O captain, my captain - Two of the greats go head-to-head on the biggest stage

Kylie Murphy, Pearl Slattery, and their Wexford Youths and Shelbourne sides face off in today’s FAI Cup final.

KYLIE MURPHY WAS on co-commentary duty. In the stands of Tallaght Stadium, recounting the action taking place on the pitch, rather than being right in the middle of it. She was envious. You could hear it in her voice, see it on her face; it hurt that her Wexford Youths side weren’t in the 2020 FAI Cup final.

Pearl Slattery was also removed from the action; herself and her Shelbourne side all likely watching Peamount United and Cork City do battle from their respective homes amidst another lockdown and crowd restrictions.

caotainss Shelbourne captain Pearl Slattery (left) and Wexford Youths skipper Kylie Murphy (right). Source: Inpho Sports.

This time around, they’ll both be exactly where they want to be. Leading their teams into battle, and then right in the thick of it all as they go head-to-head on the biggest stage.

Kylie Murphy and Pearl Slattery are two of the greats. They’re both Women’s National League [WNL] legends, two peerless and fearless leaders and captains for as long as most remember, at the ages of 33 and 32 respectively.

Murphy, Wexford’s maestro, has been knocking around since the inaugural season of 2011/12. Slattery; since 2012/13, after returning home from college in America.

Shelbourne is home to her (or, Raheny United before the amalgamation). Wexford Youths is that to Murphy. While others have moved around, and chopped and changed, they’ve both played for just one club each in the WNL.

Committed. Dedicated. Incredible servants.

Synonymous with Irish women’s football.

Two of the best players it’s ever produced.

It’s fair to say that they epitomise their respective clubs, and all that’s good about the game. Each and every time they play, it’s the same story. The same #MyCaptain tweets, filled with goat and flame emojis, from the usual suspects. And rightly so.

Not only in that regard are they so similar, they are cut from the same cloth in so many different ways.

They eat, sleep and breathe football, with their passion for the game overwhelmingly evident in their own unique ways, and they both come across so well on media duty. 

And far, far beyond.

pearl-slattery-with-kylie-murphy Ahead of the 2015 FAI Cup final. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

Raw, honest, and straight-talking; they want the best for the game, and most importantly, for those coming behind them.

It’s unsurpassable how much they both inspire young girls – and boys – with fans from across the board radiating towards them after games. They, too, are always there to lend a helping hand to younger players, whether that be a word of advice, or a simple arm around the shoulder.

They’re the perfect role models, or examples to look up to, their knowledge and understanding of the game, and life in general, always striking.

Like that, not only do they make their impact felt on the pitch, they do so off it. They’re both open about their sexuality, but not in a forced way. Kylie is married to Essmay, while Pearl is in a long-term relationship with Siobhan. No big deal was made about ‘coming out’. It all became common knowledge naturally, and in passing.

While unsaid at times, that’s so, so important for the next generation.

They’re both ordinary people. Kylie works as a carpenter in the family business. She’s from Graiguecullen in Laois, and sport has been the centre of her life for as long as she remembers. Likewise for Pearl, from Rialto in Dublin, who works with the FAI in coaching and development, and is heavily involved with the Ireland U17 women’s team.

“From an early age, football has just been everything to me,” as Slattery told The42 last year. “Whether it’s playing, working or coaching… anything in football, I would be interested in. It’s the only real interest I’ve ever had.” 

Murphy’s interest ebbed and flowed – she was also a talented Gaelic footballer, while she almost threw all of her sporting endeavours away in school, and a career-threatening injury followed in her twenties – but she always found a way back.

“I’m shockingly obsessed with it,” she told this writer for the 10 Years On… WNL book earlier in 2021. “I suppose I do it for the love of the game.

“There can be hundreds of different things going on in your personal life, but soccer is my out. It’s the one thing that I go to that I don’t have to think about anything else. 

“I could be having the shittiest day in the world, I’m like, ‘Ugh God, I don’t want to go training, it’s the last place I want to be.’ I’m not two minutes out of the car and on the pitch, and I’m not even thinking about the day that I just had. That’s probably the best way that I can describe it… I don’t know where I’d be now if I didn’t have soccer.”

In that same interview, Murphy detailed how her Wexford Youths side “started at the very, very bottom,” and worked their way to the top, using all that was said and written about them as motivation: “It was very much a point of proving everybody wrong.”

From rags to riches. Slattery can surely tell similar tales.

They’ve both dedicated most of their lives to football. Hunger, heart, fight, pride in the jersey. They give it absolutely everything for this game they love so dearly.

They’ve gotten plenty back too, in terms of silverware. Just last week, Slattery lifted the league title after the most dramatic of decider days at Tolka Park. While there were also two crowns in the Raheny days, that was her second lift as Shelbourne captain after 2016. There, too, have been WNL and FAI Cups, Raheny’s three in-a-row from 2012 to 2014 and Shelbourne’s sole triumph in ’16 coming in the latter.

Likewise for Murphy, with plenty of success toasted on Slaneyside. Wexford won the FAI Cup in 2015, 2018 and 2019, and enjoyed league glory in 2014/15, 2015/16, 2017 and 2018.

But it’s certainly not all about winning. It’s about ‘family’. They always speak about just how special their clubs are, and how hard it would be to walk away. The pandemic has more than likely hammered that home for both, as they were left lost without it during the sporting shutdown.

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“I love playing, I love it,” as Slattery said in that same interview with this publication last year. “I suppose this whole period of Covid just makes you appreciate what the sport, the league and your team-mates do for you. It gave me a real appreciation when it was kind of taken away from you. At times, you can take it for granted.

“Last year, I was thinking of probably hanging up the boots and then I remember saying to myself, ‘I haven’t got an injury, I felt great, I can coach for the rest of my life,’ so I decided to play as long as I can really, until my legs allow me.”

Murphy shares that same drive. It’s shone through time and time again over the years, and perhaps best in that WNL book:

“I want to win as much as I can win before I finish up. But look, if it comes to it and I finish up having won no more from now on in, I’ll be okay with that as well, because I have won everything there is to win in the National League. I’ve played in the Champions League, I’ve scored a hat-trick in the Champions League.

“It hasn’t been too bad. Do I want more? Yes, I want a lot more. That’s just me, I always want to win.”

An elusive senior international call-up is something she’s been left wanting though, overlooked in the past, as highlighted by Tom Elmes’ ode last summer.

Countless caps for her club, but the lack of just one for her country is disappointing. Murphy has reflected on it with The42, saying it’s “something I didn’t achieve” and the fact that she was never given a chance “hurts a little”.

Slattery may have similar feelings, but their respective club careers have been nothing but glittering. That they both continue to be of such pivotal importance to their teams says it all.

Big players step up in big moments, and expect Kylie Murphy and Pearly Slattery to do that time and time again today.

Slattery is Shels’ ever-present, rock-solid centre back, always one for a last-ditch tackle.

Murphy has been transformed into Wexford’s out-and-out striker this season, playing in a much more advanced role than her usual deep-lying midfielder one, and scoring goals for fun.

They’ve locked horns many a times up to this point, but today’s battle should be an extra exciting one.

Two of the greats going head-to-head on the biggest stage.

May the best win.

And let’s hope there’s many more duels to come for these stalwarts.

- Wexford Youths v Shelbourne, 2021 Women’s FAI Cup final; Sunday, 21 November, 5.30pm, Tallaght Stadium.

About the author:

Emma Duffy

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