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'Our son Patrick is looking down on Leanne this weekend. She was very close to him'

A look through Leanne Kiernan’s rise to the top, through the highs and the lows, ahead of today’s FA Cup final.

A PARENT’S PRIDE in their child is something special.

It’s pretty much the first thing that both John and Ita Kiernan, the proud parents of Ireland and West Ham star Leanne, mention as they begin to speak glowingly of their youngest daughter. 

Leanne and her siblings really are their pride and joy.

***

It’s Wednesday afternoon, just after two o’clock when John’s mobile rings.  

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Wembley here we come 🔥⚒☘️

A post shared by Leanne Kiernan (@leannekiernan_8) on

But this isn’t just any Wednesday afternoon in the Kiernan household in Bailieborough, County Cavan. It’s the Wednesday afternoon before the 2019 Women’s FA Cup final, in which Leanne will line out in Wembley Stadium against Manchester City — for whom her Ireland team-mate Megan Campbell plies her trade.

This is the biggest game of Kiernan’s glittering career so far, so it’s only fitting that we go back to where it all began. She turned 20 last week, but let’s rewind to earlier days and to those closest to her. Those who have always been there through the ups and downs, the highs and lows, the good days and the bad. 

It’s all come around pretty fast, after all.

***

The baby of the house, much of Leanne’s childhood was spent with a ball at her feet, and with her three siblings. While it soon became apparent that she had something very special, life growing up in Cavan was nothing out of the ordinary: school, knocking around the family pig farm, and trying her hand at any sport that came her way dominated her daily life.

Soccer wasn’t exactly on her radar from early doors; Gaelic football with the local club in Balieborough and athletics for Shercock AC were the main two before she found her true calling. The real memory John has though was the fact that she carried a football everywhere she went.

“From six or seven, a very young age, she always had a ball,” he smiles. “Everywhere she went, she was always kicking a ball. When she’d go and visit her cousins she’d bring the ball in the car. She was always like that.

“She was in Shercock at the running but she loved the Gaelic as well. It was always there. She was into all sorts of sports. Very active and always running, out and about. Gaelic was a big part of it. She played underage here in Bailieborough and she enjoyed it.”

Kerry trip In action for Balieborough at the John Egan tournament. Source: Tony O'Reilly.

Bailieborough Shamrocks started the club up in 2008, and Tony O’Reilly has fond memories of coaching Kiernan there and at county level. Such was her outstanding talent that she was playing for the U12s at the age of just nine.

A four-time Ulster club juvenile cross-country champion and a remarkably fast sprinter, Leanne’s athletics background really helped on the Gaelic pitch too.

“We used to play her inside, her pace was great,” O’Reilly recalls. “With the soccer, she’d be dribbling the ball along the ground, I’d be giving out to her…

Pick it up to f**k! Next thing she’d bury it in the net, and what could you say then?

“She had a great awareness, she had a great burst inside. She had lightning pace and we used to try and isolate her. She was full of confidence and she’d do the unexpected with a ball. She was buzzing with confidence. She was just outstanding.”

He tells brilliant stories from Community Games to Féile, to the first year of the John Egan tournament in which the side played in Fitzgerald Stadium in Killarney. She also graced the hallowed turf of Croke Park for a half-time game with the Cavan schools.

Two years of playing county with the U14s soon followed, but that coincided with her star rising more and more on the soccer scene.

***

A five-a-side game in her first year of secondary school was the first time Leanne properly played soccer. It was crystal clear from day one though that she was prodigiously talented. From there, she went to the nearby Kingscourt Harps where she played with the boys, and ran rings around them week on week in the North East Counties Schoolboys League (NECSL).

Screenshot 2019-05-03 at 19.00.29 Running for Shercock AC in 2011. Source: Shercock AC.

Extremely small in stature at the time, she soon made the Ulster U15 schoolgirls squad and was fast-tracked to the senior women’s team at Kingscourt where she starred around the middle for a brief period.

But soon after that, the FAI emerging talent programme came calling as she shone at the Gaynor Cup and the likes, and she made the switch to Shelbourne at 15. As bigger and better came thick and fast, any other sports soon had to be knocked on the head. 

John remembers an Ulster minor final, in which Bailieborough amalgamated with Knockbride to form Eastern Gaels and won, as the turning point.

“There was some trial for the Irish U16s at the time and she couldn’t go to the Ulster final,” he says. “I’d say that was the first time that there was a clash. After that, she stayed away from the Gaelic altogether. She couldn’t do the both, there wasn’t time with all the commitment.”

At a formative stage in her teenage years, all of the sport was brilliant for Leanne. She absolutely loved it, but not only that, it helped her in more ways than one could imagine.

Leanne was, in fact, coming to terms with something much more difficult than making a decision between soccer and Gaelic football. She was learning to deal with grief and loss.

*** 

While the Kiernans are synonymous with farming, the family were also big into rallying. Their two sons, Patrick and Gary, were mad into it — Gary still is — and it was a huge part of life at home. 

Kerry trip1 Scoring a goal in Fitzgerald Stadium. Source: Tony O'Reilly.

Leanne and Laura, as the younger sisters, were in awe of the two lads — Leanne, in particular. Ita shares priceless memories of Patrick, the eldest, rallying Leanne around the piggery every evening. She was only eight or nine at the time, but the joy on her face every time said it all.

Despite the age gap and the fact that she was the youngest and he was the eldest, the pair were as thick as thieves. And while Patrick, or Paddy as he was called by many, tried his hardest to get Leanne away from the football and into the rallying, she stood firm.

The Kiernans world fell apart in July 2013 when Patrick was killed in a car accident. He was just 23.

As with any loss, particularly when it’s someone gone too soon, it’s all still very raw. She didn’t have to speak about the heartbreaking loss at all, but through the tears evoked by those cherished memories, Ita offers a few touching words about her late son, and how Leanne continues to plays in his memory

“Our son Patrick is looking down on Leanne now this weekend,” the emotional mother says, as she breaks down over the phone. “Hopefully…”

This is about much more than football.

“She was very close to him. She has him in her locket around her neck over in England. I’m delighted…”

It’s only fair to move the conversation on as you can sense just how difficult it is for Ita to open up. And how difficult it has been through the years. But this really is more than just football for this family. 

Through the dark days, it was the shining light.

Leanne Kiernan scores the second goal of the game On the ball with Shelbourne in 2016. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Ita jokes that John is Leanne’s agent, but truth be told he is, and was, through those endless hours of driving up and down to Shelbourne when she made the big switch. Her progression brought comfort and hope through the family’s struggle.

***

The 180km round-trip to Dublin was done three or four times a week, leaving straight after school at 5pm and not landing home until 11pm with a two-hour session in between.

“Even when we went to Dublin first, they used to slag her because she brought the ball with her,” John laughs, picking up on earlier. Old habits die hard.

“She’d get out of the car for training but she’d have her own ball with her.”

On top of the sheer amount of driving and the intense training, there was the fact that even the two weekday evenings she wasn’t in the capital, she had strength and conditioning work to fulfill at home. When it came to that stage, there was no time for anything other than soccer.

The bit of school had to be done of course, but her Leaving Cert year was when she well and truly made her breakthrough. 

From a hat-trick in the Women’s FAI Cup final at the Aviva Stadium to announcing herself on the international stage in style, the list goes on when you look back at how amazing 2016 was on an individual level.

Leanne Kiernan celebrates scoring Celebrating scoring in the Aviva in 2016. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Her stellar performances with the Irish U19s and with the double champions brought a senior international call-up — and a goal on her debut — as her meteoric rise continued.

On that, Ita is keen to say a big thank you to Sue Ronan, the manager who handed Leanne her first start, which was a memorable one.

She’ll go the whole way, as Ronan said many times.

“She used to go and watch her when she was playing for Shelbourne and she had her picked for the Irish squad,” Ita explains. “She played under her for another few games and then she retired. It’s great. I’m delighted it worked out for Sue. 

“She saw something in Leanne. She was pleased that she had picked her up before her time leaving. I’m delighted that Leanne worked out for her.”

***

As she excelled, and broke down more and more barriers, talk of crossing the pond arose. 

After completing her Leaving Cert, Leanne earned a place in Ballyhaise Agricultural College where she continued her education and pursued her love for farming. The opportunity to follow her dream of playing football professionally was one she couldn’t turn down, and when West Ham came knocking, it was a no-brainer.

“I remember at Shelbourne, she talked about different clubs, different universities,” John recalls, “and at the time she said to me, ‘Look, I’d like to go over and have a look’. I said, ‘Yeah, just tell me whatever day and I’ll fly over’.

Leanne Kiernan celebrates scoring her sides first goal Celebrating a goal against Slovakia in Tallaght. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“We went to have a look at their facilities and she had a good feeling about them. Since she went over she’s been very happy. That was the biggest surprise we got. We thought she’d be homesick but never has been for one minute.

“Look, it’s all worked out for the best. We’re very happy and very proud of her. Hopefully it keeps going well for her.”

That’s been quite a surprise to those that know her: that she settled in so quickly to life in London. A homebird true and true before now, she’s taken it all in her stride and fits in seamlessly.

While she does miss the farming dearly, John is confident that she’ll be home over the summer to work on the land with the pigs. She needs to keep in touch, he says, despite the fact that she’s living the dream across the water.

“Our advice to her would have been to try and follow it to the best you possibly can,” her father adds. “She can come back and finish her education then at a later time.

“She might as well pursue it and see where it takes her. No different to any other parent, they want their child to be happy and that’s all we were interested in really. 

“West Ham have treated her really well and she’s very happy with them. They’re like a family. She’s very happy, we can’t believe how happy she is there. We appreciate everything that’s done for her, it’s been very good.”

Chelsea Women v West Ham United Women - FA Women's Super League - Kingsmeadow On the ball against Chelsea recently. Source: EMPICS Sport

And his wife echoes his words over and over, her pride in her daughter bursting through.

“I’m delighted for Leanne that it’s worked out well for her,” she smiles. “That everything else went her way and she’s happy.

“She’s happy, that’s all that counts at the end of the day. No matter what she’s doing, she’s happy. We’re delighted for her, delighted. And West Ham is very good to her, very good. We couldn’t ask for any more, it’s brilliant.”

***

The Hammers have had a superb first season in the Women’s Super League and today, they’ll round it off with a first-ever FA Cup final appearance against Manchester City in Wembley.

Leanne has been one of the stars of the show throughout their season — her debut one over there — and despite missing a stint through injury, she’s back to her brilliant best once again and banging in the goals.

Thankfully, Ita and John have been there to see plenty of them — as well as Gary and Laura — with the proud parents travelling over three times a month or so.

“We go over to a lot of games and it’s good interest for us as well,” John enthuses.

“We’ve had a lot of very good days going to matches, and we’re very proud of what she’s doing. She’s progressed so much. The way I look at it is she’s on a learning curve. She’s learning loads at West Ham, she’s learning loads with Ireland.”

Chelsea Women v West Ham United Women - FA Women's Super League - Kingsmeadow Kiernan will play a big part today. Source: EMPICS Sport

They’ve been over the last two Sundays in a row, leaving Cavan bright and early, flying over that morning for the match and returning the same night. Sure it’s as handy as going down the country for a game at this stage.

“We love to see her progression. But the main thing for us was she had to be happy. If she wasn’t happy, she wouldn’t have stayed there. That was a big thing. She’s very happy, and long may it last. If it stays like that and she’s injury free, Jesus, I think she’ll go further.”

Ita takes over, explaining her hatred of flying before now, and how much she’s turned that around and absolutely loves their near-weekly visits.

“I dreaded it. I couldn’t nearly go on holidays if I had to fly. I started and now I can’t be got off a plane!

“Three or four times in the month and we’re away. We love to see the games.

“The girls treat us like we’re their mother and father too because we’re over all the time. The other girls are from America and that so their parents wouldn’t get over at all. We’re treated as family to them, to all the lassies. It’s great.”

“If you don’t know these two, you mustn’t know me,” as Leanne posted on Instagram earlier this week alongside pictures with the pair.

Ita also tells of how the family recently gifted her an iPad that’s been an absolute godsend, her glowing personality coming through more and more with every story.

Screenshot 2019-05-03 at 22.12.24 Source: Leanne Kiernan Instagram.

Screenshot 2019-05-03 at 22.12.33 Source: Leanne Kiernan Instagram.

“The iPad, I’m keeping it busy now,” she grins. “They bought me it for Christmas and they’re mad now. They said we should have kept it in the shop, the head’s buried in it! 

“It’s great. FaceTime, social media and everything. It feels like she’s with you all the time at home, that she’s not away at all. It’s brilliant.”

***

With a group of 30 family and close friends heading over for the big game, thankfully the iPad won’t be needed on this occasion. Gary and Laura unfortunately can’t make the journey this time around, but with all of the action live on BBC, they’ll be glued to it. 

“A big occasion for Leanne and for us all, for everyone,” Ita beams. That it is. It’s huge.

And Leanne is ready for their invasion, with plenty of Kiernan 8 jerseys ready for her nearest and dearest, who flew out yesterday.

“We wouldn’t miss it,” John assures, as himself and his wife gear up to lead the way. “It’ll be a great occasion.”

Leanne’s footballing exploits have most definitely kept them going through the years, so how great would this be to put the cherry on top. She’s given them enough incredible days in her two decades thus far, but what about this, on the biggest stage possible. 

leanne Source: Leanne Kiernan Instagram.

A slight step up from Fitzgerald Stadium, John and Ita share their excitement to see Wembley in the flesh and everything that goes hand-in-hand with the occasion.

With the attendance record set at over 45,000 last year, 52,000 tickets had been sold and distributed mid-week so that bodes well for the crowd Leanne will strut her stuff in front of at the iconic venue this evening [KO 5.30pm].

But all that really counts at the end of the day is her beloved parents — two of the most important people in her life — watching on from the stands, her brother and sister tuning in to the television, and her guardian angel Patrick looking down from above.

Each and every step of the way.

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Emma Duffy

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