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'It's hopefully the start of a fairytale story' - Kilkenny ladies football team set to return

Ladies football on Noreside is on an upward trajectory.

'You can see on social media posts, girls tagging each other, saying, 'Get the boots ready.''
'You can see on social media posts, girls tagging each other, saying, 'Get the boots ready.''

THE HEADLINE A few weeks back was a welcome sight: Kilkenny Ladies Gaelic adult team set for comeback.

It was indeed “exciting news,” as the social media post from Kilkenny LGFA read, with the Cats in line to return to the inter-county scene in the near future having last competed in 2019.

After a difficult year and a series of heavy defeats, the decision was made to withdraw the side from the All-Ireland junior championship and National League for the foreseeable.

But with incredible work done behind the scenes between structures and support networks, and outstanding efforts at underage level and in the 10 clubs on Noreside, the wheels are in motion to go again in a huge boost for the county.

“The recent social media post we put out, we want to bring people along with our story,” PRO Eléna Byrne tells The42. “It’s hugely important that we have everybody on board this time around.

“What we’re hoping to do in 2021 really is just get the roadmap in place for this adult team to get back together again. We wouldn’t be competing this year, but we’re really hoping to compete again in the very near future.

“So far, there’s been huge interest in it. We have a huge amount of volunteers involved this year, 2021, way more than previous years. It’s testament to the rising popularity of the sport, the work of the volunteers behind the scenes, and the underage levels — they’re really coming through now.

We’ve been discussing this adult team all the time behind the scenes. Even last year, it was discussed at county board level and it was decided no, we couldn’t do it. It’s important that this year it has been agreed that now is the time to get the process going again, to get the ball rolling so to speak.”

“But it has to be done properly,” Byrne adds. “We need all the support we can get going forward with this. It’s a big endeavour but we know that the talent is there in both management and players for this to become realistic for us again.

“We’re putting it together properly, with a good development team behind this. We were picked last year, as part of the national strategic plan of Croke Park, the LGFA. We were one of the first counties picked to be given support to develop a three-year plan.

“We’re coming very close to finishing it now, and the adult team is going to be a big, integral part of that three-year plan.”

caitriona-grace-and-emer-roantree-lift-the-cup Lifting the All-Ireland junior crown in 2007. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

The news of the inter-county team’s return comes a little over 12 years since Kilkenny lifted the All-Ireland junior title in 2007.

The Cats beat London in the Croke Park showpiece to claim the West County Cup for the first time in their history, and it capped a memorable season all round.

“That year was just incredible and I was so lucky to play with such a talented squad,” Caitríona Corr, a member of that All-Ireland winning team, says.

That talent is still here in Kilkenny in abundance and there’s no reason a Kilkenny ladies Gaelic football team can’t rise to the top once more.”

Byrne feels the same success can be achieved once again. “It’s hopefully the start of a fairytale story,” she nods, hailing the “really positive reaction” and “overwhelming outpouring of support” the news has resulted in.

She gives several examples; the standout one Cork LGFA PRO Peter O’Leary reaching out and offering a visit from the 11-time All-Ireland champions when the Covid-19 situation improves.

Excitement is through the roof for all involved in Kilkenny, particularly players at the minor grade who had no solid pathway to adult level for some time.

“You’re playing minor with your county and club but then if there’s no adult team to strive for, or no role models there for those girls to be looking up to, really they’re probably going to leave the sport after that age,” Byrne explains.

Now, the excitement is building up again. You can see on social media posts, girls tagging each other, saying, ‘Get the boots ready, this is brilliant.’ It’s lovely to see all of that again.

“I’m actually noting down all the names of the girls, I’m like, ‘Who’s she? She doesn’t play with a club, get onto her!’ There’s loads of girls out there who probably aren’t part of a club and could easily be, but they just aren’t aware.”

Originally from Dublin, and having played for Lucan Sarsfields and the capital’s junior squad until she moved to Kilkenny 10 years ago, Byrne’s passion for ladies football shines through with each and every word she utters.

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Now a central figure of the Dunnamaggin club and still a Mothers and Others player at the age of 41, she played with Kilkenny for a year when she first re-located.

“I’ve seen how it works in both set-ups: the Dublin squad where you have the money, you have the support, and then the difference with playing with the Kilkenny squad.

There’s very little. Even just not having a bag. You get your kitbags with Dublin, you get your gear, the Kilkenny girls don’t always have that. It’s much harder to source and there’s so much work going on in the background now, getting that right for adult team this year. That has to be right. It’s not going to be done right if you don’t put in that support beforehand.”

Dunnamaggin — set up five years ago, with 200 active members now — is one of 10 clubs in the county, six of those catering for adults at junior level.

The others focus on underage football; the nursery age group in particular where huge numbers are coming through; and Mothers and Others — non-competitive, social teams introducing women back into the sport.

The ladies football scene in Kilkenny, like everywhere across the country, has “a real family” feel to it, and Byrne is delighted to be so heavily involved.

She’s pleased to see it growing and growing, and the return of an inter-county adult side is another step along this journey, fuelled by hard work and dedication, and spurred on by support and belief.

“Sometimes when you’re the underdog you have to work that little bit harder and you can become a lot closer.

We need that belief in us. There’s an old mentality, ‘Ahhhh, it’s only football Kilkenny’. That perception has to go, and it is going with ladies football, 100%.

“Ladies football would be perceived as the second GAA sport of most girls and ladies here, so we have to work even harder to promote it and even harder to support the girls who are playing.

“I would point out though, even though we are perceived as maybe the underdog GAA sport, there’s many a player we have who it’s their first sport, first passion and it’s their only team sport. It’s so important for girls to have a team sport especially… you have them for life.”

londay-players-dejected-as-kilkenny-players-celebrate Celebrating the 2007 win. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

The newfound healthy relationship with the camogie county board — “it hasn’t just happened overnight, that relationship wasn’t always there” — has certainly helped and going forward, players will be able to play both at adult level, like many have done underage.

“It’s in everyone’s best interest for us to support dual players, not only in Kilkenny but in the whole country really,” Byrne notes. “There’s never a time we should not be supporting women to stay in sport, and teenagers especially.”

That’s the big focus now, with the three-year plan in full flow and the returning adult team integral to that, with players at the heart of the process.

“We have people who have come forward with an interest in management, but there’s nothing at all set in stone yet,” she concludes. “We are open to anyone coming forward and we’ll talk to anyone.

“We are set on having a roadmap in place that will be followed so that it’s all done properly.”

Screenshot 2020-11-24 at 9.04.07 AM

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Emma Duffy

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