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Returning to lift two All-Ireland titles after a seven-year absence starring at soccer

Dublin star and ex-Ireland international Siobhán Killeen has no regrets after the big switch – and how could she?

SIOBHÁN KILLEEN FINISHED 2018 with two All-Ireland medals. Not bad considering she had only resurrected her love for Gaelic football that March after a seven-year hiatus.

Dublin v Donegal - Lidl Ladies NFL Division 1 Round 1 Siobhán Killeen. Source: Piaras Ó Mídheach/SPORTSFILE

Bringing the curtain down on an extremely successful soccer career, which included plenty of international action — whether that be temporarily or for the long haul — to chase the All-Ireland dream with Dublin. From a spectator to a key forward with All-Ireland winning club and county teams, it’s been a whirlwind year for the 25-year-old.

It’d be hard to pick a highlight: that initial moment of donning the Sky Blue jersey for the first time since 2011, that glorious day in Parnell Park as Dublin lifted their first-ever Division 1 league title, that rainy December night at the same venue where she kicked 5-4 to seal All-Ireland glory with Clontarf, or perhaps climbing the steps of the Hogan Stand after the watching on and missing out.

Don’t be wronged, it was no easy decision to step away from the soccer. Through the years, Killeen had starred for Raheny United, Shelbourne and Ireland, representing any team she played on with distinction while living the dream; well, so she thought.

She has absolutely no regrets though in leaving that life behind her, and that’s the main thing.

***

It’s Friday, 1 February 2019. A new dawn, a new day, as back-to-back All-Ireland champions Dublin are preparing to open their new season under Saturday Night Lights in Croke Park. A defeat to Donegal ensued, but that fixture wasn’t the purpose of our conversation. There was plenty more to discuss.

At work at the time, Killeen plies her trade as a radiographer in the Mater Hospital. She’s enthusiastic as she explains her role: she’s been there since graduating from UCD in 2016, there’s a lot of overtime and she seems to work all the hours God sends. She even worked the morning of the club All-Ireland final.

She loves it though. It’s clear to see that she loves everything she does.

“This time last year I was watching the girls in the double-header in Croke Park with my Dad,” she begins, and you can almost hear her smiling down the phone from the hospital changing room on her break. “12 months on to be involved, it’s really special.

“It was the start of March last year where I took a step away from soccer and took a gamble with the Gaelic. It’s all paid off thankfully.”

No regrets.

“Definitely not. Last season was a fairytale, everything about it was just brilliant.”

She casts her mind back to Sunday, 24 September 2017. The day the Dubs finally got over the line after three years of All-Ireland final hurt and heartbreak. Killeen remembers it as well as yesterday; the 46,286 attendance, the late goals, the euphoric celebrations as she watched on from the stand; understandably slightly envious.

Dublin players celebrates with the Brendan Martin Cup The Dubs celebrate in 2017. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

What could have been.

She played alongside a good chunk of the girls through her teens, right up until the 2011 All-Ireland minor final. That was her last outing before throwing her lot in with the soccer. 

“There was always that… not envy of them, but Gaelic is that bit further ahead than the soccer in terms of the support,” she continues. “To be in Croker that day with the crowd, it was exceptional.

“I was sitting close to the families and a lot of parents I had known since I was a kid were there — I remember celebrating with Dee Murphy’s family and Sarah McCaffrey’s family after the whistle. Siobhán Woods lives directly across the road from me so it was great to get supporting them. I really enjoyed the day for the girls.”

It left her wanting though. Perhaps added a little water to the seed that was already in her head as the idea of switching sports began to grow.

After also stepping away from the club scene all those years ago, the Raheny native’s life was completely immersed in soccer, as it had been for the past few years. Proceedings continued in that manner as she started pre-season with Shelbourne in January.

As the days  weeks passed, that idea grew and grew and two weeks before the Women’s National League (WNL) season kicked off, she sat down with the Dublin manager and her Clontarf clubman, Mick Bohan.

“It was a hard decision because I had obviously worked so hard with Shelbourne in pre-season and I felt like I was stepping away at a really important time for them. It was tough to walk away from them but all the girls were so supportive.

“You’re afraid… well, not that I was afraid. It could have went a lot different for me, the year,” she smiles in hindsight.

“I could have ended up with pie on my face having left soccer, and left them at a very tough time at the start of the season to try something else. If that didn’t work out, I was afraid would they take me back if it didn’t.”

Her former team-mates have been nothing but encouraging ever since, turning out for game after game through Killeen’s budding Gaelic career. Her debut day nerves were eased when she saw them after kicking 0-2 from the bench against Kerry, a sure sign that they they ‘agreed with the decision’. They also turned out in force for both All-Ireland finals, and she’s returned the favour. 

There’s a mutual understanding.

Siobhan Killeen On the ball in the Aviva with Shels in 2016. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“I’m kind of at the age where I’ve done everything I wanted with soccer,” she explains.

“I was happy with what I had, and the one thing I didn’t have was any senior medals for inter-county. That was just something; while I’m somewhat still of age to learn new things and better myself, I just wanted to give it everything.” 

Self-admitted, Killeen is the type of person that if she’s doing something, she gives it 100%. Hence the decision to completely step away from club football too, and the ultimate conclusion to choose one beloved sport over the other.

The beginning

With older brothers, she was always out and about playing football with them and that’s where the love for both games started. From there, it was off to local teams and while there were no girls’ teams in Raheny at the time, she played both Gaelic and soccer with 2018 Footballer of the Year Brian Fenton for years. 

She also played club football with Scoil Uí Chonaill when she reached the age of girls-only and then back to Raheny for a bit before packing it in. A bit of a soccer player like that, she smirks, while she lined out on that front with Raheny United until they amalgamated with Shelbourne in 2o15.

At the same time, her international career was thriving as she powered through the underage ranks, making waves at U17 level in particular as she helped Ireland to the 2010 World Cup finals.

Balancing both was easy through school but in Leaving Cert year, she knew she had to pick one.

“With the Irish team at the time, we were flying away every month. I couldn’t afford to necessarily give my attention and time to two things, I had to pick the soccer.

“We were playing quite competitively with the soccer at the time, with Raheny and with Shelbourne. We were playing in the Champions League and everything seemed to just go really well with soccer. That’s probably why I went that way.”

“There was a load of us playing both,” she continues of that Irish U17 team, name-checking Galway’s Dora Gorman and Donegal duo Ciara Grant and Niamh McLaughlin.

“I suppose I was 17, 18, playing in Trinidad and Tobago and Miami for a month, they were bringing us to Spain for training camps or I was going to Offaly to play a Gaelic match. Unfortunately at that age, they’re the kind of things that can sway you.”

She thinks back to that All-Ireland minor final loss to Cork, and ending the inter-county football dream on a sour note.

Siobhan Killeen With Ireland in 2014. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

“I was devastated after because I kind of knew that was going to be my last game. ‘I’m done with the Gaelic, I’m going to give the soccer everything,’” she told a county board chief. “She was like, ‘No, you’ll be back’…. Funny enough, she was right.”

Killeen didn’t know that then, of course. She genuinely though this was it, and she’d never play for Dublin again.

“I would have followed the girls; they’re exceptional and I never would have thought I could reach that level,” she explains. “I was doing well in soccer so I wouldn’t have taken a step back from playing at that level to play [Gaelic] with club.

“I never thought I’d ever get the opportunity to do what I’ve done in the last year.”

Many, many good days followed with Raheny and later, Shelbourne, as the rapidly rising star impressed across the country and further afield, from the Aviva to some of the other biggest stages in the world.

She earned 11 senior caps, but unfortunately, that breakthrough to the Girls In Green came towards the end of college when she started working and things just didn’t work out in that regard. Education and her career came first, after all.

“Sport was always my hobby,” she adds. Playing professional overseas never crossed her mind. It wasn’t for her.

“Sport was always for enjoyment or to release pressure, it was never going to be my career. It was an easy enough decision to choose my career over playing at that level.

“I like having the two different worlds. It’s perfect. You come into work on a Monday and no one knows you had a game that went terribly wrong. It’s good to have the both of them, they both help each other in many ways.”

The resurrection

That first training session with the reigning All-Ireland champions in DCU is a night she’ll never forget.

“Obviously, when I was a kid you would have been looking up to all the older players and I always remember Goldie [Sinéad Goldrick] would have been a few years older than me. The first session she came up and she was chatting away to me.

Siobhan Killeen With the Dubs last April. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“It was very surreal to be in a dressing room with these players that I idolised from when I was in young to when I was sitting in Croke Park seeing them lift the cup in the 2017 final.

“To be in the dressing room, I felt very privileged from the get-go. I felt very lucky to be in that situation.”

Privileged and lucky, but also a little rusty, she admits. Pretty much expected though after seven years away from Gaelic football. Adapting to the game again was tricky at first.

“People think, ‘Ah sure it’s football, you’re still running on a pitch and you’re wearing football boots’…. they’re completely different,” she laughs now.

“Fitness-wise, I would have thought I was somewhat fit with the soccer but it’s a different fitness. It’s being able to take those hits and get up and go again.

“I played on the wing with soccer so I’d be used to long-distance sprints but just continuous ones, I found that kind of hard to adapt to for a while with the Gaelic. The skill-set obviously, I had to work on that quite a bit.”

The Blues Sisters helped her out though and brought Killeen under their wing and into their family, and she was back into the swing of things in no time. 

The year itself was unforgettable.

“It was gold like,” she beams. “The day in Parnell Park when we won the league is a day I’ll never forget. You could see it meant so much to so many of the players, it was the first one and they’d been working so long for it for so many years.

“Nerdy [Sinéad Aherne], her performance was gold-standard for a corner forward. That’s what I look to every game, her performance from that day. Just exceptional. 

“From there, we went on to Leinster and then the All-Ireland series, it was just unbelievable. That finish.”

Nicole Owens celebrates after the game Celebrating September's All-Ireland final win with Nicole Owens. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

“And to continue to grow with club, that was important to me because I got a lot of game time to put what I had been learning with Dublin into practice,” she continues, referring to that epic run with Clontarf in the Dublin, Leinster and All-Ireland intermediate championships.

“I got to keep going and keep pushing on. It was great to have that opportunity when the inter-county season finished, to have a few months with club to keep growing and developing.”

The further the team went, the closer they got. From the outside looking in, you could see that. They played for each other, enjoyed their football and didn’t want the dream to ever end.

Killeen bagged 5-4 in their All-Ireland final win over Monaghan’s Emmett Óg in hands down, one of the standout individual performances in Gaelic games of 2018.

“Stop,” she giggles, the embarrassment shining through when her scoring exploits are brought up. She’d rather focus on the team and the day itself. 

“It was a dream. You know usually in finals it’s kind of nerve-wrecking but from the get-go, we were just comfortable. It seemed like we saved our best performance until last. It was really enjoyable.”

Coming back to ladies football after quite some time away, she must have noticed huge differences in how much it has come on.

A few years ago, it probably seemed that soccer was streets ahead, considering it’s under the FAI umbrella, but oh how the tables have turned.

“It’s unbelievable the Gaelic now,” she continues. “How professional it is, the set-up, even at club level and how professional it is for us this year, it’s just been unbelievable. 

“The support for the Gaelic is just… the attendance at the All-Ireland finals have been unbelievable. Even the numbers that turn out for the open training sessions.

Clontarf GAA v Emmet Óg - All-Ireland Ladies Football Intermediate Club Championship Final That dream night with Clontarf. Source: Stephen McCarthy/SPORTSFILE

“People talking about it in work, knowing results, knowing I have a game coming up; you wouldn’t have got that years ago even with the soccer. 

“Even with the soccer now, the likes of Katie McCabe, they’re a household name. The same with Noelle Healy, Sinéad Goldrick being household names. It’s great that there’s female role models out there.”

“For a young girl now playing sport, if I think of me at seven or eight, they must think the sky is the limit — because it is. The exposure women’s sport has, it’s just great to be a female athlete now.”

She remembers being starstruck by a certain former Ireland international, Olivia O’Toole, who coached her at an FAI training camp as a kid. 

“She called me Siobhy that night and that stuck for my whole soccer career then,” she smiles. She would have been a real role model for Killeen growing up, like Killeen is now to younger kids.

“It’s great and it really does lift you. It reminds you why you do it sometimes, when you see these little girls come up who are excited to see you train and get your autograph after training.

“It reminds you that we’re in a great position and it’s a very privileged position to be in.”

The ascension  

Privileged is a word she uses quite a bit. She’s grateful for where she is right now and how taking that risk last year has more than paid off. Last year was absolutely unreal, but she’s well aware that that’s in the past. 

“I just need to try and keep pushing on and getting better, and hopefully, repeat some of it this year,” she concedes, emphasising the fact that more game time on the inter-county stage is necessary.

Breaking into the first team is high up on her list of priorities and after back-to-back starts in the league — she starts against Tipperary tomorrow — things are looking up.

“I have to be realistic,” she reigns herself back in though. “It was an intermediate All-Ireland final and I’m trying to break into what’s been the best inter-county team for the last two years. It’s no easy job.

“Forwards like Nerdy and Lyndsey Davey, Macker [Niamh McEvoy], getting to train with them week in, week out, is the biggest privilege of it all because they’re pushing me on even more.

“You learn every day from the players around you as much as you learn from the management. It’s a great team to be in.”   

All about the team.

Following a tough Six Nations opening defeat to England, Joe Schmidt will look to regroup against a dangerous Scotland side. This week, Murray Kinsella and Gavan Casey are joined by Bernard Jackman to assess the damage of last weekend and look ahead to the clash in Murrayfield:


Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

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Emma Duffy

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