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'It’s quite nice playing football with a smile on my face' - Kiernan set for 'cup final' with Ireland

The 21-year-old West Ham star is gearing up for one of the biggest games of her young career.

kiernan Leanne Kiernan. Source: SPORTSFILE.

A FEW DAYS out from one of the biggest games in Irish women’s football history, and arguably the biggest game of her young, but hugely successful career, Leanne Kiernan is in flying form.

Not long off a flight and having just joined the squad for a training camp in their German base of Duisgburg ahead of Friday’s decisive Euro 2022 qualifier against Ukraine in Kiev, the 21-year-old settles in to face the music: a video call with the Irish media.

The first topic of conversation is her Women’s Super League exploits with West Ham.

Though she didn’t feature yesterday as the Hammers were beaten 4-2 by a star-studded Manchester United side, Kiernan is more than pleased to find herself where she is after a meteoric rise.

“Its great to be playing against the best,” she enthuses. “As a young one growing up, I always wanted to play against the best so I can’t complain. I’m really enjoying it over there, it’s really nice that every game is competitive. Every team has individual talent.

“This is my third year in the league. The standard has gone up massively since I came in, even the hype behind the league. People are saying it’s one of the best in the world. It’s really nice to be involved, you know.”

She grins when a certain beautiful free-kick, courtesy of her captain Katie McCabe, yesterday is pointed out. “Banger, eh?”

“It’s great for Katie to be putting Ireland on the map with them type of goals. Hopefully soon I can do the same, eh? It’s great publicity for the Irish national team and great for her confidence coming in to captain Ireland to hopefully a historic game.”

12 months after Ireland and Ukraine first met in this campaign, the sides go head-to -head with much more on the line this time around. A win or a draw guarantees Ireland a playoff spot, at least, as they bid to qualify for a first-ever major tournament. They’re currently Group I runners-up, and Ukraine — seven points adrift –are their main second-place rivals.

In Vera Pauw’s first game in charge last October, Ireland stunned the group’s second seeds and beat them 3-2 in front of a record crowd at Tallaght Stadium.

That night was a special one for so many reasons, one of them being Kiernan’s return to the international stage. After a turbulent time with injury and what not, she pulled on the green jersey once again and made a brief cameo at the end.

“I got on but I don’t think I kicked the ball,” as she recalled to The42 in June. “I got maybe 10 minutes and I just hugged my Dad after and I was like, ‘I can’t believe I was on this pitch tonight.’

“Little did I know a few months before that I’d ever kick a ball again, the way I was feeling, you know? Life’s a rollercoaster and you have to ride it.”

vera-pauw-celebrates-after-the-game-with-leanne-kiernan Kiernan with Pauw after that Ukraine game. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

A year on with plenty more minutes under her belt, she’s thoroughly enjoying her football and is absolutely raring to go.

“It’s quite nice playing football with a smile on my face, I must say,” a beaming Kiernan said today.

“I’m really enjoying it. Obviously with Covid, it’s been a bit restricted these days but it is what it is. I’m enjoying my football with club and country, and enjoying my time in with Ireland.”

With the Girls in Green on the brink of history and women’s football on these shores edging towards new heights, Kiernan is determined to continue playing a big role on this journey.

After the attacker’s runs down the wing were a thorn in all-conquering Germany’s side last time out, she’ll look to do the same against Ukraine should she get the nod. And she knows exactly what’s at stake.

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“As Vera said, this is like a cup final. Of course it is because we know how much this means, the history of getting to a play-off, so we’re all looking forward to it.

“We’ve beaten Ukraine before so we know it’s possible. But we also know what’s to lose so we’ve to get ahead from the start. It will be a tough game on their home turf but we’ll go into it full of confidence.

“I believe in the group of girls we have here and I think that we’ve a great chance.”

The Balieborough native is well aware, too, of the job at hand when it comes to their eastern European opponents, who stand between Ireland and a lifelong dream.

“They underestimated us in Tallaght and hopefully we can show them again that they shouldn’t underestimate us. We have more players abroad now in some of the best leagues in the world.”

“I just stick to the basics,” she added on her own preparation, with finishing the skill she’ll concentrate on this week as Ireland need to hit the back of the net.

“In training, do the simple things and stay switched on. It’s about becoming a sponge by listening to everything Vera has to say. Hopefully, we’ll take that into the game and that will get us through.

“We believe in Vera and hopefully she can get us through. We’re all behind her.” 

leanne-kiernan Kiernan is eying history with Ireland. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Feeling positive after a promising second half in Germany in which they kept arguably the best team in the world scoreless, and after a bright campaign to date, a draw is needed, but Kiernan knows a win would be a massive confidence booster going forward.

With one game to go after Friday — Germany in Tallaght in December — automatic qualification is certainly still on the cards, as the three best runners-up automatically join the group winners in the finals tournament in England.

While securing a playoff spot, at least, is the main goal, Kiernan won’t shy away from dreaming big as pressure and expectations build over the coming days. 

“We don’t have that out of our minds as well. We have to realistic too and definitely think we’ve a chance of qualifying both ways. Let’s just hope for the best. It’s a massive game for Ireland, a cup final.

“We’ve never qualified for a major tournament and this is probably our best chance. Every one of the girls is on board on that, we realise what’s to lose so we’ll be going for it.”

“There’s always a bit of pressure because it’s an historic game but that’s why we play,” she concluded. “We want to be there on the big days and get the big results.”

A big day is exactly what Friday is. And monumental, it could be.

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About the author:

Emma Duffy

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