General football, Ireland, UEFA Women's Champions League, Women's football

Killeen hoping to make the hard yards count in Belfast

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.

Pitch issues

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

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.

Andy Donlan

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].

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Continental Tyres Women's National League, General football, Ireland, League of Ireland, UEFA Women's Champions League, Women's football

Maher: preparation is key to European success

On a footballing time clock, video analysis, strength and conditioning and nutritional awareness are all relatively new concepts to a game that has existed since the mid-nineteenth century, though it feels like they’ve been around for some time.

These were alien concepts when Shaun Maher made his Bohemians debut in European competition, over twenty one years ago. He recalls, “My first game against Dinamo Minsk, the food was absolutely awful. I don’t think any of us ate anything before the game for two or three days”. When Bohs returned to the Belarussian capital seven years later led by Stephen Kenny, they arrived with their own chef, Irish football was evolving.

Nowadays, those concepts, coupled with logistical planning and meticulous preparation and organisation are key building blocks to European success. Maher’s Shelbourne Ladies players should have no food or preparation problems in central Belfast next week, where they visit to compete in the mini-tournament UEFA Women’s Champions League qualifiers.

Experience

Reliable footballing centre-half, Shaun Maher is now part of the coaching ticket at Shelbourne Ladies, who make their Champions League bow against Poland’s Medyk Konin on Tuesday on Crusader’s 4G artificial pitch in Seaview. Maher, who is head coach to Mark Leavy’s double champions, has a wealth of experience as a player at Champions League and UEFA Cup (Europa League) level. He competed in European competition with three different League of Ireland clubs, progressing through a round on three out of six occasions – only going out on away goals in his first tie and then losing by a 4-6 aggregate score to a slick-skilled Maritimo side in his final involvement, accounting for two of those exits. A more than decent achievement in League of Ireland terms, especially considering he was part of teams who beat Aberdeen and Kaiserslautern away and ran heavy-weights, Dinamo Kiev oh-so-close.

In reminiscing over European ties against the likes of Maritimo, Aberdeen, Kaiserslautern and Dinamo Kiev, he fondly recalls when a newly full-time Bohs were drawn to play Aberdeen in then UEFA Cup (now Europa League). If you are thinking his recollections are centred around his 81st minute bullet-headed equaliser in the historic away win, you’d be mistaken. Perhaps it is because he’s on the other side of the white wash in the technical area these days, but he recalls Bohs manager Roddy Collins’ approach to that first leg in Scotland.

“He was playing his own mind-games in the press with the Aberdeen manager – Ebbe Skovdahl. If I remember correctly, he was putting advertisements in the Aberdeen Echo looking for players two months beforehand, so you can see how much planning and detail has gone into that. It was a great distraction. It was really intelligent and clever. It took the pressure off the players completely. Thankfully it worked and it helped Bohs progress.”

Fast forward ten years to Maher’s final European game with Sporting Fingal, where preparations were drastically different for their visit to the archipelago of Madeira, located just off the Moroccan coast. “The last game in Madeira against Maritimo, we were there for nearly a week to acclimatise. When I travelled to Minsk with Bohs, it was three planes just to get to Minsk, where as in Mederia you’re in and out. That’s how things improved.”

Preparations

He points to improvements for the women’s double winners, Shelbourne, as they now have modern tools at their disposal to assist in their Champions League preparations.

“There’s a lot more preparation now and things have progressed as time has gone on. That’s not having a go at anyone, that’s just how times have improved through the science of the sport, coaching philosophies and so on. Everyone else was preparing the same way at that time. For instance, nowadays, we’ve got match analysis and we’re able to see match opposition from months ago, to a couple of weeks ago. That wasn’t available back then, they had to make do with what they had.”

Opposition

First up for Shels, they face the fancied Poles in a four-team round-robin group. Medyk Konin rule the roost domestically as they go in search of their fifth consecutive league title, having finished first or second in the last nine seasons. Indeed they hammered Wexford Youths 6-0 when they hosted the round-robin mini tournament at this stage in 2015 and are favourites to progress from this group, ahead of technical Finnish outfit, PK-35 Vantaa. Hosts Linfield complete the quartet.

“Medyk Konin win comfortably domestically most weeks, they’ve got talent all over the pitch, a bit of experience as well and they’re a threat. They’re full-time, they’re strong, they’ve strength in every area, but so have we. When time presents itself, we’ll try and exploit where our strengths are. We don’t want to over-awe the players either, in terms of what they’re facing but at the same time, you’ve got a responsibility to make them aware that things are going to be tough, but as long as we stick together and we stay physically and mentally strong throughout that period.”

Build-up

The excitement in the Shels camp is palpable, with young squad members milling about the AUL Complex ahead of their training preparations on the all-weather surface near Dublin Airport. “The build-up is still very exciting. It’s new to all of the players and it’s new to me as a coach because I’ve been involved in European competitions as a player, but as a coach, it’s slightly different. There’s a lot more responsibility on you as opposed to a player where you are focused on yourself in your own role in the team. As a coach, with the rest of the staff, you’re trying to think of everybody and everything. Every box is ticked and every angle is covered. So there’s a lot more involved and it’s different. It’s not the same as a player, it’s a lot more enjoyable as a player, I wish I was a player, I wish I was still out there, but unfortunately that’s not going to happen.”

Enjoy it

Whether Shels manage to progress or not, it won’t be for the lack of effort or preparation in a sport that’s underfunded and underdeveloped in comparison to some of their opponents next week. “I remember Derek Swan saying to me on my European debut, ‘Enjoy it, because it goes like that…’. That quick and if you don’t enjoy these opportunities, you’ll always regret it because they don’t come around every week or even every year.”

Shaun Maher may not be able to power home a bullet header or make a goal-saving tackle and you probably won’t see him place advertisements in the Belfast Telegraph looking for players. However, he may find that he’ll get more enjoyment through success of the players, having laid the foundations in their preparations, as Shelbourne Ladies look to conquer Belfast next week.

Andy Donlan

UEFA Women’s Champions League Qualifying Group 4 kicks off on Tuesday 22 August at 14:00 in Seaview, Belfast when Shelbourne Ladies play Medyk Konin [view full fixture list].

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Continental Tyres Women's National League, General football, Ireland, Women's football

Noelle Murray: “I was highly praised, he’s the play-maker”

The name Noelle is derived from a Latin word, meaning, “birthday (of the Lord)”. So it’s no surprise then to learn that Noelle Murray was born on Christmas Day. Statistically, aside from 29 February, it is considered out of the ordinary to be born on Christmas Day. However, there has been nothing ordinary about Murray’s talent or her displays in helping Shelbourne to the double last season. What’s seldom is wonderful.

Murray’s high performance levels in the red of Shelbourne have been wonderful and anything but seldom. From slotting home from the penalty spot in balmy August – scoring Shels’ first home goal of the season – to stylishly lobbing-in [view goal] the league-clincher against near-rivals UCD Waves on a freezing late-November night. It has been an unforgettable season for the three-time league and five-time FAI Cup winner.

Departure

Murray won’t compete in the Women’s National League next season for the first time since its’ inception, having signed for Glasgow City last week. In a thoroughly deserved move to full-time football, the Dubliner bucks the recent trend that has seen, mainly youngsters move away. Indeed, Savannah McCarthy, Katie McCabe and Jamie Finn – who have recently departed these shores for greener pastures and the lure of professional football – have all done so prior to their 21st birthdays. Murray leaves at 27.

Number One Award

She delayed her departure for Scotland’s vibrant second city, to attend last week’s Continental Tyre’s Women’s National League Awards 2016 in the Guinness Storehouse, where she was nominated for Player of the Year. “I meant to go already, but I delayed it a bit for the awards. I’m just dying to get over now and see what it has in store for me and get to know the girls. I’m dying to get over and just get going now.”
This award clearly meant a lot to her to win and you could see why. It was decided by popular ballot among her peers. There was stiff competition too. Teen goal-scoring sensation and cup final hat-trick hero, Leanne Kiernan and Karen Duggan – whose awards-laden sideboard must be creaking under the strain of innumerable gongs – completed the nominees. Murray’s name was deservedly pulled out of the envelop and she was named Continental Tyres Women’s National League Player of the Year for the truncated 2016 season.

Putting it into perspective, Murray says, “It’s definitely my number one award to date, especially because all of the girls in the other teams voted. It’s a privilege to know that all of the girls are giving you the vote, as they only get to vote for one person and it’s nice to know that they are giving you their vote to win it. We had a great season. You can never do something without your teammates.”

Character

The award comes off the back of a scintillating season with Shelbourne. They completed the league and FAI Cup double – wrestling both trophies back from arch-rivals Wexford Youths, who lorded it over them the previous year. She admits with satisfaction, “doing the double, I think after winning the league and then losing it and then to fight back, it was just brilliant”. Indeed, in the controversial 2015 FAI Cup final shootout, Murray stepped up first and missed, handing the opening initiative to Wexford Youths. Then against the same opposition in the 2016 decider, she missed again, this time in regulation time. However, showing the character that no doubt persuaded Glasgow, she recovered to hook-in the opening goal of the game. She then proceeded to dictate the remainder of the game, providing a platform for her red-hot team-mates to savage a poor Wexford side. Something perhaps Glasgow wouldn’t get from an inexperienced pre-21 youngster? Murray admits the miss gave her, “a kick up the butt to get me going into the final”.

The Play-maker

This central role and mature range of passing in the 2016 cup final caught the eye of ex-Bray Wanderers and Shamrock Rovers manager, Trevor Croly, who was applying the co-commentary analysis for the live televised game. The clearly impressed, Croly drew comparisons of Murray’s display with that of Ireland midfield play-maker, Wes Hoolahan – such was the level of her performance. High praise indeed.

Murray on the comparison, “It was recorded at home and I watched it back afterwards. I was highly praised on the commentary which I was delighted to hear, to be named along with Wes Hoolahan – he’s the play-maker.” Her deeper role on the day allowed her to dictate the play, utilising the pace of Siobhan Killeen, the direct running of Leanne Kiernan and the power of Gloria Douglas to exploit every inch of the vast open spaces of the Lansdowne Road pitch. She admits, “I definitely think I prefer to play in the ten now – just behind the forward – I feel I’m more involved in the game. I feel like I can drop back and help what’s going on behind and then help what’s in front of me as well”.

Future

Put to her that her departure and that of other high-profile names will leave the Women’s National League a poorer place, she instantly replied. “No there’s quality all over the league in fairness. There’s still quality here. The younger ones who are coming up are going to bring it on. It’s going to change over the years, but it’s just going to get better and better, I can see it.”

When speaking about the future direction of the women’s game in Ireland, Murray is confident of a rise in standards and increased professionalism – which is making progress in all areas but the pay packet, or lack thereof. She explains, “People put the effort in, the time and effort people give to football teams is unbelievable, so to get something back out of it is always nice at the end of it.”
She now embarks on her Scottish journey and her first professional contract, earned through effort, hard-work, ability and experience. What’s seldom is wonderful.

Andy Donlan

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