ALL SET: Donegal Ladies boss Maxi Curran. Picture: Seb Daly/Sportsfile.
Donegal Ladies' quest for elusive All-Ireland success begins once more this weekend with the launch of their 2021 campaign at home to Westmeath in the National League Division 1A (Sunday, 1pm, Ballybofey).
It's going to be a short and frantic season with little breathing space, with the provincial and All-Ireland championships coming hot on the heels of the league.
"It's going to be a sprint of a season," said boss Maxi Curran. "We'll be out seven of the next eight weekends, and with no time to catch our breaths, we will obviously be more vulnerable in terms of injuries.
"Even a pulled muscle could rule a player out for a good number of games because it's such a short season, but this format is what everybody wanted. There will be no distractions with players dipping in and out for club games."
And while the immediate aim over the next month is to retain their division one status, the ultimate target is to become the first Donegal Ladies side in history to reach an All-Ireland final.
Despite dominating the Ulster Championship in recent years and becoming an established division one side, they have not been able to carry that success through to All-Ireland level.
A quarter-final defeat to Mayo in 2017 was followed by further heartache a year later when Cork beat them in the semis, and the dream slipped further from their grasp in the last two seasons where they failed to get beyond the group stages.
"We didn't get over the line against Dublin last year," said Curran, "and that's been the tale this last few years.
"The expectations on us have been high because of our achievements at provincial level. But the Ulster situation is a wee bit of a red herring in that we were playing division two sides.
"We haven't been dining at the top table when it comes to the big teams. We've beaten them all in the league at various points, but have fallen short in the championship.
"We can't be feeling sorry for ourselves about that, the fact is those teams that knocked us out produced the goods and we didn't. It's a bit of a chicken and egg scenario; nothing prepares you better for getting over that line than the experience of having gotten over it.
"We just haven't had that wee bit of luck that every team needs now and again."
Bad luck certainly played a part in their short-lived All-Ireland campaign last year. Donegal only had a few challenge matches to prepare before facing Dublin in a three-team group where only the winner progressed to the semi-finals.
This year's TG4 All-Ireland Senior Ladies Football Championship gets underway on the weekend of July 10/11. Drawn in Group D with Kerry and Galway, and with the top two teams progressing to the quarter-finals, Donegal will feel much more optimistic about their chances.
Having only narrowly lost out to the Dubs last year, Curran says there is a real belief amongst his players that they can finally make the breakthrough this season - and it's that belief that has brought him back to the helm for another tilt at success.
He said: "The commitment level the girls have shown has been very infectious, and that's why I'm so keen to give things a go.
"They have serious aspirations of winning an All-Ireland title. That is a big challenge, but any coach will tell you that all you want is to work with good players who are fully committed and willing to do the work.
"Lack of continuity has always been an issue for us; in the last three and a half years, we've used more than 80 players.
"The average age of this season's squad is young, and we have a number of new players on board: Aoife Watters (Ardara), Roisin McCafferty (Termon), Shauna McFadden, Catherine Boyle (both St Eunan's), Megan Ryan (Milford) and Shelly Twohig (Convoy).
"We have an up-and-coming squad, but there are plenty of experienced players in there with them.
"I'm convinced these girls have what it takes to get themselves over that line. If we get that bit of luck that we haven't had in previous years, anything is possible."
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