sights are on different things, on Ulster and the All-Ireland.

“For us now, we just have to put ourselves in the best possible position to train hard, show up and just give it our all.

“Nobody gave us a chance against Armagh last year and look how that turned out.”

Turning 23, she offers patience as the other key word in Donegal’s future. Keeping the core of their team for the next three years will be their passport back to doing “serious damage” back in the top flight and competing for an All-Ireland.

“Things like that don’t happen overnight, it doesn’t happen over four or five months. That’s the reality of playing senior football at an inter-county level,” is her long-term take on where Donegal need to go.

Kicking ball next door with the Cunninghams served her well. After years of looking up to players like Colm McFadden and Geraldine McLaughlin, Susanne White is the future.

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