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'He lived the best life he could, he smiled every day and enjoyed everything. I take that into my life'

Death, grief, joy, elation: Leanne Kiernan has had to overcome a lot on her journey so far. Having recently turned 21, the Ireland and West Ham star reflects on her remarkable rise.

LEANNE KIERNAN DIDN’T have to do this. She didn’t have to open up on something she holds this close. So close that even some of her nearest and dearest had no idea until recently.

15 minutes or so after the record button is pressed, Patrick’s name is mentioned. A few days beforehand, Leanne shared a beautiful tribute to her late brother on what should have been his 30th birthday.

Delving deeper into mentality and mindset — both in sport and away from it — we talk about bad days coming with the good and dealing with tough times, and Patrick’s untimely death and this gorgeous tribute is touched on momentarily.

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𝙒𝙝𝙚𝙣 𝙩𝙤𝙢𝙤𝙧𝙧𝙤𝙬 𝙨𝙩𝙖𝙧𝙩𝙨 𝙬𝙞𝙩𝙝𝙤𝙪𝙩 𝙢𝙚 𝘼𝙣𝙙 𝙞’𝙢 𝙣𝙤𝙩 𝙝𝙚𝙧𝙚 𝙩𝙤 𝙨𝙚𝙚 𝙄𝙛 𝙩𝙝𝙚 𝙨𝙪𝙣 𝙨𝙝𝙤𝙪𝙡𝙙 𝙧𝙞𝙨𝙚 𝙖𝙣𝙙 𝙛𝙞𝙣𝙙 𝙮𝙤𝙪𝙧 𝙚𝙮𝙚𝙨 𝘼𝙡𝙡 𝙛𝙞𝙡𝙡𝙚𝙙 𝙬𝙞𝙩𝙝 𝙩𝙚𝙖𝙧𝙨 𝙛𝙤𝙧 𝙢𝙚. 𝙄 𝙬𝙞𝙨𝙝 𝙮𝙤𝙪 𝙬𝙤𝙪𝙡𝙙𝙣𝙩 𝙘𝙧𝙮 𝙏𝙝𝙚 𝙬𝙖𝙮 𝙮𝙤𝙪 𝙙𝙞𝙙 𝙩𝙤𝙙𝙖𝙮 𝙒𝙝𝙞𝙡𝙚 𝙩𝙝𝙞𝙣𝙠𝙞𝙣𝙜 𝙤𝙛 𝙩𝙝𝙚 𝙢𝙖𝙣𝙮 𝙩𝙝𝙞𝙣𝙜𝙨 𝙒𝙚 𝙙𝙞𝙙 𝙣𝙤𝙩 𝙜𝙚𝙩 𝙩𝙤 𝙨𝙖𝙮. 𝙄 𝙠𝙣𝙤𝙬 𝙝𝙤𝙬 𝙢𝙪𝙘𝙝 𝙮𝙤𝙪 𝙡𝙤𝙫𝙚 𝙢𝙚 𝘼𝙨 𝙢𝙪𝙘𝙝 𝙖𝙨 𝙞 𝙡𝙤𝙫𝙚 𝙮𝙤𝙪 𝙀𝙖𝙘𝙝 𝙩𝙞𝙢𝙚 𝙩𝙝𝙖𝙩 𝙮𝙤𝙪 𝙩𝙝𝙞𝙣𝙠 𝙤𝙛 𝙢𝙚 𝙄 𝙠𝙣𝙤𝙬 𝙮𝙤𝙪 𝙬𝙞𝙡𝙡 𝙢𝙞𝙨𝙨 𝙢𝙚 𝙩𝙤𝙤. 𝙎𝙤 𝙬𝙝𝙚𝙣 𝙩𝙤𝙢𝙤𝙧𝙧𝙤𝙬 𝙨𝙩𝙖𝙧𝙩𝙨 𝙬𝙞𝙩𝙝𝙤𝙪𝙩 𝙢𝙚 𝘿𝙤 𝙣𝙤𝙩 𝙩𝙝𝙞𝙣𝙠 𝙬𝙚’𝙧𝙚 𝙖𝙥𝙖𝙧𝙩 𝙁𝙤𝙧 𝙚𝙫𝙚𝙧𝙮 𝙩𝙞𝙢𝙚 𝙮𝙤𝙪 𝙩𝙝𝙞𝙣𝙠 𝙤𝙛 𝙢𝙚 𝙍𝙚𝙢𝙚𝙢𝙗𝙚𝙧 𝙞’𝙢 𝙧𝙞𝙜𝙝𝙩 𝙝𝙚𝙧𝙚 𝙞𝙣 𝙮𝙤𝙪𝙧 𝙝𝙚𝙖𝙧𝙩. 𝙃𝙖𝙥𝙥𝙮 𝙗𝙞𝙧𝙩𝙝𝙙𝙖𝙮 𝙋𝙖𝙙𝙙𝙮 30𝙩𝙝 𝙩𝙤𝙙𝙖𝙮 💛

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It’s made clear to Leanne that she doesn’t have to talk about this. She could just ignore the mention of this specific and continue speaking in general terms. But no.

She’s willing to share this part of her story. Grief and loss is unfortunately part of her colourful journey, but through it all, football was a constant.

______

Leanne Kiernan was always destined for the big stage. So much so that her father, John, once told her that she’d be on the Ireland senior team at 18. She did it at 17.

She had it all. She was gifted natural ability and raw talent but backed it up with work ethic, competitiveness and determination to succeed. Or stubbornness, as she puts it. She always wanted to do better, no matter what it was she threw her hand at.

Growing up on the family farm in Cavan, there was always a ball at her feet. Her potential as a Gaelic footballer shone through from an early age and she also impressed on the athletics scene, but soccer soon took over. Having started out with the boys team in her local club of Bailieborough Celtic, she then moved up the ranks with Kingscourt Harps.

“What a team that was,” the 21-year-old smiles down a FaceTime call from just a couple of miles away on Cavan soil. Not only was she the only girl on the team, she was the only girl in the league. There was no doubt that Kiernan had something special.

Her time there was forced to end at U14 level, and destined for bigger and better, a teacher at Bailieborough Community School encouraged Kiernan to follow her potential and ultimately got her and three others involved with the Ulster U15 schoolgirls squad.

“Sure I thought it was great,” she grins. “We missed a whole day of school to go and play football.” But it opened many more doors. She caught the eye of Irish scouts and they soon came calling for underage international trials.

Without a club at the time though, Kiernan couldn’t go.

That problem was soon solved when she joined Dublin outfit Shelbourne at the age of 15. Thrown in at the deep end, her own age group had a full squad so this “blow-in” had many different adopted teams before she finally settled and signed her first senior contract.

Around the same time, she knew she had to say goodbye to her beloved Gaelic football.

leanne-kiernan Leanne Kiernan has starred for Ireland over the past few years. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Kiernan — who also played underage football with Cavan — was loving every second of a magical club minor campaign, but the Ulster final date clashed with an international trial she had to attend every year.

“I had to pick it because obviously if I picked the Gaelic they’d be like, ‘She has no interest,’” she frowns.

I knew whichever I picked that day, I’d stay with. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the Gaelic and winning the Ulster final even though I remember all I was worried about during the trial was did we fecking win the game!”

She would never have admitted that at the time. Looking back, it was a bittersweet day.

Meanwhile, her star rose and rose on the association football scene. It was almost a whirlwind. She made every single Ireland youth team and really announced herself on the biggest stage by scoring a hat-trick in the Aviva Stadium as Shels won the 2016 FAI Cup final.

Her Leaving Cert year also saw her rewarded with a senior international call-up — and a goal on her debut. She did what her father told her she would do a year premature. That story is a brilliant one.

“He turned around to me one day and he goes, ‘I guarantee you any money that you’ll be on the senior team at 18,’” Kiernan recalls, progressing well with the Ireland U17s and U19s at the time.

I looked at him and to be honest, I laughed. I was like, ‘Not a hope’ because you wouldn’t think it at that age. I’m the the type of one that would be like, ‘No, I need to do better than this.’ I’d never be like, ‘Jesus, I’m actually alright.’”

Understandably, it gave her great satisfaction to turn around and tell her father he was wrong. That first cap was an incredibly proud moment for the family, a family who had been through so much in the preceding years.

______

In July 2013, the Kiernans world fell apart when Patrick was killed in a car accident.

Gone far too soon, he was just 23. Days after what should have been his 30th birthday, Leanne opened up on this part of her story for the first time. Before her involvement in the 2019 FA Cup final with West Ham, her parents, John and Ita, touched on it in an interview with The42 but it’s something Leanne has never really spoken about in this capacity.

The loss of her brother is something she holds close, and that’s perfectly understandable.

But she’s happy to let down her guard as we talk about how football has always been a constant through tough times. 

“I suppose it was kind of like my space that I could go and do myself,” she explains.

Screenshot 2020-06-05 at 19.32.09 Leanne with her parents, John and Ita. Source: Leanne Kiernan Instagram.

“It’s quite easy to ignore things too, which isn’t healthy either. And I feel like only now, I’m probably dealing with some of the shit that would have happened. But I definitely feel like football has helped me along the way massively.

“You forget about everything when you’re playing or when I’m training and it’s quite nice.

I’ve been very busy the last few years and especially after the accident and that, it was a very tough time. Football kind of kept my parents focusing on something else too, which was nice.

“Everybody was always interested in seeing how I was doing and it was kind of nice to get the focus back to a positive kind of thing.”

Patrick, or Paddy as he was called by many, was the eldest of the four siblings while Leanne was the youngest. The two shared a special bond, and were brought even closer together by their common love for farming and rallying.

Last year, Ita shared priceless memories of Paddy rallying Leanne around the piggery every evening and how the smile on the youngest sister’s face said it all. They really were as thick as thieves.

Leanne knows that her older brother is with her every step of the way and she wants to make him proud every single day.

“Even like if I score a goal, I feel like I done that for him,” she smiles. “I know that sounds a bit crazy but it’s the way I think.

“It’s probably something I wouldn’t be openly talking about. Actually my best friend, my closest friend that I made in the two years that I was in West Ham had no idea until she seen that post the other day.

I’m not one to kind of like, throw my life issues on somebody. I know it happened, it’s not that I’m forgetting about it but I bring all the happy memories with me and pray that nothing like that ever would happen again.

“Football definitely has helped. It’s a good distraction, and it kind of drives me to want to do better. Everybody’s like, ‘What’s your inspiration?’ And I’m like, ‘Ah, I’m not sure,’ but really, I know it’s him. I just wouldn’t want to bring it up, you know.”

She doesn’t want this tragic circumstance to be the reason why she is where she is, she doesn’t want it to define her or for people to feel sorry for her. That’s probably why she doesn’t talk about it a whole lot.

“That would be a massive thing for me. I would hate that whole thing on my head, that, ‘Ah, that’s Leanne, we feel sorry [for her]…’ I don’t want that. I want to make it for myself.”

west-ham-united-v-brighton-and-hove-albion-fa-womens-super-league-rush-green-stadium During a WSL game in January. Source: EMPICS Sport

Well, that she certainly has. She’s absolutely made it for herself but she acknowledges that Paddy was a huge part of her life and his unfortunate passing was a big part of her journey.

He is always in her heart.

Yes, for sure. And like, he lived the best life he could and he smiled every day and enjoyed everything like. I doubt he had many regrets,” she beams, with a giggle as the memories of his mischief come flooding back. “I take that into my life.

“He lived the best life that he could live and unfortunately he didn’t get too many years of it,” Leanne adds, her voice breaking slightly as her emotions take over before she pulls herself together again, “but I’d like to bring that in.

“Obviously, there’s bad days, but when you think about it, it could be a lot worse. I’m healthy and I’m well and I want to make the most of it and do everybody proud, including myself.”

______

There’s no doubt about it, Leanne Kiernan is making everybody — and herself — proud every single day. Her footballing exploits came as a glimmer of light in a truly dark time for her family and community.

Her progression brought comfort and hope through this struggle.

John and Leanne completed the 180km round-trip from Bailieborough to Dublin three or four times a week, and that kept the show on the road through school.

After completing her Leaving Cert, Kiernan followed her love for farming to Ballyhaise Agricultural College and thoroughly enjoyed her time there while pursuing a football career in the Women’s National League.

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But the calling from elsewhere came once again. In the form of a club by the familiar name of West Ham.

“I never really took going abroad into my head at all,” Kiernan picks up. “Like, I always dreamt of going, but I never really thought about it enough to think I’d actually go.

I got the call and to be honest, I put down the phone and I was like, ‘Nah, I don’t think I’m interested.’ My Dad was like, ‘Leanne, would you not think about it?’ I was like, ‘I think I have and I don’t think it’s for me.’ He was like, ‘But you haven’t thought about it at all.’ I was like, ‘Right, sure we might head over.’”

There were serious doubts though: she was loving life in Ballyhaise, her loyalties lay with Shels because they had brought her so far and she didn’t want to leave them — especially not mid-season.

But after a day in London with her father, everything changed.

“To be honest, it blew my mind; like the facilities they had, what they had to offer, how professional the environment was and I was like, ‘Jesus.’ Bear in mind when I left on the plane, I was not going. When I came home, I was like I’m definitely going to stay there.”

leanne-kiernan-celebrates-scoring-her-sides-first-goal-with-katie-mccabe Celebrating a goal with Katie McCabe in April 2018. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

It wasn’t long before she was back over in the English capital, living that childhood dream. Football became her full-time job and she was thrown into a sink-or-swim environment at the age of 19.

Then-Ireland manager Colin Bell had her well prepared for the switch of mindset. He played a big part in weathering her for the storm that was to come and helped her with the move across the water.

“He told me that I’d be three or four months in and I still mightn’t be settled, that it would take the full six,” she reflects. “To be honest, I’d say it was four months and I still wasn’t sure about it. I did enjoy it, but I wasn’t sure. It’s hard to get to the pace of things, like it’s complete different jump from the league in Ireland.”

Kiernan reckons it took her six months to get used to being closed down milliseconds after she got on ball. There was no time or space to look up and play around, unlike before. Max two touches or you’d get two-footed.

She learned quickly though and called on her competitive and stubborn side quite a lot. Self-belief was hugely important too, both on and off the pitch as she adjusted to this new life away from home.

“I know it’s easier said than done,” she adds. “Everybody goes to college and moves out of home but you can’t go back every weekend to see your parents or see your friends that you’re comfortable with.

There was an awful lot of girls that couldn’t speak our language. They had more of an idea what was going on than I did. But look, I made the best friends out of it. I definitely have friends for life.”

While she’s thoroughly enjoying her time at the Hammers now, it hasn’t always been easy. After a successful individual debut season, she struggled with injury and other personal problems last summer and at one stage, was unsure if she’d ever play football again.

Mindset and mentality has been huge in helping her cross those challenging hurdles, both in football and away from it.

She writes down reflections at the end of the day and sets goals. “Thick” if she doesn’t perform in training, the FAI 2019 Player of the Year picks one skill to hone every week, whether that be working on her first touch, crossing or shooting with the assistant coach or fitness with the strength and conditioning coach.

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....and smile :)

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She plays her best football when she’s at her happiest, so works on herself off the pitch too and is always one to spread positivity now.

“Once I’m kept busy, my mentality is quite good. If I’m focused, I’m doing all right. When you’re not in a good place, or you’re putting too much pressure on yourself, you’ll see you’ll never perform well.

“The manager actually pulled me aside one day and he was like, ‘Leanne, you’re playing with the weight of the world on your shoulders’ and he was right. I was so tensed up because I expected so much out of I myself.

“When I actually started to relax more in the training sessions and everything and I got to express myself more, I was a lot happier and my football was an awful lot better.

Obviously, everybody has a bad days, including myself, and it’s just accepting that it’s a bad day, moving on and taking the positives out of your day and bringing them to the next day… and sometimes it can become a bad week.

“But there’s always something to look forward to in the future. That’s what I look at. Even if I have a bad session or if I’m a bad mood or if I miss home, I know that I can do what I love to do and I can try do it better the next day because you always get a second chance at it, thank God.”

Kiernan knows where she can get to with football and is determined to fulfil her potential wherever it brings her, but she’ll never lose sight of why she plays.

She loves the game, end of story. And sometimes she has to remind herself of that in the changing room before a big game. She blocks everything else out and asks the simple question.

“I just bring it back to, ‘Why do I play?’ I tell myself, ‘Because I love the game.’

I’ve loved it from a very young age. And yeah, it’s great where I got to, but if the love’s not there, I’ll never be happy in what I’m doing. I just kind of bring it back to: I actually really like what I’m doing and that’s why I’m going to go out and enjoy myself.”

______

There was a time last year when her relationship with football was fractured. It was hanging on by a thread, almost. There was much more behind what appeared as an extended summer break from West Ham and an absence from the Ireland camp.

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

Looking back now, it’s nice to take stock of how far she’s come in such a short space of time, returning to star with both club and country.

“It’s probably been a year now since I kind of was injured, a bit sick and wasn’t well,” Kiernan says. “It’s mad. I was always involved with Ireland all the time, and for me to be like, ‘No, I’m not able to go in this camp,’ or, ‘I don’t think I want to go in that camp…’ I knew there was something wrong.

“But I’m really happy with where I’ve got to now. I have my friends and family around me at home, I’m just in really good spirits now and really looking forward to September for Germany. I actually feel really positive and really ready to get back with Ireland, which is quite nice.”

She remembers the feeling of putting the green jersey back on last October and running onto the pitch against Ukraine.

“I got on but I don’t think I kicked the ball. Usually I really want to be involved, 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.”

The smile on the screen at that moment summed it up, just like the one when we met after that Ukraine match. It meant so much. After her late return to West Ham, Kiernan found it hard to get back into the swing of things but went on to have another impressive season.

Everything has been on the up ever since, minus this Covid-19 enforced break. With football nearing its return, though, she’s in flying form. While the Women’s Super League [WSL] campaign ended this month, she’s returning to her London base in the coming weeks for pre-season with Ireland’s Euro qualifiers coming sooner rather than later too.

“I feel I’m very good to go back now,” she grins, minutes away from cracking into her individual pre-pre-season schedule set by West Ham strength and conditioning coach and fellow Cavan native Colm Smith, “and I’m really looking forward to that.

“It’s nice to have something to focus on. I suppose when I came home first, nobody knew if the league was going to go ahead or not. 

I trained hard for the last three months for… I know it’s not for nothing but like to not get back which is quite a downer. But I’ve taken my two-and-a-half weeks off there and I feel totally refreshed.

“At least I have stuff to focus on, I know I can be flying fit for September and I know we’re back. I think we’re starting pre-season in July, so I’ll hopefully be fit and have a great season then.”

west-ham-united-v-brighton-and-hove-albion-fa-womens-super-league-rush-green-stadium Facing Brighton & Hove Albion before the season ended. Source: EMPICS Sport

“I know what I can get from it now and I know where I could be if I really put my head down and work hard,” she adds. “So I’m hopefully going to do that and get further this year. I’d like to have some goals for myself for this year, not to just like be there.”

Through lockdown, she’s been busy on the family farm with her sister Laura and brother Gary while the Kiernan household has turned into a “zoo” with new dogs and all sorts on the loose. She’s enjoyed every minute of her time at home and is happy to be kept ticking over on the farm, getting a good kick out of her siblings and parents each and every day.

Spending time with family and friends from home has been most welcome — she met some former Shelbourne team-mates day before our conversation — but she jokes that she’s more than ready to go back to London now.

To continue her journey, and to write the next chapter.

Kiernan is not one to dwell on the past or reflect a whole pile, but she does acknowledge that she’s come a hell of a long way in such a short space of time. She takes life day-by-day but her 21st birthday recently was a nice milestone and opportunity to take a step back and be grateful for everything, and everyone, in her life.

“I’ve kind of learned to live in the moment though,” she concedes.

While she hoped to follow in her sister’s footsteps and replicate the big 21st party she had last year, a more low-key family dinner had to make do for now.

But truth be told, Leanne Kiernan couldn’t have been happier, surrounded by those closest to her. And keeping in mind that special someone who was missing from around the table.

– First published 07.30, 6 June

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Emma Duffy

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