THE COUNTDOWN to Castlecomer has begun for Evergreen’s under-14 girls’ team.
The city side have their sights set firmly on Deen Celtic’s pitch this Saturday evening, and a meeting with Galway outfit Salthill Devon in a battle for the FAI Umbro Women’s Under-14 Cup.
“The girls can’t wait for the game,” team boss Barry O’Neill told the ’People. “They’re really looking forward to the final and to playing the game in Castlecomer. If half the number of people who said they’re coming to the game come along to support the girls then we’ll have a huge crowd out there.
“We have had people ringing from all over the place looking to find out when and where the game is on,” he added. “There’s a huge level of interest in the final.”
With a number of FAI officials expected to be in Castlecomer for the final (kick-off 6pm) it’s no exaggeration to say the Kilkenny side have really captured the attention.
“It’s something new for Kilkenny, to have a girls’ team in a national final like this,” said O’Neill. “This team came together about four years ago and we’ve progressed from there. The core of the team has been together since under-12 level - they’ve won the league at under-12, 13 and 14 levels over the last three seasons - but we’ve added other players since then.”
The side has come a long way since their days in the first girls’ under-12 league to be played in Kilkenny, but they really made waves on a national level this season. Incredibly, they only entered the competition to gain experience, but have made people sit up and take notice on their route to the final, a path which started with an 8-2 win over Eureka/Kells.
“That was a marathon of a game,” O’Neill recalled. “Their under-16s were playing a cup final that day, a game some of the under-14 were involved in as well, so we had a bit of a wait - but we won the game well in the end.
A bye in the next round was followed by a clash with Dublin outfit Templeogue.
“The team were managed by Joey Malone (former Dundalk player and Galway United player-manager),” said O’Neill. “He was quietly confident that his side would win, but when the game was over (Evergreen won 3-0) he said he was very impressed with the girls, saying they were as good an under-14 team as he’d seen.”
Their quarter-final opponents Castlebar Celtic were also full of praise for the Kilkenny team, who beat the Mayo girls 6-0 in Derdimus, before they booked their place in the final with that 2-1 semi-final win over Cappoquin in July.
It may be bad news for Salthill, but O’Neill reckons his side have still to hit their top stride.
“The girls haven’t had a bad game in the competition,” he said. “They have been getting better and better, rising to the challenges every step of the way. We’ve been scoring goals (Evergreen have hit the net 19 times in their four outings to date), but what’s just as important is that we haven’t conceded too many (just three) either.”
Coupled with the local league titles picked off in recent seasons, the city side have won a couple of other tournaments along the way.
“We’ve been playing in the Ballywilliam tournament in Wexford for the last few years,” said O’Neill. “Every year we’ve gone down to play we’ve won a cup. That tournament has featured teams like West Ham United and Nottingham Forest over the years, as well as teams from Donegal, Galway and Cork - it’s quite a big set-up. The girls have done very well down there.”
That success has seen some of the team earn call-ups at regional level. Orla Conlon represented the South East two years ago while Conlon and clubmate Jenny Clifford both played for the regional side last year. And hopes are high that, when the girls move up to under-15 level, further recognition may be around the corner.
“So many of the girls from the club played for the Kilkenny & District League at the Gaynor Cup this year and for the Loreto team that won the Leinster Schools A title,” said O’Neill. “There is an under-15 schools team, and we’re hoping that the girls would get picked for that and, from there, get picked up for the national squads.”
Starting out with a local team and ending up in the Irish side may seem like a dream, but O’Neill is confident his players could do just that.
They’re not afraid of anyone,” he said. “They have become a confident side, who never know when they’re beaten.
“Even though the girls are only 13 or 14 years of age it’s amazing how confident they are on the field,” the manager added. “They talk to each other all the time, encouraging each other as the game goes on.
“There are about 15 or 16 girls who play for the club who also go to school together,” he continued. “They are great friends, which makes a difference - they go out and play camogie with their clubs and knock lumps out of each other, but when it comes to soccer they are all part of one team.”
Naturally, they are itching to take to the field for their big day.
They are really looking forward to the final - I’ve never seen a team as enthusiastic before a final,” he said. “They just can’t wait to get out there and take on Salthill. They don’t fear them.”
That said, there is plenty of respect in the Kilkenny ranks for Salthill who, as reigning champions, will be keen to take the Cup back West on Saturday evening.
“Salthill have a bit of experience in their side,” said O’Neill. “Salthill have seven or eight players who were in the squad that beat Longford Town 3-2 in last year’s final, but our girls are full of confidence ahead of the game.”
And it’s not just the players who are looking forward to the big day.
“I’m almost worse than the kids!” joked O’Neill. “I’m really looking forward to it. I was involved in schoolboys’ soccer for so long and went far in a number of competitions - the last eights of national cups and so on, but it wasn’t until taking over the girls’ team that I reached an All-Ireland final. This will be our second, which is incredible.”
Meet the team
Niamh Delaney. Position: Goalkeeper. School: Loreto. Favourite club: Manchester United.
Olivia Nolan. Position: Defender. School: St Canice’s. Favourite club: Chelsea.
Kirsty Maher. Position: Defender. School: Loreto. Favourite club: Manchester United.
Orla Conlon. Position: Defender. School: Presentation. Favourite club: Manchester United.
Sophie O’Dwyer. Position: Defender. School: St John of God. Favourite club: Chelsea.
Aoife Brassil. Position: Defender. School: Presentation. Favourite club: Manchester United.
Valentino Kavanagh. Position: Defender. School: Favourite club: Chelsea.
Saoirse Comerford. Position: Defender. School: Colaiste Pobal. Favourite club: Liverpool
Jenny O’Keefe. Position: Midfielder. School: Presentation. Favourite club: Manchester United.
Roisin Breen. Position: Midfielder. School: Loreto. Favourite club: Bolton Wanderers.
Laura Green. Position: Midfielder. School: Loreto. Favourite club: QPR.
Megan O’Keeffe. Position: Midfielder. School: Loreto. Favourite club: Arsenal.
Ciara Deeley. Position: Midfielder. School: St John of God. Favourite club: Manchester United.
Aoife Cantwell. Position: Midfielder. School: Loreto. Favourite club: Manchester United.
Jenny Clifford (captain). Position: Striker. School: Loreto. Favourite club: Arsenal.
Laura Murphy. Position: Striker. School: Loreto. Favourite club: Manchester United.
Niamh Deeley. Position: Striker. School: St John of God. Favourite club: Manchester United.