FIVE All-Ireland finals this century, with two wins, is success that the Kildare mens team can only dream of but that’s the story for the Kildare ladies. That success is split into two eras, Kildare won Junior All-Ireland title in 2004 after losing two of the three previous finals. This week we talk to two of the stars of those teams, captain Brianne Heydon and Tracy Noone. Next week we’ll talk to another player who played in that 2004 win, Aisling Holton, when she was just 16, about the second of those eras when Kildare beat Clare in the 2016 All-Intermediate final 12 months after losing to Waterford.
YOU have to lose one to win one is one of the GAA’s most used cliches but back in the early part of this century, Kildare’s ladies football lost two All-Ireland finals before finally lifting the trophy in Croke Park.
Looking back now, it was an amazing era for ladies football in the county. A Leinster title in 2000 was the first of five in a row and they played in Croke Park on three occasions during that period. They were promoted into Division 1 and would later go on to reach three Leinster Senior finals.
Back in 2000, they were a very young team but Tracy Noone remembers taking the step up to adults football all in her stride.
“It wasn’t really a big step up. A lot of us had come up through the underage ranks, from 14 through to minor and then into senior. Ciaran Burke managed us up to under 16 and then when he died suddenly, Frank Delaney took over and took us through from minor and then on to the senior team.
“We won at under 16 and minor and by the time we were on the senior panel we were all well used to playing with each other so there was a real good understanding between us. And with Frank being our manager, he knew us very well too and having that consistency helped as well,” said Tracy.
Kildare beat Carlow in that 2000 Leinster final and retained that trophy 12 months later against Meath. They were due to play New York in an All-Ireland semi-final but that game was to be played just a few days after 9/11 and with the American side unable to travel, Kildare received a bye into the final to face Roscommon.
On the day, Kildare were no match for the Connacht side and Roscommon ran out 1-18 to 0-8 winners.
“God, thinking back, we were very young and naive going into that game and we were heavily defeated that day, we were all in our late teens, early 20s. First time playing in Croke Park, it was a massive occasion and we weren’t ready for Roscommon, mentally or physically. It was the first real physical team we came up against and looking back, we just weren’t ready for that at all. We were just way out of our depth but those are the days that bring you on as a team as well and learning how to lose together helps you win together and that was a huge learning block for us,” said Noone.
Brianne Leahy, as she was known during her playing career before marrying TD Martin Heydon, was just 19 that year but received an All-Star for her performances.
“I was lucky to get the chance to get an All-Star, I suppose it helped that we were playing in All-Ireland finals and things like that,” she said.
As well as losing that final, Brianne was part of the Grange side who were beaten by Valerie Mulcahy’s Rockbán in the All-Ireland Junior Final later in the year. Her sister, Kate, was part of those teams as well.
“My family were really engrained into the GAA. There’s ten of us in the family and they all went to Croke Park for those games and even though we were so disappointed to lose those games, it was a great time for us,” said Heydon.
“We worked very hard, we were training very hard. We were training three times a week, as well as with our clubs so it was a huge commitment,” she added.
Kildare again won a Leinster title in 2002 but lost in the All-Ireland semi-final to a Galway side who would win a senior All-Ireland two years later.
But they were back in the All-Ireland final in 2003 against Dongal, but again it was a game that passed Kildare by. They had marched into the final with big wins over Dublin and Wexford in Leinster and then Tipperary in the All-Ireland semi-final but never got going on the day and were beaten 3-14 to 0-12.
“There was no real competitive games before that game against Donegal,” said Noone.
“We didn’t really know much about them, they had come up through the ranks as well. We were probably favourites going into the game but we were blown out of the water that day too, they were very fast and they got three goals that just rocked us and we never recovered.
“Mentally we should have been more prepared for it but we still all very young. The Donegal game is a strange one, I have more memories of the Roscommon game. I don’t think any of us thought we were going to lose against Donegal,” she added.
12 months on and Kildare reached their third final but tragedy befell the team earlier that year. Sean ‘Goggie’ Delaney had led Laois to a senior All-Ireland title before joining up with Kildare and even though he only had a brief spell with the team, he had a big impact.
“Sean came in and turned everything upside down, he wasn’t talking about winning Junior All-Irelands, he was putting stepping stones in place to win Senior All-Irelands. He saw something in us and his main goal was to win a Senior All-Ireland within a few years. He gave us that mental strength and belief and we reached the Division 2 semi-final against Donegal. Sadly, he died five days before that game,” said Noone.
Somehow, the team put that tragedy behind them and went out and won that game in his honour.
“They beat us in the All-Ireland final the year before and here we were playing them in a semi-final with promotion on the line. One of Sean’s big goals was to get us into Division 1 and get us playing against the top teams. We showed a huge amount of grit and determination that day to win by a couple of points and that was the stepping for a lot of our success that year,” said Tracy.
After beating Louth in the Division 2 final, Kildare flew through Leinster again and collected their fifth provincial title before seeing off Armagh in the All-Ireland semi-final.
The final against Sligo was a game that Kildare bossed for the most part and they led 2-10 to 1-5 after 51 minutes but two Sligo goals in a minute turned the game on its head. Noone settled some nerves with a free and although Noelle Earley missed a late penalty, Kildare eventually won 2-13 to 3-5.
“There were a few hairy moments when Sligo got those late goals and we were thinking were we going to lose again but thankfully we pulled through in the end. I can remember my parents in the stand and they were saying it afterwards that they were so worried. I was worried myself and can remember thinking just to catch the next ball and get a score,” said Heydon.
Relief was the overriding emotion for Noone.
“It took a while to sink in. It was great to have all your friends and family there and there was a big homecoming as well.
“We were kind of always on top, I know Sligo came back with a bit of a late surge but we were always on top really but I can remember the final whistle blowing and the feeling being more of relief than anything else, we had done it, third time lucky. We got that monkey off our backs because we were known as the nearly girls.
“There were so many people who had contributed to that win that weren’t there that day. You could go back as far as people like Mick Delaney in the early days, he got me playing at under 12s, then the likes of Frank Delaney and all he had achieved with us, the late Tony Mooney, Anto Mooney’s day. It was joyous for all those people too, and also Nuala O’Mahoney who was there for us after all she had done for the underage in Kildare. It was a big day for Kildare ladies football, and not just for the players on the pitch. That was something that I realised too, there were a lot of people that I would have liked to have been there that weren’t,” she said.
As captain, Brianne was the player to climb the steps and lift the trophy, a moment she still treasures.
“It was surreal, but just amazing. I always think back on that moment, I was just thinking ‘at last, we’ve done it’. It’s only years later that you see not many people get to lift an All-Ireland trophy in Croke Park and it was just an amazing experience for all the team and all our families,” she said.
Playing alongside her sister in midfield that day made the occasion all the more special.
“It was just an amazing time. It’s not every day that you win an All-Ireland final. For Kate and I, it’s our only All-Ireland medal that we have to show for all those years so we’ll take that memory.
“It was a great era for us. Winning the five Leinsters was a great thing to do and getting to Croke Park was amazing. I think after the two defeats we just really knuckled down to win it. It’s obviously great to play at Croke Park but it can be a very lonely place if you lose there. To win in 2004 was amazing, not just for the players but the families as well because they would have seen all the disappointments of losing at Croke Park,” she said.
Brianne and Tracy actually lived together for a spell while attending college in Maynooth and that is the bond that still exists with the panel.
“They are memories that you will have forever and a lot of us are still in touch. Even when we played club football against each other, we’d kill each other in the games on a Tuesday night and then be best friends at county training on the Wednesday. There was great banter and great fun as well. Maybe that is something that is missing from sport today, we did have fun and did socialise together,” said Noone
Unfortunately though, not all are still with us. Anne Dempsey (née Nolan) was goalkeeper in the 2001 final and sadly passed away last year, while Edel Slicker (née Delaney), whose father played such a huge part in the development of this team, was corner back in the 2001 and 2003 finals died suddenly in 2017.
“Reflecting now, we were such great friends, and looking back it’s so sad that some have passed away, Edel Delaney and Anne Nolan and I suppose that puts life into perspective,” said Heydon.
Brianne went on to win a second All-Star in 2007 and Kildare competed well in future years.
Perhaps their best year was in 2009 when a last gasp Noelle Earley secured a first senior win over Laois in the Leinster semi-final. Kildare then lost a Leinster final to Dublin, and an All-Ireland quarter-final to Cork, the two sides who competed the All-Ireland final that year.
“We were pushing Dublin in a few of those finals. Galway beat us in 2002 in an All-Ireland semi-final and then two years later when we were in the All-Ireland final, Galway were in the senior final and they won it. So we knew that we could compete and we did for a couple of years,” said Heydon.
“We could never catch Dublin, they were always that bit ahead of us. We gave them a run for their money on a few occasions but could never quite get past them. We started to get that bit older and Dublin always had that conveyor belt of youth coming up and we just couldn’t match that,” said Noone.
As that era for Kildare ladies began to pass, a new team emerged. The likes of Maria Moolick, Aisling Savage and Aisling Holton had been the babies of the team in 2004 but they were now the experienced leaders and next week we’ll look back at how Kildare went on to reach Croke Park again in 2015 and 2016.
2001 v Roscommon, lost 1-18 to 0-8: Anne Nolan, Edel Delaney, Niamh Redmond, Deirdre Boylan, Aisling Lambe, Kate Leahy, Dawn Power, Naomi Treacy, Louise Conlon, Tracy Noone 0-6 (4fs), Therese Martin 0-1, Brianne Leahy 0-1, Simone Gilabert, Kim Turner, Janice O’Brien. Subs: Anne Hughes for Turner, Antoinette Mooney for Martin, Yvonne Murphy for Power, Sue Brosnan for Boylan, Emma McCartney.
2003 v Donegal, lost 3-14 to 0-12: Ellen Ryan, Edel Delaney, Ann Hughes, Antoinette Mooney, Aisling Lambe, Kate Leahy, Aisling Holton, Brianne Leahy, Julie Cunningham, Simone Gilabert, Deirdre Gately 0-1, Noelle Earley 0-1, Tracy Noone 0-7 (6fs), Maria Moolick 0-1, Grainne Heduan 0-2fs. Subs: Dawn Power for Mooney, 30; Yvonne Murphy for Heduan, 59.
2004 v Sligo, won 2-13 to 3-5: Edel O’Brien, Melissa O’Brien, Ann Hughes, Clodagh Flanagan, Aisling Lambe, Aisling Holton, Maria Moolkick, Brianne Leahy, Kate Leahy, Stacey Cannon, Noelle Earley 0-3, Elaine Dillon 1-2, Simone Gilabert 1-2, Tracy Noone 0-6 (3fs), Julie Cunningham. Subs: Donna Berry for Lambe, 40; Yvonne Murphy for Cannon, 48.