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Womens Premiership


04 May 2021
Leah McGonagle
Sion Swifts are a much-changed side from last season with former Northern Ireland Under-19 international Leah McGonagle arriving from Derry City.
The defender switched the Candystripes for the Strabane-based club at the start of the year, with midfielder Hayley O’Donnell (Linfield), experienced goalkeeper Denise McElhinney (Donegal) and Northern Ireland Under-19 international Aimee Neal (Lisburn Rangers) among the other arrivals at the Melvin Sports Complex.
McGonagle - who made her Sion debut against Linfield last week - explained: “Sion had told me last season that they were interested in signing me but I had wanted to see out at the season at Derry City and think more about the move.
“They contacted me again over Christmas asking if I would like to join the club, and I felt it was the right time to make the step up and move to a side who have challenged for trophies.
“I wanted to challenge myself and prove that I was good enough to play for a team who have been challenging for league titles over the past two years.
“We don’t have many senior international players but there are youth internationals here who represent both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
“That means we have a group here who can grow and develop together, which was a big motivating factor for me.” 
Not only is McGonagle one of the highest rated central defenders in the Danske Bank Women’s Premiership, but she continues to represent Derry-based GAA outfit Steelstown.
Whilst combining both sports - a hectic schedule of training sessions and matches - is a challenge, the accommodation on Sion’s part was another factor in his move.
“One of the conditions for me signing for Sion was the understanding that I could continue my GAA career alongside playing football,” she added.
“It was hard at the start of the season when you have different Covid testing and trying to find the balance between training and playing matches.
“It is not ideal having to miss a training session for either side but by combining the two it means you are keeping your fitness levels high, so it’s not like I’m not doing anything!
“I’m always doing training regardless of whether it’s football or GAA.”
With several arrivals in the close-season and a new coaching team in place at Sion Swifts, the lockdown restrictions added another layer of difficulty to prepare for the new campaign.
McGonagle added: “Our first sessions had to be done by the new coach Paul McLaughlin over Zoom, where he was talking us through what we would be doing and working on.
“Paul set out the work for us all to do individually because at the time we were not allowed to train together as a team, so that presented another challenge.
“We had six weeks of training together from 1 March through to the start of the season - so we had that opportunity to train together and bond as a group.
“We are only a small squad of 16 or 17 players - so we gelled together quickly and we are a closely knit group.
“I had spent a good few years at Derry and the team-spirit there was fantastic so that was another factor for me making my decision.
“We played the Northern Ireland Under-19 side twice - we won the first game but had a few players out injured for the second tie.”
Last weekend’s opening night saw Sion go down to a 3-0 loss at Linfield while this week sees them host defending champions Glentoran in Strabane.
“Those are the teams we want to be measuring ourselves against and challenging ourselves against,” said the defender.
“For this week’s game against Glentoran, we have looked back and analysed their game against Crusaders last week so we know a little bit about how they will setup and play.
“For Linfield, it was a little different - we knew their players and the quality they have but not how they would approach the game, and we were a little disappointed with our performance.
“Both of those sides are packed full of international players and we know it is a big task for us to get points from those games but we conceded sloppy goals against Linfield and that is something for us to work on and improve.
“This is a full league season rather than just 10 games, so unlike last year you have time to turn things around and not react too much to each individual result.
“Every team in this league is really difficult to play against and present their own challenges - every week you are coming up against players who have been in the international setup.
“Whenever you are coming up against that standard of player it improves you and gives you that experience that means you learn in every game.”