LAST week we looked back at a hugely successful era in the history of ladies football in Kildare with two of the stars of the 2004 Junior All-Ireland winning team, Brianne Heydon and Tracy Noone. Even when winning that title in 2004, there were players like Maria Moolick and Aisling Holton who were in the the team and ready to lead the way for the next decade or more. Holton was just 15 when she played in the 2003 final loss to Donegal.
“Once we finished with our own age group, Frank Delaney, who was manager, and Mick Feeney who was the trainer gave us a ring to see if we’d join up with the seniors and sure at that age you are only mad to play.
“We were probably a little naive really. The exposure that ladies games got back then wasn’t the same as it is now so we probably weren’t aware that this team was winning so much, which was probably a sign of the times and how far we’ve come.
“You were always thinking would you be able for the training. To this day, the training Mick Feeney did was some of the hardest training I’ve ever done. I learned after the first session not to eat your dinner too close it,” said Holton.
Although at such a young age, she said it was easy to settle onto the senior panel.
“The girls were very good, there were some really good figures on it. The likes of Anto Mooney, Brianne, Tracy, Kate, Ais Lambe. They really took us under their wing and that was very good, they really made us feel welcome. I suppose we were in awe of these girls and were just trying to keep up with them in training.
“I think Stacey Cannon was there in the first year and Maria and Savo (Aisling Savage) and it was nice to have those girls who were your own age as well,” she said.
Although on the panel and having an impact off the bench, Holton only made her first start in the All-Ireland semi-final.
“It was just mad really. I hadn’t started the whole year but I started the semi-final against Tipperary. I didn’t tell anybody I was starting that game apart from my mam and dad so that was grand, I just kind of went in under the radar and got to play my game. For the final, everybody knew I was named to start but at that age I just think you take it in your stride. We were very well prepared, I remember Frank and Mick telling us that you will not be able to hear one another in Croke Park, we were prepared to that level of detail.
“They made an announcement over the school intercom wishing me luck and you soak up all that part of it. I remember marching around in the parade before the match and I saw my mam and dad and I gave them a sneaky wave, if I saw somebody doing that before the 2016 final I would have probably killed them!” she laughed.
Although young, Holton’s competitive nature meant she was disgusted with the performance against Donegal.
“I was just focussed on my own patch and it was a really enjoyable experience even though we didn’t get the result. I don’t remember being really nervous, it was just all enjoyment. The older girls had been there in 2001 and probably had that extra pressure of trying to put that right whereas the likes of myself and Maria were just going in to play football.
“I was raging that we lost, and in the manner we lost, we didn’t perform at all and that was probably what I was really raging over, that we didn’t do ourselves justice,” she said.
There was a huge amount of upheaval before Kildare arrived back in Croke Park 12 months later, this time to play Sligo.
“There was huge changes the following year. Frank and Mick stepped aside and Sean ‘Goggie’ Delaney came in with Nuala O’Mahony, Nuala was somebody we were very familiar with from the underage. Frank ran a lot of open trials and there were a lot of new girls on the panel and the squad became really competitive. We had a really good run in the league but poor Goggie unfortunately passed away during the season. A lot happened that year and looking back it almost feels like a couple of years because there was so much that went on.
“Goggie set a lot of the standards and there was no airs or graces about him, he told it to you straight. Sean O’Toole came in later that year and he was similar too, he judged you on your last performance and he didn’t care who you were. In the end it was probably one of the most competitive panels I’ve played on, there were probably 33 girls so we were all fighting for our position. The in-house games would actually end with going to blows with somebody, they were that competitive,” said Holton.
Kildare dominated much of the final but two late Sligo goals meant it was a nailbiting finale.
“We went well at times but let them back into it at different stages. I do remember that I felt more under pressure that year given that I had been there the year before. We had our homework done on some of their top players like Stephanie O’Reilly and we all knew our jobs.
“It was probably the disappointment of the previous years that made us hang on in the final few minutes, that kept us going to the very end,” said Holton.
Climbing the steps in Croke Park with her team mates was amazing experience.
“It was surreal, absolutely surreal. It was probably my first taste of real success, putting a lot of work into something and achieving it. It’s not something that everyone gets to do. The whole Croke Park experience was massive. We had been there the week before for a kick around and that gives you the taste for wanting to win there. The people who had been there and lost wanted to put those memories right. At that young age you probably think that’s going to happen the whole time but there was a long wait before that luckily happened again,” she said.
Kildare struggled slightly in the years that followed but by 2009 were competing well at senior level. There was a memorable first win over Laois at senior level thanks to an injury time Noelle Earley goal in a Leinster semi-final that year but Kildare could never quite get over Dublin, something Holton still regrets.
“The year or two that followed 2004 was a bit of a transition. It had probably taken a lot out of the older girls to win that, they had been on the road by then for years and years. It probably took about three years and when Paul Kelly came in, that group that was there, the Gatelys, Kate and Brianne, Noelle Earley, Clodagh Flanagan was probably one of the best teams I played with for Kildare. I can’t quite put my finger on why we didn’t do it but I definitely feel if we had managed to get everything right we would have been able to compete with Dublin. We’d do really well for a couple of games and then come up against Dublin and then flop. That is probably my biggest disappointment, that we didn’t do more with that crop of players because we definitely should have been competing and contesting Leinster finals.
“I remember that match against Laois in 2009, that’s one of my best memories and then we played Dublin after that. We just didn’t seem to gel and I think ultimately consistency and our own commitment let us down because we definitely had the players,” said Holton.
Kildare slipped out of the senior ranks in 2013 but by 2015 were back at Croke Park in the All-Ireland Intermediate final. On the day, Kildare were no match for Waterford and fell to a 3-14 to 0-10 defeat.
“I don’t think we got our match ups right or were prepared for Waterford on the day. We played Offaly in the semi-final and we knew their kick outs inside out, we had a plan and it worked really well. We got our match ups right and we played very well on the day. Maybe for Waterford we were a bit overawed or a bit hyped up. It was the first final that the ladies had played in 11 years so there was probably a lot of hype and we just didn’t perform, and Waterford were very good. We went back into the dressing room and everybody knew that we hadn’t performed and within ten minutes that’s what everybody was speaking about, let’s put this right and get back here next year,” said Holton.
As an older player and captain, Holton’s experience in 2015 was much different to earlier appearances at Croke Park and looking back now she can see that she tried to take too much responsibility on, to the detriment of her own performance.
“It was completely different. In 2003 for the first final you’re just going up on the bus happy as Larry and only thinking about your own game. Whereas in 2015 as captain and one of the older players you’re worried about everybody else and is everybody prepared. Then you have your game to worry about too and I probably got too caught up in that and got a bit distracted. I remember being very nervous about the 2015 final. I remember people asking me a few days before the game how things were and I was saying it was all great and it almost felt like I was trying to force it. It’s only on reflection that I probably realise how nervous I was. I don’t think I thought we were as prepared as we should have been,” said Holton.
Kildare changed manager again for the 2016 season and one of the first things new boss Alan Barry did was to let Holton focus solely on her football.
“Alan was very firm that yes, I was captain but he wanted me to focus on my game. He took a lot of the other stuff out of my hands, before I might have been organising gear or worrying over food and different stuff. He was adamant that he wanted me to just focus on the football and I think that benefited me and the team as well. There was that nervousness before 2015 but I remember driving out of Newbridge after our last training session before the 2016 final and I was really relaxed and calm, I knew we had everything done,” said Holton.
Kildare made to back to the All-Ireland final and eventually beat Clare after a thrilling game. Kildare led 1-7 to 0-3 at half time but Clare came storming back and in the end Kildare held on for a 1-13 to 1-12.
“It’s a good game to look back on now,” said Holton.
“It was played at a frantic pace, the first half was absolutely mental. We went six or seven points up at one stage, Noelle gave us a great start with probably one of the best goals I’ve seen. I remember going in at half time thinking I’m absolutely puffing here and I don’t know I’ll be able to get through another half.
“Somebody then said something about losing the previous year and that drove us on again. They came back though and got to within a point and all we kept saying was just to get the ball in our hands. In my mind, there was no thoughts of what was at stake. I got a free in the last few seconds and I could hear the crowd counting down the last seconds but I was still focussed on where I was going to kick the ball, it was that kind of game that you couldn’t lose focus for a second,” she said.
Holton was in inspirational form that day in Croke Park and even got forward late on to score a crucial point.
“It’s one of those things that nearly feels like an outer body experience because they don’t normally go over for me. It came into my mind during the second half that it’s all or nothing here and that kind of drives you on to do things that you wouldn’t do normally. It was lucky that it went over for me and all those points counted in the end,” she said.
12 years on after climbing the steps in Croke Park as an All-Ireland winners, Holton did so again, and this time as captain.
“That was hugely humbling for me. You get to represent the team and that was a really proud moment for me but also for your family and friends and all those you have sacrificed a lot for you. It’s nice to be able to repay that in some way.
“I knew I was coming to the end of my career and I just wanted to soak up every memory. I was off doing interviews and I had to come back across the pitch on my own and I remember just stopping to have a look around and take it all in. You’re very grateful for those moments whereas when you are younger you think it’s going to happen every year. It’s one of those moments that I will always treasure. To be able to do it with girls that I would have started off with like Maria, Savo, Noelle was really special,” said Holton.
Unfortunately, that was her last major performance in a Kildare jersey and just a few months later her inter-county career was over in disappointing circumstances.
“I was always wanted to get back to senior and compete at senior, we had only been down at intermediate for two years, so I wanted to go back and play for another year at senior. Alan Barry had decided to step away so we were on the look out for a new manager but that process I didn’t feel was done the way it should have been. That still hurts. I was very involved and wanted it done properly but I didn’t feel it was.
“Even so, I went on board with the new manager William O’Sullivan from Kerry and had committed to that. He then stepped away and things fell to pieces after that. I went back and played our first game against Laois and then against Tyrone. I remember snapping at somebody in training the week before the Tyrone game, I was just in bad form, I just was not enjoying it, and that was not me. I remember driving home thinking I just wasn’t enjoying it. There was no manager in place and I didn’t think every effort was being put in to find the right person. I just made the decision then and the next night I pulled Morgan O’Callaghan, who was the interim manager, aside and said this wasn’t how I saw playing senior football. I went out on the Sunday and told my man and dad that it would probably be my last game. I think we were beaten by a last minute goal and I told the girls then after the game. It was very emotional but looking back it was the right decision for me,” said Holton.
After her football career finished at county level, Holton went back to her club, Balyna and enjoyed success but even more so with the Johnstownbridge camogie team.
“Balyna, our club football team, and Johnstownbridge were so good to me when I played with Kildare. I tried to play as much as I could through the league and stuff but I had a lot of overload injuries and I missed some games, I remember I missed a county final with Johnstownbridge the week before the All-Ireland final.
“They were so good and welcomed me back whenever I was able to play. We won the Junior All-Ireland title and then the Intermediate the following year and that was just amazing, to do that with your club and everybody who you grown with up. It also probably helped with the transition out of intercounty football because that leaves a huge hole in your life. Going into Johnstownbridge, that was a really professional set up, Dick Flanagan runs a really tight ship and we wanted for nothing. To be getting back playing in All-Ireland finals in the two years after I’d given up playing inter-county football was really good for me. I think if I had went completely cold turkey it would have been very hard for me. We have great memories from those years, and won the county final last year and had ambitions to do the same this year but we’ll have to wait and see how that goes,” said Holton.
You wouldn’t back against this Kildare ladies GAA legend adding to her medal haul before she finally hangs up her boots.