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'I can leave with my head held high and be very proud of everything I've achieved over the years'

Recently-retired Ireland international Karen Duggan looks back on a stellar international career in the green jersey, and much more.

IT’S ONLY NOW that Karen Duggan can fully draw breath and reflect on the brilliant international career she called time on in the latter days of September. 

Karen Duggan Recently-retired Ireland defender Karen Duggan. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

35 caps earned since her debut in 2013, a coveted FAI International Player of the Year award won in 2016 and endless invaluable memories and experiences on some of the biggest stages in the world along the way, all whilst proudly sporting that green jersey — but interestingly, it’s not a soccer achievement that comes as her sporting highlight.

“1st March 2015,” she smiles, “sporting highlight,” once her All-Ireland intermediate club camogie championship final victory in Croke Park with her beloved Piltown is mentioned.

“I know, like everything I achieved in soccer, but winning that with my club, it was so special. I know it was an intermediate camogie team with Piltown, people are like, ‘That’s a bit mad that that’s your big standout moment’ but it’s just because they’re all the girls I grew up with and they helped me achieve everything in soccer.

“The camogie played a big part; just shaping me, toughening me up and getting me used to that competitive environment. I owe it a lot. And I owe the girls that played with me from Piltown a lot. They’re still some of my best friends.

“That was just a great moment for everyone in the parish, for my family and everything.”

***

In that small Kilkenny parish, soccer and camogie were the two main sports. Soccer from a young age through Community Games, while a camogie team started up around the time Duggan made her Confirmation.

Everyone played small ball, it was the done thing. She was the type of kid that did everything she possibly could, so Gaelic football, swimming and basketball were thrown into the mix. She laughs as she remembers a time she thought she’d make it big in the WNBA.

“I was 10 or 11,” the Peamount defender tells The42. “But eh, it turned out that I’m not that good at jumping and didn’t grow that much so…..”

Camogie and soccer it was. She took the two pretty seriously for a good while, played county minor while she was making underage teams with Ireland, and did her utmost to balance the two. But then came decision time, choose one or the other.

“I’m better at soccer like so I don’t think it was too difficult,” she explains. “I had the experience at soccer of being able to travel, things were kind of progressing with the soccer, it took my attention more and more.”

Duggan, 27 now, didn’t hang up her hurley for good, that said, and lined out for her club on the sly a good bit, she grins. After announcing her international retirement this year — a decision she’s more than happy with, but we’ll delve deeper into that later — she went back to play a few games with Piltown, helping them to a senior county final.

“To say I was rusty would be a bit of an understatement, I didn’t cover myself in glory to be honest!” she adds, but her delight shines through as she notes how close they ran county kingpins, Thomastown.

Karen Duggan celebrates at the final whistle As the final whistle sounded in that 2015 All-Ireland final win. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

With more time on her hands now, she hopes to don the black and amber of Piltown once again in 2019, but dismisses any whispers of a Kilkenny return. She has actually played a small bit of senior inter-county in her time, and there were a few comments thrown around about a potential return after hanging up her Ireland boots. But that’s a no.

“I was like, ‘Hmmm no, not if you saw me with some of the girls I would have played minor with!’ What is it now, nine years ago?” she laughs, when social media posts from former team-mates and inter-county club-mates after her retirement are brought up.

“I was like, ‘Ye’ve done a lot of hurling in nine years that I haven’t! So… no.’

She’s done a fair bit in those nine years herself though, to be fair. Throwing her all at soccer well and truly paid off as she made a name for herself in her college football days with University of Limerick (UL), while simultaneously powering through the Irish underage set-up.

From her age group, Duggan is one of the very few that filtered through to senior, while they had little success given the talent on board.

“We would have qualified for a few Elite Round stages but I was never part of that glory generation that came after, that qualified for the Euros and World Cups and stuff,” she frowns.

“Given the team we had, we probably didn’t reach the peak that we probably could have or should have. More came out of it, I had a good time! It was brilliant… and the time off school!”

What about the fights with the parents, surely there were one or two?

“Not at all… not one! Ah sure, they loved it. The loved every step of the way, they got to visit a few European places they never would have thought of going to. I think they’ll miss it more than I will!”

A central part of a well-stacked team at UL meanwhile, with players like Ruth Fahy, Aoife Herbert and Julie-Anne Russell also in their ranks, the experience she gained was priceless and the silverware came often.

Pretty much part of a double-act with Russell, the duo were scouted by Dublin side Peamount in their second year of college as Eileen Gleeson looked to bolster her squad for the Champions League.

“I was kind of in limbo to be honest,” Duggan explains. “I was being encouraged to play at higher level. Piltown wouldn’t really be big-hitters in the female soccer game compared to the likes of Peamount and Shelbourne, or Raheny as they were at the time. 

Karen Duggan Playing against PSG in the Champions League in 2011. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“I was pretty shy so I wasn’t going to do it by myself but once I heard that Julie-Ann was going, I was in,” she adds, and from there, the double-act went up and down the road to the Big Smoke, and everything snowballed from there. 

In UL, Duggan studied Science Education and spent a year teaching in Portlaoise after graduating, before realising it wasn’t for her. She found it too difficult to do everything, she says, the holidays didn’t coincide with the time off she needed for soccer and catering for exam classes was a serious amount of pressure.

“I wanted to give 100% to soccer, and I didn’t feel I could do that,” she continues, now a business analyst and management consultant for Accenture in Dublin. 

“That was proven, given that I wasn’t really in the first [Ireland] team when I was in Portlaoise teaching, but when I moved up to Dublin and was able to get to the gym more in the evenings, get to training every night I needed, take the holidays I needed, it just took a lot of stress out of it.

“My performance improved along with that as well. I started breaking into the team then when I moved up to Dublin.”

Those four initial years at Peamount threw up a Women’s National League (WNL) title win, two WNL Cups and two WNL Team of the Season selections, before Gleeson made the decision to leave the Greenogue outfit and head for UCD, while a group of players — including Duggan, and Russell — followed suit.

There was further success there, and Duggan earned two more WNL Team of the Season selections along with a WNL Senior Player of the Year award in 2015/16.

She’s since come full circle, of course, returning to Peamount this year. It was “a little bit weird” at first, she admits, but she’s seamlessly slotted right back in and was pivotal in their run in 2018, as they reached the WFAI Cup final in the Aviva.

Most importantly though, she thoroughly enjoyed her football, and that’s clear to see.

Duggan is a big advocate for the National League. She’s seen it grow and develop right from the get-go — it was founded in 2011 — the attitudes change and the encouragement to go and play professionally overseas increase. The players and success it has produced is second-to-none.

“It’s definitely the perfect stepping stone into the professional set-up if that’s where you want to go,” she says, “but also there are girls within the league that are good enough to keep pushing for places within the national team.”

Like anything, there is room for improvement, but the fact that it’ there at all is a huge positive. It’s served her well and given her everything she needed, considering going abroad to play professionally never appealed to the Kilkenny native.

“No, not for me. I don’t know what it was,” she states, adding that she was very into school and succeeding on that front, as well as football.

Edel Kennedy and Karen Duggan Lining out in this year's WFAI Cup final - which Peamount lost. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“I need the balance in my life. When I have a bad day in work, I have sport to counteract that. Vice versa, if I have a bad game at the weekend then coming in on Monday and forgetting about it is good.

“For me it’s always been good and always helped me. One has always helped the other for me, that’s not the case for everyone but for me and my personality make-up, it’s worked out for me.”

Complimented for being living and breathing proof that you don’t have to go abroad to reach the top of the game, she quickly turns the spotlight on Aine O’Gorman and insists that the 100-time capped international exemplifies it more.

As Duggan chats away, she’s more than happy to talk about everything and anything, the good and the bad, as openly and honestly as possible. She doesn’t shy away from tougher elements of conversation, and her modesty shines through as she deflects most of the attention and praise.

It’s the type of player — and person — she is. She’s always worked hard and given it her all, hammering away in the background without making a fuss. It’s probably best epitomised through her attempts to finally get into the senior international squad.

“It took a while for me to break through to be perfectly honest,” she concedes. “I was kind of in and out of squads for about four years before I actually made the breakthrough. It wasn’t a seamless process but I got there in the end.”

That’s the main thing, of course.

With some familiar faces there when she eventually made the transition — the likes of Russell and Niamh Reid Burke from her U19 days; Louise Quinn, Steph Roche and Aine O’Gorman were the year ahead, and Niamh Fahey and Emma Byrne too — things were made easier. 

Her debut came at the 2013 Cyprus Cup, a 1-0 win against South Africa. She remembers it well, sprung from the bench on a windy day.

“I maybe touched the ball twice when it was hopping around the place in the 15 minutes that I was on,” she recalls, adding that she doesn’t remember being overly nervous beforehand.

“It wasn’t the highest quality match you’ve ever seen, but I was just so delighted to be on the pitch, I didn’t really care. Obviously it had taken me so long to get a cap, I was just delighted to get one foot on the pitch, to get that cap and get over the hump.

“I was happy that I didn’t mess up and give away a goal on my first cap. Overall, a feeling of relief I would say!”

Karen Duggan and Izabela Lojna Taking on Croatia's Izabela Lojna in 2014. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Looking back on that fruitful international career that followed, there’s one or two standout moments, particularly from the past year or two. The one goal always though was to reach a major tournament, a dream she — nor Ireland — ever realised.

So close but yet so far time and time again, most recently and perhaps most agonisingly in their bid to reach the 2019 Fifa World Cup. Norway officially dashed their dreams in June, back-to-back defeats in Tallaght (2-0) and Stavanger (1-0) confirming the Girls In Green’s failure to progress from Group 3.

“That’s it in the end,” she sighs. “You look back and there’s obviously a little bit of regret, and things we could have done better, especially in the home game against Norway.

“That would have been a chance to maybe get the result and try and emulate what we did against the Dutch away. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen. I think we played better away from home against Norway which was disappointing.

“If we’d played like that at home we might have had the luck of the green, you never know. But unfortunately that didn’t happen on the day for us. In fairness, the two best teams –  technically best — from the group did reach the top two.

“You can’t really complain about missing out to Norway and Holland, they’re two of the powerhouses in women’s football in Europe. Disappointing, but look, when you put it in perspective, they are two excellent teams. You can’t really say too much about it.”

Moving on to better nights though, there was that memorable 0-0 draw in Nijmegen last November as Ireland gave a defensive masterclass to hold the Dutch, reigning European champions, in front of 12,00 fans.

“It was the best experience I had in an Ireland shirt,” she lights up. “To go in there, people giving us absolutely no hope.

“I’d never played in front of a stadium like that were it was packed to the rafters, 30,000 people. They were actually pretty hostile which was enjoyable as well. It was just something different, like. There was a whole spectacle around it, it was really well advertised in Holland.

Karen Duggan with Jackie Groenen 28/11/2017 That night in Nijmegen. Source: Orange Pictures/Rob Koppers/INPHO

“They were really looking forward to it, we were looking forward to it. We always said we were going in to get a result but when it was actually happening on the pitch, the more blocks that we made, the more we wanted to make and stuff like that.

“The possession stats are something ridiculous, how much possession they had: to hold out on a night like that, it was unbelievable. Definitely, definitely the highlight of my time in the green jersey.”

And on the scenes from the dressing room and what not afterwards, she adds: “It was just great craic.

“People’s interest really kind of perked up after that as well. That’s great to see, you need that. That’s what the Irish team need. We need to make a major tournament so that the interest levels do spike and the attendances start to grow.

“But until we breathe success we can’t really complain about the lack of support and stuff like that. People need to have something to cheer for as well, hopefully that’s coming.”

That spike in interest for a positive reason made it all the sweeter. They had been in the spotlight for more negative reasons earlier that year, with the team taking strike action against the FAI over working conditions.

It’s still a touchy subject at times, with players often uncomfortable to discuss it, but Duggan realises now just how monumental it was, and will be.

“It was a big part of the women’s team for a few months there so it’s not something you can avoid talking about,” she nods. “It was important for us as well, there’s no point in hiding behind it.

“It was a difficult time, it was a hostile time. It had to be done for the people coming through, we won’t see dividends of that for a few years but we can already tell that it made a difference.

“I do think that the likes of myself and Aine [O'Gorman] who’ve retired now, and Emma Byrne, will look back on that, and I do think that we can be proud of it. I do think that it can lead to better things for the women’s team.

“It was absolutely not something any of us wanted to do and not something any of us took lightly at all. We knew that it potentially could harm our careers. But we were looking at it from the greater good of football in Ireland’s perspective.

A view of the press conference A view of the press conference in April 2014. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

“If we wanted to compete with these big nations we had to start being treated the way they get treated. It was a difficult time, to be honest. It was just a lot of phone-calls, a lot of attention that we wouldn’t have been used to, or comfortable with, because we never would have experienced anything like it before.

“In fairness, we got so much support which made it a little easier. There was no one slating us in the press, it was all relatively positive comments coming out of it. It’s one of those things now that we parked, and hope that things will continue to improve and all that. We know that it was worthwhile, and hopefully in a few years we’ll see that.”

She’s excited for what the future holds for the side under Colin Bell, with an abundance of talented youth coming through. She acknowledges that qualifying for next summer’s World Cup in France was of course their aim, but breaking that major tournament duck is more realistic come Euro 2021.

The time, the 27-year-old says, though was right to go. 

Football is pretty much a full-time job in itself, and it’s just not sustainable in the long run. While putting your all into a full-time job at the same time, your shelf-life is perhaps shorter.

“I just felt like I had given everything I could while trying to maintain my job and stuff,” she says. “It was kind of like a natural time for me to step back, given that it’s three years until the next major tournament, 12 months until the next competitive game.

“I just couldn’t see myself being able to give what I gave over the last say, five years in order to get capped the 35 times and stuff like that. It was a slog to break into the team and to try and maintain that professional level while balancing everything else.

“While I loved every minute of it, I do have other interests that I want to pursue. Now is the time to do it while I’m young enough and don’t have too many commitments. I just felt that it was a good natural time for me to step back.”

You’re either all in 100%, or you’re not, as we agreed multiple times throughout our catch-up.

A dejected Karen Duggan is comforted at the end of the game Being comforted after a loss to the Netherlands. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“I just feel that if you’re going to do it, if you want to play for Ireland then you should really, really be able to give it your all, it should be your main focus. It was for me for a long time, but I just didn’t feel that I had another three years in me.

“For me, the thing that was missing was that major tournament and I didn’t feel like I would be able to maintain a level good enough, I suppose, and a level professional enough for the next three years to help the girls on that journey — which I do think they will achieve, I do think they will reach the next major tournament.”

She poured so much into it for so long, and insists that if they did qualify for that Holy Grail, there’s no way she would have stepped back. But another three-year commitment was out of the question.

No regrets, she smiles. It has been weird to get used to but she fully stands by her decision and will do, no matter what.

“I ended on well, not a high because we didn’t qualify, but ended in a good space where I was still part of the squad and I was still getting games,” she concludes, adding that she has no major plans yet but hopes to do some travelling, try new things and say, ‘Yes’ to the odd night on the tiles.

“If you drag it out and stuff, with the talent that’s coming through, you might have started seeing me drop to the bench or even drop outside the panel. It wouldn’t have been as happy a memory to leave off on.

“I can leave with my head held high and very proud of everything I’ve achieved over the years, just happy with the contribution I was able to make over the years that I was in the team.”

And that she most definitely can.

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Emma Duffy

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