As the ear-piercing crescendo of jet engines deafened overhead, Shelbourne Ladies trained at the AUL Complex next to Dublin Airport, ahead of their UEFA Women’s Champions League qualifiers, which begin today. In a way, it’s a cruel location for the players to warm-up, as their normal training venue of the Morton Stadium was sacrificed for the AUL’s artificial surface, as they aimed to mimic match conditions in central Belfast this week. They could have been heading off to sunny Cyprus, Croatia, Montenegro or the Estonian holiday resort of Parnu this week, instead they’re making the short journey north to Belfast and the compact home of Crusanders FC. Football can be cruel at times.
Not so green grass of home
Shels begin their round-robin mini tournament campaign today against group favourites, Medyk Konin, followed by close second favourites, PK-35 Vantaa on Friday, before facing bottom-ranked home side, Linfield on Monday. Flying Shels winger, Siobhán Killeen outlines the difficult task facing her side. “From looking on paper they’re both very experienced (Medyk Konin of Poland and PK-35 Vantaa of Finland), a lot of international players, they’ve played in Champions League a lot, every year they’re expected to do well and get out of the group. I know we’re in for a tough challenge, they’re very physical, technically very gifted, especially PK-35, so I know it’s tough but we’re all capable because we’re a great team and we’re very skilled as well.”
Whilst she is positive about Shels’ footballing chances, she laments the fact that the youthful Dubliner’s won’t be able to strut their stuff on a lush grass surface, as all three of their games will be played on Seaview’s 4G artificial pitch. “That’s probably the thing that’s going to be toughest about the tournament, playing on the 4G pitch because we’re used to playing on grass pitches here in tough weather conditions. You’d probably try and like to get PK-35 or Medyk Konin onto a pitch like that because the 4G will move quick. You just have to try and prepare as best you can, like tonight, that’s why we’re here training on the astro (at the AUL) and we’ve also been training at St Anne’s Park on the astro. It is very different, we just have to try and get used to it.” Shels have had pitch problems already this season. When they arrived for a routine league fixture at The Watershed Sports Centre, in May, Kilkenny’s playing surface issues were clear and present.
Killeen vented her dissatisfaction by posting photographs on social media during their pre-match inspection, showing the extent of the damage to the dangerous divot-strewn surface. Kilkenny had been using the venue this season, after leaving Buckley Park. The photographs told their own story. Sand and sods filled ditches at the patchwork sports and leisure centre pitch. “It was shocking to go down there and see the pitch, the state it was in. We are supposed to be the top players in the country. When you are growing up playing football as kids, this is the level you want to try and reach and then you travel down (to see that pitch). A lot of us work weekends and we give up shifts from work, we’re only amateur players, so that was very disappointing.” Kilkenny duly issued a grovelling apology, the FAI ordered the fixture be rescheduled and reversed and Shels doled out an unmerciful 11-0 hammering in Dublin.
Despite any doubts over today’s fast-playing surface, positives in the form of home support will be an added bonus for Shels, as bus loads of supporters and family members make the 160 km journey north. As well as that, the in-camp togetherness and team spirit – which seems evident when Irish underage women travel for tournament football – should be another major plus. “Like on international trips, you could be away for a week or two, away from your family so we are used to staying in that close environment with your teammates, training everyday. So they should be well prepared for it and know what they’re getting themselves in for. There are a good few buses of our underage teams coming up – it will be like a home draw, but when you’re away, you feel like you’re away from all other commitments, so it’s nice. We were hoping for an away game but, Belfast is only up the road, so you feel like you’re not in Dublin, but at least up in Belfast you feel like you’re away, you’re in a camp – if it was in Dublin, some of the girls could work from home.”
Family support also plays a big role in the women’s game in Ireland, where dedicated relatives make-up large sections of the weekly league attendances, up and down the country. Killeen will be hoping there’s a double celebration, come the final whistle – where her mother will provide support from the stands, as she celebrates a landmark birthday today. “It’s my mam’s birthday, quite a big one as well. So she’ll come up with my brothers and their families will also come up, so it’ll be nice. It’s only up the road so it’ll be nice.”
Training four nights a week in the lashings of rain
There is a quiet confidence about Siobhán Killeen and you get the sense that she truly believes in the synergy of Shelbourne’s star underage individuals. “The girls have all succeeded at underage level with Ireland, so they’ll be hoping to repeat some of that, but with their teammates who they’re training with four nights a week in the lashings of rain, so it’ll be nice for them.”
The self-assured attacker and her teammates will need the mother of all performances to advance as group winners or as best runners-up in this campaign. They’ll hope that their bond and togetherness, mixed in with a little help from the weather – in the form of the tail-end of Hurricane Gert – and some family support can see them through. If the virtuous side of football prevails, then the young Shelbourne players can afford to look skywards and wonder which country they’ll be flying to in the first round of the UEFA Women’s Champions League in October.
UEFA Women’s Champions League Qualifying Group 4 kicks off on at 14:00 today in Seaview, Belfast when Shelbourne Ladies play Medyk Konin and continues through to Monday 28 August [view full fixture list].