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'It's been a long time coming' - Passion burns on and off the field as Bohs braced for WNL bow

The history-making side’s captain, Niamh Kenna, is back in the top-flight after a six-year hiatus.

Bohemians captain Niamh Kenna.
Bohemians captain Niamh Kenna.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

A HISTORIC DAY for Bohemian FC.

Today, the Dubliners line out in the Women’s National League [WNL] for the first time.

Overdue, some may say, but it’s certainly testament to the trojan work done at the club over the past few years.

“Bohs are a bit late to the party when it comes to women’s football but great strides have been made in the bid to catch up in a short space of time,” as an article from the club’s website in April 2019 read ahead of the U17 side’s first appearance at national level.

“The club made a concerted effort to build a girls section at the start of 2018 and now has six girls teams from U9 to U16.”

Here they are, set to achieve the main goal of fielding a senior team in the WNL.

And they’re not just here to take part, says captain Niamh Kenna, with a huge opening day challenge ahead in the form of 2017 and 2018 champions and FAI Cup holders Wexford Youths [KO 6.30pm].

“There’s a buzz around the club at the moment,” she tells The42. “I think it’s been a long time coming, both for the club and for the players themselves.

“We’re definitely looking forward to getting going. Wexford was a big draw for us, obviously a tough game for the first game of the season but the girls are excited and looking forward to the challenge. We can’t wait to get going.”

To wear the Bohs jersey into battle for the first time is an honour and a privilege for Clondalkin native Kenna, made even more special by some of the messaging it promotes.

Earlier this week, the ever-progressive club announced its latest initiative which will see the side raise awareness for Dublin’s homeless. Throughout the season, Kenna and her team will wear jerseys featuring the Inner City Helping Homelessness (ICHH) logo. 

Of late, Bohs have done plenty to highlight inequality within the LGBTQ community and direct provision, and this new initiative is just another reason why Kenna is proud to be involved. 

“The club is absolutely incredible,” she nods. “This is a great initiative. They really want to get involved in the community and they asked if we’d like to do the same and I’m so proud to.

“They’re brilliant, we’re blessed and they’ve really given us everything we’ve asked for and needed. They’re great in the community. I’m really proud to put that jersey on and play for the badge.”

unnamed (4) Sisters Jessica and Chloe Darby model the ICHH/Bohemians WNL kit. Source: Stephen McCarthy/SPORTSFILE

26 now, football has always been a constant in Kenna’s life. While she’s looking forward to getting stuck in at the top level once again after a six-year hiatus, she’s also happy to look back through the years. Back to the start, to where it all began.

“I started with a boys’ team, as we all did, until U13s,” she grins, explaining how it all went from there. Her love grew, and her star rose as she proceeded to climb the ranks with Peamount United.

At 21 or so, she took a step back.

“Obviously then Peamount went National League and I couldn’t give that commitment at that time,” she explains, with a stint at Shamrock Rovers following before she started playing at a lower level for St John Bosco.

“I was very young. I think it all got a bit too much for me to be honest. With college and work as well, it was all too much so I took a step back and I was just enjoying it over the last few years; playing with your friends, getting a bit of confidence back up.

“I started working on myself then a lot more off the pitch in terms of gym and diet. I felt like I was definitely ready — or just fit enough this year, to go back and give it one more go. Getting older, you grow in confidence and obviously I wasn’t as nervous then going back.”

At the beginning of this year, she trained with DLR Waves during pre-season, and even travelled with the team to play a friendly match against Celtic — “it was unreal,” she enthuses, “it’s just a different lifestyle over there, they live and breathe football. It was great for the younger players to see where they could go, and give them something to drive towards. That was a great opportunity, I was blessed to go over” — before departing the set-up.

With no shortage of other talented midfielders around her, Kenna didn’t think she’d get in where she wanted to so she happily returned to her beloved John Bosco.

But then Bohs came calling.

“It was a perfect opportunity,” she smiles.

“A bit of a shock to the system going back though, because you get used to having so much time on the ball playing in the lower leagues and running wild, but you obviously have a lot less time on the ball when you come back to this league.

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“It was a shock to the system, and it was tough at the beginning obviously.”

But having Sean Byrne, who steered Raheny United — now Shelbourne — to league glory in 2013/14, at the helm has certainly helped her adjust once again.

barretstown-unveiled-as-charity-partner-to-womens-national-league Kenna is Bohs' captain. Source: Stephen McCarthy/SPORTSFILE

And the former League of Ireland player has helped with much more than just that through this new chapter — in which lockdown and the league’s postponement almost came as a “blessing in disguise” for Bohs, as everyone was still getting to know each others’ names and positions having just been put together as a team.

“Players were coming from all over the place so it took a while to gel,” Kenna says. “I think we’re really fortunate to have Sean.

“The younger girls, he has a great way with them and everybody is learning a lot from him which helps with gelling the team. I have to say all of the staff are great, all the management are absolutely fantastic and we’re learning a lot from them so we’re lucky in that way.”

“We have a good few senior girls in now,” she adds, delving deeper into the set-up as a whole.

“At the beginning, there was only one or two of us but there’s a good few now. We have the likes of Sinead O’Farrelly, Shauna Newman and Sophie Watters. It’s great to have them around for the younger girls.

“I think the younger girls really look up to them and are learning a lot from them. Obviously the senior girls are there to put an arm around the younger girls when things aren’t going their way. It’s a good mixture at the moment.

“The younger girls are really challenging themselves. I’ve been really impressed from the beginning of the season, and I think there’s going to be a few standout players there for years to come.”

Feeling fitter and stronger herself after the lay-off, Kenna is looking forward to getting back on the field and doing what she loves. Luckily, though, she has something else away from football she is just as passionate about in teaching.

After completing her undergraduate degree on a soccer scholarship in Maynooth University, she was still uncertain over what she wanted to pursue.

“I knew I wanted to go into the area of special needs but I wasn’t sure if I wants to be an SNA or a primary school teacher,” Kenna picks up.

“I worked as an SNA in Gaelscoils for two years, and that hit the nail on the head then, I decided, ‘No, I definitely want to be a primary school teacher.’”

Currently halfway through the two-year Hibernia College course, she’s balancing online studies — which she generally has no trouble with as she’s a self-confessed “self-motivator” — with substitute teaching, and is enjoying every minute. 

fai-womens-national-league-charity-partner-announcement WNL club captains ahead of the league kick-off. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“I absolutely love it. I love my job. Going to work every day, it doesn’t feel like work. I’m blessed to be in the position I am.

“I’m working as a teacher until half two, three o’clock every day and then home to do the college work and then training afterwards so yeah, time management-wise it’s a bit of a struggle but when you want to do something as much as I want to be a primary teacher, it comes easy.”

And that’s the same with football.

Kenna wholeheartedly agrees.

“If you want to do it, you work hard and if you’re not willing to work hard, you don’t deserve it,” she concludes.

“I absolutely love it. I live and breathe football. If I’m not training or playing, I’m out watching another team in the Leinster senior league. We live and breathe football in this house anyway.”

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Emma Duffy

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