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The 17-year-old Irish starlet set for America

It’s been a whirlwind few months for Blessing Kingsley, topped off by FAI Cup glory last Sunday.

Blessing Kingsley celebrates scoring her first senior goal against Kilkenny.
Blessing Kingsley celebrates scoring her first senior goal against Kilkenny.
Image: Eric Barry

IN THEIR BIGGEST match of the season last Sunday, Wexford Youths turned to a 17-year-old to close out the game.

With the FAI Cup final at the Aviva Stadium against Peamount finely balanced at 3-2, Blessing Kingsley was introduced for Aising Frawley.

The year before, Kingsley had been invited along to the final, when Wexford again beat Peamount, but the youngster was not part of the matchday squad.

It was a testament to the teen’s remarkable progress over the past year that she was trusted on such a big occasion — the season’s showpiece event in front of a national TV audience.

“I was so, so happy to see Blessing Kingsley come on that pitch,” Youths skipper Kylie Murphy told The42‘s Emma Duffy afterwards. “She’s 17, like. That is an incredible achievement out of her. She didn’t just come on and fill in, she worked. She bit at players, took the ball off players, held it up. She’s incredible. She has such a bright future ahead of her.”

“It was great to see someone like Blessing Kingsley, the age she is,” added manager Tom Elmes. “She’s had a fantastic year with the 17s. She’s also done really well with us and internationally with the 17s, she’s been fantastic. It’s great to be able to trust those players to come on and do a job for us out there.

“I’m sure Blessing will be around for a while. You seen her today, she came on with no fear for her age. She was straight into it, she was excellent.”

Kingsley herself, meanwhile, describes helping Wexford Youths win the FAI Cup last Sunday as “definitely the best moment of my career so far”.

She continues: “It was just an amazing feeling, going onto the field and knowing that Tom trusted me enough to come in at such a decisive moment in the game, just try to wear the game down and try to cause as much trouble as possible.

The support has been amazing after coming back. Everyone here in Graiguecullen has been super supportive and everyone in school hasn’t stopped congratulating us in the team.” 

It’s been a special season for Kingsley, who is a Man United fan, but barely old enough to remember the era when the club were the dominant side in English football. The talented striker has made great progress in the last 12 months with the Wexford Youths senior team, scoring five times in the league since her first goal against Kilkenny back in April. And she actually made her Women’s National League debut towards the end of last season, coming on aged 16 in the dying moments of a clash with Galway, only a couple of months after joining the club.

Combined with her senior duties, she has also been in prolific form for the 17s, helping them reach the league final and scoring in what was ultimately a disappointing 3-1 loss to Galway.

wexford-youths-celebrate-with-the-trophy Wexford Youths celebrate their FAI Cup win last Sunday. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

It was also a year that saw the starlet make her Ireland debut at U17 level, scoring the only goal amid a 1-0 win over Scotland in an Elite Round qualifying match last March.

“It’s everything I wanted to achieve since the start of the season,” Kingsley says, reflecting on a brilliant 12 months.

“It took me a bit of time to adapt [to senior level]. The game is so much quicker. You’re making decisions quicker, the passing’s quicker, the players are stronger and faster than you. So just adapting and trying to compete with players that have 10 years on you and so much experience, even in training, I feel like I’m always improving.”

And with Ireland international Rianna Jarrett as a team-mate, she gets to learn from one of the best. Jarrett was most people’s choice as the standout player in the league this season with 26 goals to her name

“Getting to see what she does week in week out and the game at the weekend, I’m constantly learning from her and she’s constantly giving me tips.

If I do something one way, she tells me a better way to do it. I couldn’t have a better person to be learning from first hand. This season, she’s just been something else. She’s got to show everyone on the biggest stage [with Ireland] what she’s capable of doing and what she does week in week out for us in Wexford, so definitely she helped enhance the better parts of my game.”

Kingsley’s rise is all the more remarkable when you consider that she started playing organised soccer at the relatively late age of 12. The player’s mother, naturally protective, was somewhat apprehensive about the prospect of her playing competitive soccer with boys.

Born in Waterford to Nigerian parents, she has lived most of her life in Carlow, with Wexford’s training ground in Carlow IT just 10 minutes from her house.

Her first team was New Oak Boys, whose manager Ian Cullen convinced the promising youngster to join.

“I would have played with the boys and it was such a big shock because I was the first girl in the whole club — I’m pretty sure I’m correct in saying that. But the coach I had was the best person. He just included me, but let me know that the guys weren’t going to feel sorry for me, or go easy on me, just because I was a girl.

“For me, it was a season where I had to not impress, but get to the same standard, because I never would have played in a proper team setting — learning set pieces, tactics, everything. But it was definitely a year that I improved a lot. I would have ended up getting most-improved player. That would have been my first individual award.”

Being on a boys’ team, she says, was not that big a deal.

“It was pretty natural, because in my estate, I would have always been kicking around with the boys, doing stepovers and fancy stuff, so it wasn’t too much of a change from playing with boys [in a casual setting] to playing with boys on the team.”

She continues: “I remember my dad, when I was about four or five, would have brought me this pink, light ball. It was like the softest ball ever. I remember getting this ball on the field and just kicking it and chasing after it. If it was too far away, he’d get it for me and I’d kick it again. That was probably my first memory of playing football.

I have the best support system. It’s just me, my mam and my sister at the moment and for the majority of my life. My mam has really had to step up and be a role model for me and she’s always told me anything you want to achieve, you can achieve. So once she found out that I wanted to go far in football, she was the most important person ever.”

At 14, Kingsley made the switch to girls football and ultimately got onto a Carlow Academy team.

Despite no longer playing with boys, Kingsley was still conscious of being different on occasion.

“When you’re playing soccer and you’re the only black girl on your team, you obviously feel left out at times,” she recently told the ‘Being Black and Irish’ YouTube series.

“In a way, you use that to your advantage. If you’re doing well, it’s a good thing.”

It wasn’t long before Kingsley caught the attention of scouts while playing down in Limerick in the Gaynor Cup.

After a stint with local side Hanover Harps, the top Irish clubs started to circle.

And in fact, Kingsley originally was set to go to Peamount, before having a change of heart.

“We had a Carlow Sports Stars award in 2018 around January and Kylie [Murphy] would have approached me and asked me to come to training one day. I put it off a bit because I was kind of scared that I wasn’t ready for that jump. I was still playing at Hanover.

I just went to see what [Wexford Youths training] was like. I went back to Hanover to finish the season. I would have been too old to play another season at Hanover. I wanted to go further. So then Wexford would have had trials for the U17s, for the short season last year.

“I’d [originally] decided to go to Peamount. I had known the coach for the U17s. He would have been the coach for one of our rival teams.

“Then, I would have got a text from [Wexford Youths U17s manager] Alan Browne. So I was kind of torn between the two. He was just like: ‘I want to invite you down before you make the decision, just check out Ferrycarrig and what it looks like and to see what the team is like.’

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“So I would have joined Wexford last summer [in 2018] and it’s honestly been the best decision I’ve ever made.”

Having helped Wexford to cup glory, Kingsley now has less glamorous matters to attend to, namely the Leaving Cert.

“It’s the thing they always would have been talking about from first to sixth year, so it’s kind of looming over me now. It was difficult to find a balance between sports and football — sixth year is definitely the hardest test so far. But it’s okay for the moment.”

All going well, she will be playing football in the US this time next year. 

“I’m hoping to get a football scholarship to America and to see how it goes over there for four years.

“I’m getting a few offers, but I haven’t been accepted to any school yet — I’m just trying to get to know the coaches better and get to know the teams as well.”

And ultimately, Kingsley dreams of representing Ireland at senior level, while emulating many of the current national team by plying her trade in one of the elite leagues abroad.

Definitely that would be the goal. I’m hoping the development I get in the four years will stand to me. I have to get what I have to get to improve in the States, but I really want, after four years, to sign a professional contract in a top league.”

She also is hopeful of playing more for Wexford Youths before the likely departure to the States.

“If I get accepted to a school, I won’t be making the move until early August. So I’ll have the majority of the season next year [to play WNL].”

So if Kingsley continues on her current trajectory, the Carlow footballer will certainly be a name to watch out for in the future. There is a palpable excitement and enthusiasm to the way she speaks about the sport.

Before games, I go through this limbo phase where I don’t realise that I’m going to play. I get so in the zone that it’s just like any other match, and then I go through another phase where I’m just bouncing off the wall and I’m talking to everyone and I’m listening to music and I’m dancing. Then, the last five minutes is just sitting down and zoning everything out. Then I’m back in the limbo zone and I’m ready to play.

“I wouldn’t get really nervous unless it’s before big matches, but I’m pretty confident in my ability that once I’m on the field, it’ll speak for itself.”

And as for advice for other youngsters hoping to make an impact in football? 

“I’d copy what my mam would always say to me. If you think you’ve the ability to do something and you want it bad enough, and you work hard and keep your eye on that prize, you can achieve anything.”  

We thought there might be a post-World Cup comedown, but then Saracens went and Saracened. Andy Dunne joins Sean Farrell and Gavan Casey as the pod segues from the international to club season.

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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