17 CONSECUTIVE SEASONS of highs and lows, ups and downs, good days and bad ones — but Westmeath captain Fiona Claffey is still on the road.

On Sunday, she’ll lead her side out to the hallowed turf of Croke Park for the TG4 All-Ireland intermediate final, nine years on from tasting success in the same grade.

After beating Cavan in the 2011 decider after a replay, Westmeath — under the watchful eye of now-Mayo boss Peter Leahy — lifted the Mary Quinn Cup and went on to hold their own in the senior ranks.

But after relegation last year, which was nothing short of gut-wrenching, Claffey is hoping for a swift return to the top table as they face Meath on Sunday [throw-in 1.15pm, live on TG4].

Having made her debut at the tender age of 15, the versatile skipper has had a serious innings in with the Lake county. 17 years is extraordinary dedication and service, having touched on every season despite enjoying some time away travelling, while spending the last few years travelling from her Dublin base where she plays for Foxrock-Cabinteely.

Why, what and how? They’re the big question. Why and how does she keep coming back for more? What drives her? What makes her tick? Enjoyment is the bottom line.

“One thing I always said about Westmeath football is we work hard at training, but we actually just get on really well. There’s always a good atmosphere, we always just have a laugh.

“We’re lucky enough, every single management team that’s come into us over the last number of years, while we’re on the pitch, we work hard, but we also just enjoy ourselves, have a good chat and have a good laugh.

We’ve been through some good times, and some really, really low times. But at the end of the day, it’s the girls around us that keep us going. When I’m enjoying it, I don’t want to stop.

“It can be tough. I mean, really tough some days, sitting in traffic, trying to get out of work and coming down from Dublin but at the end of the day, the minute I’m on the pitch and talking to the girls before training, having a laugh and getting a good session in, that’s what keeps me going.

“I’ve kept going because I’m enjoying it. And that’s simply the reason why.”

The hunger is certainly there, and the passion burns brighter than ever.

But there were times where there were doubts, times when Claffey, and others around her, questioned if she could keep going. From heavy Leinster final defeats to last year’s major disappointment, it certainly hasn’t all been plain sailing.

There have been very low points but you take a few days you’re like, ‘Well, look, we can improve, we can only get better.’ I personally had a real low point after we got relegated from senior last year.

“I just took it really hard, and it was mentally very draining for me. Look, I dusted down, I went back to club for a couple of months and forgot about it. And then over Christmas, I was thinking about it and I just thought, ‘God, this is a really good opportunity for us now to help the girls develop at intermediate level.’

“It’s about changing your mindset when you go through those disappointments, that’s how I’ve dealt with it and it’s kept me going.”

Facing Cavan in the 2017 Division 2 final.

Source: Tom Beary/INPHO

Ideally, a return to All-Ireland finals day would mean a senior title tilt, but things didn’t pan out that way. She can’t stress enough how disappointing, deflating, and quite simply surprising, relegation was last year after a few poor performances, but it’s about bouncing back now.

This year has certainly been a learning curve and an opportunity to rebuild, but playing Division 1 football has been of huge benefit.

It’s where she wants to be. To be the best, you must play the best, and a Páirc Uí Chaoimh meeting with Cork earlier this year is one Claffey believes will stand to her side.

Big-match experience is important, and she feels that the experience of players who were there in 2011 like herself, Johanna Maher, Karen Hegarty, Ciara Blundell, Elaine McHugh and Jenny Rogers, and the welcome addition of Carol Finch to the backroom team, is huge ahead of the return to Croke Park.

Finding a balance between enjoying the occasion and peaking for the match is really important.

“That experience is going to count hugely,” the accountant agrees. “It’s going to be a different atmosphere completely in Croke Park compared to last time, but the same time it is a lot of the girls’ first time playing there. A couple of us have done it before.

Mentally I know I’m in a completely different headspace now than I was then. It doesn’t faze me as much. I’m still looking forward to it, I’m going to enjoy the occasion but I know it’s just another game.”

With senior status the biggest prize on offer, it means there will be a Leinster senior championship next year. Just like the men’s game, Dublin’s dominance in the province has been astounding over the last few years, but they were the only senior team within in 2020 after Westmeath’s relegation and Meath’s intermediate final loss to Tipperary. 

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Having been on the hand of some heavy defeats at the Dubs’ hands, while putting it up to them on other occasions through the years, Claffey has an inside line at Foxrock-Cabinteely, where she’s been since her transfer from Kilbeggan in 2012.

The six-in-a-row county champions have also won the last five Leinster club crowns, and she says club training is “comparable to inter-county standard.”

Surely the seasoned campaigner has seen something in Dublin that she hasn’t seen anywhere else? Short answer, yes.

“Obviously population-wise and where everyone’s located,” she explains. “The club championship in Dublin is run particularly well. Games are set out in stone. It’s built around the county team.

On the ball for Fox-Cab.

Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“Because most people who play in Dublin are based in Dublin, you can play games on a Wednesday evening. The club championship is very well structured and run really efficiently. League and cup games are on during county season, there’s constantly games being played.

“Down the country, you’ve girls in college, girls who work away. I think having that set structure in club really helps to develop on into county level. The club championship is a very high standard in Dublin. Every game is very competitive. That that kind of feeds in.

“There’s a huge pool of players to pick from, the numbers are there at U14 trials in Dublin. At the same time, it’s not about quantity, it’s about quality.

“I think all teams within Leinster are trying to get to those standards and develop the club championships. You can see a lot more promotion around the country in terms of club championships in Westmeath and all around the place.

“The good club structure in Dublin is definitely something that can be reflected down the country, and I think it’s definitely something that they are looking at.”

The fierce competition and quality at intermediate level in Leinster is something Claffey talks about quite a lot, and she’s pleased that we’ll have two senior teams in the province next season and hopes more will follow suit.

Of course, she’ll hope Westmeath will be one for the future but step number one is getting out of intermediate. And the golden opportunity comes against Meath, contesting their third All-Ireland final in-a-row, on Sunday.

And with both sides goal-hungry, it’s shaping up to be a real Christmas cracker — and one Claffey is hoping to grab by the scruff of the neck.

“Meath are going to be huge challenge,” she concedes.”But it’s great to be back in Croke Park in December. It’s what we would have targeted at the start the year and we’re here now. It’s a bit different than we expected, but still a great feeling.

“It’s a huge occasion. It’s so unique. It’s Croke Park, December 20th. It doesn’t matter if it’s intermediate or senior, we’re gunning to win it and the celebrations would be massive if we did.

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“It doesn’t matter that we came from senior last year, we’ll be really hungry, just the same as if we were in a senior final and we’re really looking forward to it.”

Potentially the most enjoyable way possible to round off season number 17.

Subscribe to The42′s new member-led GAA Championship show with Marc Ó Sé and Shane Dowling. 

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