This was never going to be an easy season for Derry City Women on the pitch but the strides the club have made off it in recent years ensures the future looks bright.
That is according to the club’s star teenager Leah McGonagle, who has been developed by the Candystripes in recent years and is now one of the league’s highest rated players.
Teenager McGonagle has been capped up to Under-19 level for Northern Ireland and has emerged into one of the team’s star players, with the club hopeful many other local girls will take the same path to stardom.
“I’ve been at the club for four years and the youth setup in that time has come on leaps and bounds,” McGonagle said.
“We are ten times the club off the pitch now than we were back then, and that development is really important and hopefully in the next few years we will see the results of that on the pitch.
“We want to give young girls in the city and the area to look up to us and aspire to be playing for Derry City and taking on the best clubs in the country.
“Our senior team is so young and it’s a learning curve for us to be playing against teams like Glentoran and Linfield, because they have players that have spent years and years playing together.
“A lot of them have been in the same youth teams since being 10-year-olds, while the player turnover for us has been a lot higher.
“This is a league full of international players at every club and we need to accept that reality and become a team who can challenge that.”
The central defender combines playing football for the Candystripes along with representing local Gaelic side Steelstown, and she admits that the compact nature of this season’s Danske Bank Women’s Premiership has made the situation of balancing both sports even trickier than usual.
“It’s so tricky to balance playing in both and it takes a lot of understanding from the clubs,” she continued.
“This season has been even more difficult as the schedules for both are clashing more than normal.
“Training is on Monday nights for both my clubs and then I miss Gaelic training on the Wednesday to play for Derry in a competitive match.
“My Derry teammate Kathryn Canavan plays Gaelic too so it’s almost nice to have someone else in the same boat and to work ideas off each other, trying to draw up a schedule.
“It also means that the risk of injury increases because you have a shorter rest period - I had a hamstring tear and the break came at the right time for me to recover, it was a result of having no training for so long and then double the quantity all at once.
“Sometimes you have to just listen to your body, to know when to rest so that you are in a position to be at your best when the match comes around.”
Whilst this shortened and interrupted campaign has been tough on most clubs, the restrictions and delays have hit Derry City more than most.
The club have had to comply with two differing sets of health guidance and protocol, which has disrupted their ability to partake in training sessions and play matches.
“It has been tougher than us for most clubs, because we have quite a few players from Donegal and we’ve had to abide by the restrictions both in Derry and there,” McGonagle added.
“I did not think a stop-start season would be as difficult as it had been from a playing point of view, because it is hard to motivate yourself when you don’t know when the next game will be and whether or not the matches will go ahead.
“When you have a regular schedule then you are always working towards something and finding the rhythm of training and matches is relatively easy, but this has been so much more challenging.
“A lot of players also struggle to train by themselves so whenever we cannot get together as a team training, that makes an impact.
“Especially for us this season, we have so many new players in and we have not been able to gel properly as a team and for a starting line-up to settle down.”
With no points and no goals in their opening five league games, this season has been a challenging one for Derry City but with no immediate threat of relegation, it is allowing boss Kevin McLaughlin to implement a long-term plan.
“The message from the management this season was to play with the pressure off and to develop our own style,” said McGonagle.
“We are seeing the improvements because we don’t need to focus on the short-term results and that pays off eventually.
“This year was never going to be one where we were challenging at the top, because we have so many new girls in the team who have never played at this level before and it is a steep learning curve.
“That has made this season more frustrating because such a short season means you don’t get to work on systems and styles as much as you would like.
“This year is all about seeing improvements both individually and as a team.”