Kerry joint managers Declan Quill and Darragh Long were standing on the sideline at St Edward’s University in Austin last Sunday, praying Nicola Ward would not pick up an injury. After all, the Galway footballer had a league final to play just six days later, against Kerry.
The culmination of last week’s LGFA All Stars tour to Texas was an Easter Sunday game between the 2021 and 2022 selections. Quill and Long took charge of the 2022 side, and Ward was one of their foot soldiers on the day – which was an interesting dynamic a week out from a league final between Kerry and Galway.
“We were rolling subs in and out throughout the game. Nicola wanted to play as much as she could but at the back of our minds we were thinking, ‘what if she gets injured, we’d be killed,’” smiles Quill.
Thankfully, everybody came through unscathed and on Saturday at Croke Park, Ward will be one of Galway’s key leaders as they bid to overcome Kerry and win the county’s first ever Division One National League title.
There were two Galway players on the trip to Texas, Olivia Divilly joining Ward, while Kerry had seven playing members involved – Ciara Butler, Kayleigh Cronin, Aishling O’Connell, Cáit Lynch, Niamh Carmody, Louise Ní Mhuircheartaigh and Anna Galvin.
Given Kerry last won a Division One league title in 1991, it must have been tempting for the management to discourage transatlantic travel for their players or hide a couple of passports, but to their credit Quill and Long could see beyond the bubble.
“The timing wasn’t great but you just couldn’t deny the girls a chance to go, it was a once-in-a-lifetime trip, something that might never happen for some of those players ever again,” reasons Quill.
“Before Darragh and I knew we were going, we would have told them, ‘we don’t care what situation we are in when the time comes around, you have to go on that trip.’ All the girls involved in the league finals this weekend looked after themselves over there, they were great ambassadors.”
They also attended the first of Ireland’s two international friendlies against USA, watching on in Austin’s Q2 Stadium as Vera Pauw’s side lost 2-0 in a well-contested match. Despite a crowd of over 20,000 in attendance, Katie McCabe posted on Twitter afterwards that the All Stars group had been heard: “Thank you for the support today! We heard yis Olé Olé Olé.”
The touring party arrived home on Wednesday, but a bit later than expected after a delay at Heathrow left them sitting on the runway for over three hours. By the time their plane landed in Dublin, the Kerry players had missed a connection to Farranfore and had to instead take an evening train south, eventually getting home late on Wednesday night.
Still, these last few years have felt like something of a journey for this Kerry group – one which has had its setbacks and diversions – but this season there has been a real sense of a team going places. They won the Division Two title last April and now, having finished the group stages top of the pile, Kerry stand on the verge of adding a Division One crown. Sound familiar?
“We are kind of on a similar path to them,” says Quill, in reference to Meath’s meteoric rise over recent years.
“We got lucky in some of our earlier games in the league this year, going to Mayo and Waterford and coming away with one-point wins, but then we had some excellent displays at home against Dublin and Meath.
“After five games we were qualified for the league final, which was beyond where we expected to be to be honest, because we had wanted to consolidate our position in the division and not get relegated, so it is testament to the hard work and commitment of the players that we find ourselves in the final.”
If any evidence was needed that their development continues on an upward trajectory, this will be Kerry’s third appearance in a national final at Croke Park in 12 months. They beat Armagh in the Division Two decider last April, but came up short in the All-Ireland final against Meath last July.
“The All-Ireland final was a step too far for us last year, Meath used all the experience they had,” recalls Quill. “But we recognised a few areas we fell short on and rectified them by adding people to our management group and the girls have responded massively, it’s changed their bodies and minds a small bit, and they have developed massively over the last few months.”
For Galway, this final represents a chance to make history and win a Division One title for the first time.
“It’s definitely something that we’ve spoken about and something that we want to correct, to get our names on that cup come Saturday,” says Tribe captain Sarah Ní Loingsigh.
But Kerry have also been waiting quite a while. They last contested a top-flight league decider in 2008, losing to Cork. And they have not been crowned champions since 1991.
One of the pillars of their recent success has been an ability to carve out goals – Kerry raised 15 green flags during their seven group games, netting at least one goal in every match. Goals were the difference when Kerry beat Galway in Tuam last month, 3-11 to 0-17.
“We don’t set out simply to score goals, it’s just one feature of our play,” says Quill. “We scored a lot of goals last year as well, when we move the ball quickly opportunities come about and we have some great finishers.”
And finishing the job is all that matters for both Kerry and Galway in Saturday’s league final.