THIS is a story about a Kildare team winning a Leinster title in 1998.
No, not that Kildare team. Not that Leinster title. Not even that code of football.
This is about a Kildare Town team that achieved something in Dalymount Park on 13 April 1998 that no Kildare League team has done since, when they won the Leinster Junior Cup by beating Usher Celtic.
They did it the hard way too after getting past Tolka Rovers in the quarter-final and Cherry Orchard in the semi-final. They were big names in Irish junior football then and a team from Kildare wasn’t given much of a chance against them but as you’ll find out, this was no ordinary Kildare team.
No team can win a trophy of that magnitude as a fluke and this was a Kildare Town side that had grown over the years under the management of Jim Finn. However, a Leinster Junior title seemed a long way away when he first took over the team before the days of the Kildare League.
“A lot of those guys when I took over the club, they were bad I have to tell you. The first six games I took charge of them I lost them. We ended up playing a crowd called Bromley for promotion in Division 2 of the Leinster Junior League in Clondalkin and we won 3-0 so got promoted up to Division 1, Senior as it was then,” said Finn.
It didn’t take Kildare long to start improving and by the time of the launch of the Kildare League in time for the 1994/95 season they were an established side.
They won a League and Lumsden Cup double in the 1995/96 season and then retained their league title the following season. As well as their successes within the county, they had started to bloody the noses of some of the more fashionable Dublin clubs in the cups.
“We had beaten big teams before, like Cherry Orchard, so we didn’t fear those teams. We had always been in and around the last 16 or quarter-finals of the Leinster Junior and FAI Junior Cups. We’d won games in really tough places. I wouldn’t say we were cocky but we were very confident. We knew how to win games, we had bit of steel and knew how to dig in and grind out results,” said Finn’s son, Fergal, a midfielder on the team.
They had the experience, they had the pace and fearlessness of youth by the time of the 97/98 and they also had the addition of Martin Scanlon to the team.
“Martin had been playing for Newbridge Town but moved house into Kildare Town and when I heard that I went after him and he agreed to come back and play with us,” recalls Jim Finn.
A big, imposing defender, Scanlon was the perfect partner in the centre of defence for the diminutive Robbie Donnelly. Whatever Donnelly lacked in stature he made up for with the size of his heart.
“Robbie was one of those once in a lifetime players. He’d give you his life rather than play a bad game. Robbie was magic, he’d give you everything. He had brothers, Jimmers and Thomas, who were far better players but they hadn’t the same attitude as Robbie. Robbie would play all day, as a manager he was the type of player you’d love, he’d be the first name on the teamsheet,” said Jim Finn.
Donnelly loved playing with Scanlon too.
“Scan was a great player, very easy to play with. We had an understanding, he went for most high balls and I dropped off him and covered up. I played a proper sweeper role, I didn’t mark, I was there to cover the backline so if the right full or left full missed it, I was there. When you are playing with the likes of Scan it makes your job a lot easier, when most centre forwards see somebody the size of Scan coming for you they don’t want to know,” said Donnelly.
If any team did manage to get past the Kildare Town defence, they still had to deal with goalkeeper Freddie Mitchell, who along with Scanlon added the experience to a relatively young team.
“The first time I played with Freddie, I said to him before the game ‘Freddie, if they have a corner and you are coming for it, you have to come through lads’. The first corner they got I nearly got knocked out, the first lad he hit was me!” laughed Donnelly.
The Leinster Junior started with over 500 competing teams and Kildare began with wins over Brendanville, Asbourne, Trafford, a tough game against local rivals Suncroft and Markievicz to reach the last eight of the competition where things really started to hot up with a home tie against Tolka Rovers.
As was always the case then, a huge crowd turned out at Rathbride Road for the game.
“Like everything else, nobody gave us a chance,” said Fergal Finn.
“You’d know by the way they came down they didn’t give us a chance either. There was a huge crowd there that day and we had a momentum by then, we were going out just thinking we weren’t going to be bet,” he added.
Kildare went behind in the first half but David Dempsey equalised early in the second half before captain Paddy Brennan scored twice. A late consolation from Tolka Rovers mattered little as Kildare reached the last four after a 3-2 win.
“We knew after the Tolka Rovers game that we had something going, we knew we could mix it with anybody then,” said Aiden Leonard.
This team trained hard, worked hard, played hard but at the right times celebrated hard too and the team spirit build up during their aftermatch sessions in Lils no doubt helped them on the pitch.
“It was a real club then. We ended up with four senior teams at that time and Lils was our headquarters after the matches. You could hardly get into the place on a Sunday afternoon after a game, it was brilliant,” said Jim Finn.
Leonard, who was just 19 in 1998, added: “I would always have said that you never got the same sense of camaraderie with a soccer team than when playing Gaelic but we did with that Kildare Town team. We all stuck together and it was a well put together team with leaders in the right position. Jim trusted youth and he always gave us our chance. He would always bring along young lads, that was his ethos but the spine of the team had to be strong.”
That win over Tolka Rovers set up a semi-final against Cherry Orchard in Station Road. To get an idea of what they were facing, there was a scouting mission from Cherry Orchard sent to Kildare the week before the game to see Kildare Town take on Rathangan.
“They came to watch us playing Rathangan the week before we played them. We were absolutely useless that day. Their scout went back and told them that they’d have no bother with us, we were absolutely crap. It worked but I have to tell you, we were totally useless against the Rathangan. The lads did say after that game that the game the following week was in their mind and not Rathangan but it worked out well because Cherry Orchard thought they had nothing to do only turn up. We beat them 1-0 and they were very, very upset,” said Jim Finn.
The manager wasn’t one to worry about scouting his team’s opponents.
“I said to the team when we were playing Cherry Orchard, ‘we’re not worried about them, let them worry about us..”
Some moments from that game stand out for Donnelly.
“I remember the ball went out for a throw in near our supporters and ould Louis Hennessy, I’ll never forget it, picked up the ball kicked it a mile away. Cherry Orchard went mad, they were going to kill him. We had great support at that time,” he laughed.
Goalkeeper Freddie Mitchell said:
“Cherry Orchard was a magnificent win, we played exceptionally well that day, rode our a luck a little but you need that in semi-finals too. That gave us great belief and we didn’t fear anybody after that.”
It was captain Paddy Brennan who scored the only goal of that game and he was a striker feared throughout the province.
“Paddy Brennan was probably the best centre forward I played with or against, he was the hardest centre forward I ever marked, he had everything. Finishing with his head, his right foot, he didn’t score many with his left foot but he was very, very good,” said Donnelly.
The final was set for Dalymount Park on the Easter Monday of that year and although they were going to play in such an illustrious ground in front of a big crowd there was no sense of being overawed.
“I loved it,” said Leonard.
“At the time St Josephs Academy were quite strong, we won a schools South Leinster so we played at some big grounds. I loved every part of that. My first game in St Conleths Park, I was just 15 playing in a Junior B final and I scored nine points. I was a free taker in the Gaelic, I liked the limelight, I had that bit of cockiness about me at that time so Dalymount wasn’t an issue for me, I loved that,” said Leonard.
Once again, Kildare Town were the underdogs, not that they minded.
“We didn’t fear anyone. We were playing a Dublin team in Dublin but we didn’t mind, we just thought it was great to be playing in Dalymount Park. It was a great event, a huge crowd there from all over the county of Kildare and it was a great advertisement for junior soccer in Kildare,” said Mitchell.
“We probably weren’t favourites, we used to laugh between ourselves that nobody would give us a chance,” said Fergal Finn.
It was a tough game and Kildare found themselves under pressure at times but had Mitchell in top form.
“Freddie had a brilliant game,” said Jim Finn.
But even the big goalkeeper couldn’t prevent William Cooper putting Usher ahead in the 34th minute.
It took Kildare only six minutes to grab an equaliser.
“The crowd in Dalymount was unbelievable, great noise. It was a good match and we did well to win it. We went a goal behind in the first half. Then ‘Hopper’ (Robert O’Neill) scored from about 25 yards, a brilliant shot into the goal,” said Jim Finn.
“Even when we went 1-0 down we didn’t panic. We had been through it all, seen it all and we just felt that we’d weather the storm and get back into it. I think when we got back to 1-1 it was them that started to panic because that wasn’t part of their plan. We were under pressure at times but got on top as the game went on. I just felt that we’d get there in the end,” said Fergal Finn.
Although Kildare were on more of a level footing there were no more goals in normal time and the match went to extra time. Late in normal time though, there was a change that ultimately won the game.
“Anthony Kinsella had been out injured but I picked him to start and Aiden Leonard played at right full. When Anthony began to run out of steam I brought Jason McAuley in at right full and moved Aiden on into midfield and he scored the winning goal, between himself and ‘Hopper’ O’Neill. It worked for us on the day,” said Jim Finn.
“We were all about the attack. Myself and Hopper were flying at the time and all our success came down the wings. Kinsy was probably the best midfielder in the county at the time but when he went off I was a natural replacement to go in, I was quite athletic and could use both feet. I had the legs on the guy I went on and I broke from midfield in extra time and he couldn’t catch me and that’s how we got the goal. Jim had other options, he could have put a holding midfielder in there but decided to put me there and it worked,” said Leonard.
“We rode our luck to be honest. Usher were probably the best team in Dublin at the time so it was a smash and grab really but we were very fit. We were a young team in terms of the key positions so it was just a matter of digging in. We won our individual battles around the middle of the field and that was where they were strongest,” added Leonard.
The win sparked more huge celebrations. It was a special time for the town with Round Towers regularly lifting county titles back then and one of their own in Glenn Ryan leading Mick O’Dwyer’s Kildare team at the time.
“They were special times,” said Donnelly.
“To get to the final in the first place was a great achievement. A lot of Dublin teams underestimated us and we had our formation off to a tee. We didn’t look at who we were playing, we just went out and played our own game and played to our strengths and let them worry about us. We were fit and played quick and fast football.
“We didn’t just turn up for a kickaround on a Tuesday or Thursday, we trained hard and pushed each other on. Lads wanted to play and when you are winning trophies then everybody wants to be part of that. Everybody wanted to win. We were a club and we wanted to win every game. If we got bet on a Sunday we’d still be disgusted in training on the Tuesday, it wasn’t just forgotten about. Win, win, was what it was about,” he added.
Freddie Mitchell said:
“Everybody was so good in their positions. The biggest word I could think for it is trust, you could trust every player to do their job. You knew if the ball was going to a player that they could control the ball and do the right thing. Everybody took pressure off each other.
“Lads didn’t mind getting a bollocking. They knew it wasn’t because you were getting on to them, it was done for the right reasons and lads would take it as a bit of advice. The younger lads matured very quickly and nobody ever sulked if somebody was getting on to them. It’s rare to have a squad of players who wouldn’t sulk. Even the lads who weren’t getting on, at training they would be giving it everything so it was a very professional set up in that way.”
There was some sadness attached to the win. The previous year, Sean Stafford, who had been a big part of the team’s success as part of the management team with Finn sadly passed away suddenly. In the immediate aftermath of the win over Usher, Jim Finn dedicated the win to Stafford.
“Sean died very unexpectedly 12 months ago from a heart attack some hours after attending a training session so we are dedicating everything we do this season in his honour,” said Finn at the time.
Although a tragic event, it was something that the team used to bring them closer.
“Him and the father were best friends and they both had a great relationship with the squad. That hit us hard, Sean had been with us for a long time. That was something that brought us together and helped us in a strange way,” said Fergal Finn, who said winning the cup with his father made it extra special.
“It was a nice thing to do. It’s only now that you appreciate things like that, at the time you are just trying to manage yourself,” he said.
The cup run and ensuing backlog of games meant that Kildare lost out on their chance to win their third Kildare League in a row after a defeat to Castle Villa, their first home defeat in over two and a half years.
“It cost us the league title in ‘98, I think it was Carbury that won it. We were playing Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday, Sunday for weeks on end and we just couldn’t keep the momentum going,” said Jim Finn.
He had departed as manager by the time that Kildare returned to the final of the competition in 2001 before losing to Ballymun but he is fondly remember by those who played under him.
“Jim was a big part of it. He was nearly a father figure to everybody. He was strict but he was fair with everybody. If you trained you played, if you didn’t train you didn’t play. And that went for his own lad Fergal too, there were no favourites whatsoever. That’s how he got the respect and that’s how we won trophies,” said Donnelly.
“Jim was brilliant with us and to this day is looked upon as a legend out there in Kildare, and it’s only right that he is. Sean Stafford was the same, that was the way they were brought up to play football and that’s what they brought to the team,” said Mitchell.
“Jim was a very good manager, he was the best around at the time. He got a good bunch of lads who were committed, loved training and all wanted to be there,” said Leonard.
Kildare lost that 2001 final 3-1 but did win their third Kildare League that season to round off a hugely successful era in the club’s history. It’s that Leinster Junior win of 1998 that stands above all their achievements and it’s something that no Kildare League side has managed since.
KILDARE Town line up v Usher Celtic: Freddie Mitchell, Robert O’Neill, Robbie Donnelly, Martin Scanlon, Aiden Leonard, Anthony Kinsella, David Dempsey, Joe Bourke, Paddy Brennan, Fergal Finn, John Joe McGrath. Subs: Jason McAuley for Kinsella, 82; Malcolm Coogan for McGrath, 88; James Donnelly for Dempsey, 101. Not used: Barry Hennessy, Philip Hennessy.