The Irish team aiming to end their two-year wait for a league win

Kilkenny United chairman Shane Murray is optimistic about the club’s future in spite of a disappointing season.

The Kilkenny team face Cork this weekend.
The Kilkenny team face Cork this weekend.
Image: Kilkenny WFC

Updated at 08.47

THIS SUNDAY AFTERNOON, the vast majority of sports fans in the county will be watching in rapt attention as Kilkenny take on Tipperary in the All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship Final.

Around the same time elsewhere, another Kilkenny team will be searching desperately for a much-needed win.

However, that is where the comparisons with Brian Cody’s team ends. Kilkenny United are currently bottom of the Women’s National League. They have played 15 games and lost 14. They have conceded 65 and scored eight.

Last season was similarly tough. They played 21 games, lost 19 and drew two, conceding 95 goals and scoring 12.

The club first joined the WNL ahead of the 2015-16 season. They have won just once in their entire history in the competition. In 2017, they beat Galway 1-0, their only points in 18 games during that campaign.

Prior to that match, they had played 32 league fixtures, drawing once and losing the rest.

Yet there have been positive signs of late. On Saturday, they picked up their first point of the season, drawing 1-1 away to DLR Waves. After Emma Campbell had given the visitors a first-half lead, Jetta Berill equalised with two minutes of normal time remaining.

It was a result they surely would have taken before kick off, but given how the match panned out, it felt like a gut-wrenching outcome ultimately.

The encouraging display was produced in spite of the departure earlier this month of manager Kane Lynch, whose successor is expected to be announced later today.

Assistant boss Stephen Gray and chairman Shane Murray have temporarily taken charge of team affairs in the interim, and the latter points to the adoption of a different style as part of the reason for their improvement.

“Kane’s done a great job as well with the girls, he’s added more to them this season,” Murray tells The42. “Stephen has changed it slightly. We’ve decided to go down a different route. We want to go and play. It’s just more controlled possession, I suppose, and more of a high press.

“The girls have worked really hard. To be honest, they deserved more out of the [DLR Waves] game. I thought we were going to win. We put in a really good shift.”  

Murray comes across as a vehement optimist, a mindset you suspect is vital to have in a club that has gone just over two years without a league win.

“Everyone keeps going on that Kilkenny are still on the bottom and they’re this and that, but the club are still going strong. There are a lot of girls that are involved in the club and their skills and ambition in the game are very high. The ambition for the club is still extremely high. That hasn’t changed since we got our licence back in 2015. 

“Ask me the question again in five years and it’ll be a different story, because we’ve big plans for the club. We’re going to get stronger. Results have been disappointing, but I can’t ask anymore from the coaching staff, the players and the committee.

“We’re all disappointed. We get up on a Sunday morning hoping this is it — we’ll have three points on the board.

I was only talking to a friend of mine earlier today, and I spelled it out. We want Champions League football in Kilkenny — that’s the ambition of the club. We want to win the league and we want Champions League football. That’s where we want to be and where we will be.” 

While results have remained poor for the most part, Murray insists the side have made progress during their five seasons in the top flight.

“I had to take the team for much of last season and we got [two] draws. One of them, we should have beaten Limerick. We were 2-0 up with 10 minutes to go. We have a terrific bunch of girls there that have stayed with what we’re trying to achieve in Kilkenny. 

“Every game we lose is a low. It doesn’t matter what the score is. Nobody wants to lose a game. That’s part and parcel of any sport you play. We all get up every morning and [winning] is what we want to do. We go to training every week. The girls and the coaching staff, everyone has that same drive to want to improve – that hasn’t changed. The ambition is the same as in 2015.” 

In sport, winners tend to be championed and losers ridiculed. Some people may mock or sneer at Kilkenny, owing to their lack of success, but it is hard not to share a degree of admiration for their squad when you consider their predicament thoughtfully.

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The team are not professional and play primarily for the love of the game. Some work or go to college, and a couple have just completed their Leaving Cert. Week after week, they invariably lose. At times, defeats tend to be particularly emphatic — this season’s results have included 10-1, 9-0 and 8-1 losses. Yet still, the players turn up for training and go again. There is a certain dignity given their perseverance in the face of such relentless misfortune on the pitch.

“To be fair to the group of girls, the character that’s in the players comes out,” Murray adds. “It’s fairly easy for a team that has top-quality players to win games, but it’s a tough job for [us].

Players that go through that week in week out show amazing character. To come back week in week out. To go back to training and to still have 20-25 girls at training, that shows amazing character. So from that point of view, we’ve got great characters in the club.

“We’ve a very young team here. The likes of Wexford Youths, they were getting beaten as well [at first] and going to bits. But they found a way and started winning. If Kilkenny finds that way, I think we’ll be just as good as any team out there. We have the character in the team and the ambition. The girls just need to find that willing mentality now and once they do, I think they’ll crack it.

“They’re such a great group and the commitment and investment, even outside of [playing] football as well, they help out with different people in the academies, they’re a terrific bunch, I have the highest respect for the girls. People can have their opinion regarding games and watching games. We were disappointed with what we saw in some of the reports at the weekend from some of the people, but that’s their opinion at the end of the day.”

The Women’s National League has come in for criticism in recent times from various sources, including some currently involved in it. The standard is perceived as not being good enough in some quarters. Critics suggest the competition has failed to progress sufficiently since it was founded in 2011. Many Irish international players have opted to play abroad, and those who have remained on these shores tend to find it a big step up when lining out for the national team. 

Having finished bottom of the table in every season since they joined, Kilkenny will be regarded by these critics as symptomatic of the problem. Murray, however, says the team tends to ignore its detractors.

We’re still going and we are going to continue to go. We have a great committee in the club. There’s a new manager that’s going to be put in place and there’s also some great coaching staff in the club as well. Once there’s drive behind the team, it doesn’t really matter what people have to say outside. What’s going on inside the club is all I’m concerned about.

“In any sport that anyone’s involved in, if there’s more funding involved, it all goes up. In fairness to the FAI, the women’s committee, they’ve done a great job in there. They’ve established a really strong league and I’m sure they’ve ambitions to add more to it.

“You look at the Women’s World Cup, the promotion and the attendance at the games was very strong. From Kilkenny’s point of view, we’ve learned from things like that, how they’re promoting it and what they’re trying to do. We’ll take [onboard] some of that as well. And in the background, the FAI are doing lots of workshops as well. So it’s only going to get stronger.

“As we all know, funding is everything, trying to run things, and the girls put a lot of commitment into their training two or three days a week. Their commitment is relentless and they deserve more from it. But the league is only at an early stage, it’s still growing. Kilkenny has its own ambitions, where we want to be in the women’s game in particular in the next three years. There are big plans in place and all going well, they’ll materialise over the next few months.”

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Paul Fennessy

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