KILDARE’S camogie team ended the 2013 season with captain Clodagh Flanagan lifting the All-Ireland Premier Junior Championship on the steps of Croke Park but it was quite the journey to get to that place.
Just a few years previously, fielding a team was Kildare’s main concern and any thoughts of running out at Croke Park were fanciful at best.
“There were times that we would be down training in Rathcoole and you’d thinking could we field a team more than could we win,” recalls Susie O’Carroll, the brilliant sharpshooting forward and one of the players who had been through the dark days with the Kildare team.
The appointment of Tom O’Mahoney brought new life to Kildare camogie and gradually things began to turn.
“Tom was brilliant, he was an absolutely brilliant coach and a brilliant manager, he was kind of a one man band, he was coach, selector, manager all rolled into one. He really brought a level of professionalism to us that we didn’t have before,” said Siobhan Hurley, another of the key forwards in the 2013 All-Ireland win.
Under O’Mahoney, Kildare beat Armagh in the Junior ‘A’ final in 2010 and went close reaching Croke Park in the following years.
“We won the Junior ‘A’ against Armagh, the next year we didn’t get out of the groups and then the following year we got to the All-Ireland semi-final against Meath,” said Hurley.
“We went into that match and we all believed we could win it but it was probably their time. It really hurt us that they went on to win it because we’ve always been rivals,” she added.
Going into the 2013 season, Jim McMullen was appointed manager. An army man, he instantly picked up from where O’Mahoney left off and brought the team up another level.
“Jim is an army man so there was a structure to everything. Tom had brought a lot of success, we had won Division 4, won the Junior ‘A’ so people began wanting to play for Kildare again. Up to that point we had a very small panel but after that bit of success players began to come back and the core group that had been there with Tom were still there.
“I remember when we started training under Jim for 2013 having the feeling that we would win the All-Ireland. We had two panels that year, senior and junior, and it was very competitive. We had a full pre-season training in the Curragh and there was a lot of team bonding. It was just brilliant, Jim really pushed us. We came back in January and he told us that we were on a drinking ban for the month of Janaury, just to see if we would do it and I don’t think a single person broke that ban. There were girls from Cappagh going to their best friends’ wedding and coming back between the church and the meal to train. Everybody did that kind of thing that year, it was a real team effort and it was brilliant to be around, I absolutely loved it,” said Hurley.
O’Carroll had similar feelings.
“Starting in November of that year, he got a lot of girls on board who previously had probably looked at the bad years thought they weren’t going in for that. He had a great set up, very organised and he set the standard straight away when we were down in the gym in the Curragh. We knew that if we kept that standard up that Croke Park was the goal and for the first time it felt like a realistic goal and not just a pipe dream.
“The standards were just raised and things like missing training just weren’t acceptable anymore, from Jim but from the players as well,” she said.
Kildare made their way through to the All-Ireland semi-finals and were once again 60 minutes away from Croke Park. Down were standing in their way and not many gave Kildare a chance but it turned out to be one of the team’s best performance.
O’Carroll scored a hat-trick of goals in a 5-11 to 1-13 win and remembers it as one of her favourite games over the entirety of her career.
“We scored five goals and we won well on the scoreboard but it didn’t feel like that. I remember Aoife Trant and Jane O’Donoghue were throwing themselves in front of balls like we were only a point up even though we were probably ten points up at that stage. I think I nearly have better memories from that game than even the final because I think that was probably one of the best performances I have been involved in with a Kildare team. Getting to Croke Park was always the goal, I know you want to win when you get there, but getting there was a big thing for us. That’s one that really stands out, not just in that year but in my whole career,” she said.
“Down were beaten in the final the year before and they were probably expected to win it but we absolutely blew them off the pitch that day and I don’t think there was a player who didn’t play to the top of their game that day, everybody played really, really well,” agreed Hurley.
It meant that Kildare would play an All-Ireland final at Croke Park for the first time since 1990. It could have been something that might have overawed Kildare in other years but again, McMullen’s preparations came to the fore.
“He brought us to his house two weeks before the game, we went to the Gables and then back to Jim’s house. He explained everything that was going to happen, he had been involved with teams who had reached Croke Park before so he was really good,” said Hurley.
“I think we were supposed to go in maybe the Thursday before the match and I think it was Orla Bambury who asked could we do it a week earlier. I remember thinking it would have been fine but she was dead right because people were getting emotional going into the dressing rooms. We had a week then to look forward to the match and the whole thing about Croke Park was already done. For some of us it was a long time coming and there were times when we thought it would never happen so it probably is something that you build up in your head, it worked well for us and we were able to just focus on the match,” added O’Carroll.
Facing them in the final were Laois. Kildare had beaten them earlier in the season but Laois got their revenge in the Championship group stages. Kildare were determined that they would be ones getting the best of the trilogy.
“On the day itself, we got to a certain point on the way to Croke Park and Jim just said turn off the phones. At the time I didn’t understand why but it was brilliant because it meant nobody was videoing going in and nobody got carried away because of that,” said Hurley.
All that meticulous preparation paid off when Kildare took hold of the game early on. They scored the first five points and held a 0-6 to 0-2 lead at half time.
“I don’t think Kildare have ever been as prepared as they were for that match, even for that Championship. I think we all went into that match with no doubts in our head that we were going to win that match. We had beaten Laois earlier in the year and then Laois had beaten us in the group stages of the Championship but we knew that we had played terribly. It was probably the best thing that could have happened to us because we were waiting for a chance to get them back. So many of us had worked so hard for so many years and the preparation was just unbelievable we were just never going to lose that match. Especially when you have the likes of Susie who can turn a match in two seconds,” said Hurley.
Even with their dominant first half, Kildare still needed O’Carroll’s scoring heroics. Laois scored a goal early in the half to move to within a point but two O’Carroll goals in the space of a minute took the game away from Laois.
“They got the goal and I remember it was lashing rain the wind was against us, I was standing in the corner on the Cusack Stand side, there was nobody in the stands in that part of the ground of the ground so it felt very lonely and I was thinking how could we even get the ball down this end of the pitch,” said O’Carroll.
“I think it was Caroline Forde and Clodagh Flanagan who were in midfield, they did some good work to get the ball back up and I got the two goals. For the first time, I remember thinking that I was just about to take too many steps so I just wanted to hit the ball. The second one came directly after it and then I think Siobhan scored a point.
“We went from being a point up to eight points up in a matter of minutes. By that time, the sun had come out so my memories change a lot. I remember being on the other side of the pitch when we were eight points up, in the sunshine, on the side that our supporters were singing ‘oh to be a Lily’. It’s amazing how it all changed within a few minutes.
“You dream of playing in Croke Park and getting those few scores. I probably wouldn’t be known for being much of a workhorse so I need to chip in with a few scores or my worth would be questioned fairly quickly,” laughed O’Carroll.
The final whistle sparked huge celebrations and the team was led up the steps by captain Clodagh Flanagan.
“Early on in the season I remember Jim coming to me saying he was going to announce to the team that I was captain and that Angela Lyons would be vice captain. That was something I was extremely proud of and incredibly grateful for. To walk up the steps and be surrounded by the supporters, getting hugs from my parents, seeing people who I had played with over the years, was just a really special and proud moment. To be able to lift the cup on behalf of such a great bunch of players was a real honour.
“Because I was captain, my parents were given tickets further up in the Ard Comhairle area, there was a bar in front of them so they couldn’t get down but daddy leapt over the bar so he could get down. That was really special,” said Flanagan.
The celebrations that followed remain treasured moments for all involved.
“There’s nothing like playing there and having your family there,” said Hurley.
“My sister Eimear was on the panel too so there was the two of us. They say a big crowd is needed in Croke Park but I loved that it was so small and that I was able to find my family straight away after the final whistle. My niece Robyn was there and we were able to bring her out onto the pitch. We got great photos and have great memories of it.
“What happened that year was amazing because we weren’t getting food after training so we set up a rota of parents who were available and were around and they cooked food and brought it to training for us every week in Éire Óg. Because of that everybody knew everybody’s family and it was amazing to see all those people after the final. So many people had put something into that team and it was brilliant for them to see us on that massive stage and be so close to the action. It was great for the younger girls to see us too because up to then Kildare camogie hadn’t really been that attractive to play with,” she added.
“Going up those steps and Clodagh lifting the cup was amazing. It was great for that year but also for all the other years when you are training away dreaming of Croke Park but it never looking like it might happen.”
It was Flanagan’s second All-Ireland win at Croke Park after winning the Kildare footballers in 2004.
“2004 was the first year I played football with Kildare. The previous year, Ais Holton, who is one of my closest friends, had played with them. I wanted to play with her and get on the team so I spent the winter before trying to manufacture a left foot just to give myself an opportunity. I spent the winter hopping the ball off the roof.
“I was 17 so going in I didn’t have the same level of responsibility, I was just there to try get on the team and do my best. There were a few girls my age joining the panel around that time, Ais was there, Maria Moolick, Donna Berry, Elaine Dillon too. There was a good gang of us and the older girls were really welcoming too and valued our input. Being young and winning an All-Ireland is different to winning as captain and having that responsibility but equally as special, they are two great memories and memories that you would be proud,” she said.
In typical GAA style, just a week or so after going to war side by side to try bring back an All-Ireland for Kildare, the players were lining out against each other in a county final.
“We were so close with that team. A week or two later we had to go and play against Celbridge in the county final. Johnstown won and we were delighted but we almost felt heartbroken for our team mates, just a week or two earlier we were lining out together in Croke Park. That was a bit difficult, one week you are in the thick of things together in Croke Park and celebrating together and then a week later you are giving it everything to beat each other in a county final but that’s just the joys of the GAA,” said Flanagan.
Kildare were back in Croke Park two years later to play Waterford in the Intermediate All-Ireland final but fell short that day and perphaps even more disappointingly so in a semi-final against Kilkenny 12 months later. That was something of an end of an era for Kildare camogie but that just first All-Ireland success in Croke Park in 23 years was the highlight of that time.
**The Kildare team that beat Laois 2-11 to 1-5
KILDARE: Saileóg O’Keefe, Jane O’Donoghue, Aoife Trant, Niamh Concannon, Fiona Trant, Carol Nolan, Angela Lyons, Caroline Forde, Orla Bambury, Clodagh Flanagan, Siobhán Hurley 0-5 (2fs), Melissa Lyons 0-2, Louise Keatley, Susie O’Carroll 2-2, Róisín O’Connell 0-1.
Subs: Hazel Mulligan for Concannon, 46; Cliodhna MacSweeney 0-1 for Lyons, 53; Niamh Breen for F Trant, 58; Clodagh Farrell for Keatley, 60.