Leanne Kiernan: the goal-den girl
Leanne Kiernan has gone from Cavan ham to West Ham, and although she is leaving her mark on professional football, her roots on the family pig farm are firmly in place, writes Anne O'Donoghue

In the kitchen of the Kiernans home in Bailieborough there’s a note on the fridge. It says to let Dundalk IT know by April 2019 if Leanne is taking up the agricultural science course she deferred last year or not.

With a hat-trick scored against Huddersfield Town in a recent game, the striker doesn’t look like she’ll be returning from playing top-flight football in England just yet.

Leanne Kiernan is synonymous with two things; pigs and professional football, (when I say football, I mean soccer by the way).

The association with pigs comes from her family. Her grandfather was the late Buddy Kiernan, famous in pig circles and founder of Kiernan Milling. The feed company, now run by her uncles, was a driving force in establishing pig farming as a major enterprise in the northeast. Her father John is a pig producer.

Professional football, well, that side of her identity she forged all by herself. The 19-year-old is one of Ireland’s fastest rising sports stars. She is in her first season with West Ham United FC Women and with five goals in 14 appearances, the Cavan girl is certainly leaving her mark.

This is West Ham’s first year as a professional women’s team, playing in the FA Women’s Super League (formerly the Women’s Premier League). At the time of going to print they are sitting sixth in the table. They played Everton on Wednesday night, so go check the result and comeback. Here’s to a win.

Sporting success

When Irish Country Living meets Leanne, she is home during an international window for training camp with the Irish squad. Her American West Ham teammate Erin Simon is with her. The Hammer ladies are of all different nationalities and Leanne has started bringing them with her on her trips home, where the Kiernans give them an education on pigs.

“Two of the girls came over the last time, one of them is actually from Essex. We brought them out to the farm. Sure Jesus, they’d never seen anything like it. I don’t think she’d ever stepped foot on a farm before,” laughs Leanne.

Although now based in London, Leanne returns home to Cavan whenever she can. Her parents John and Ita visit her in the UK regularly, including going to all of her matches. Ita played camogie for Cavan and says that she knew her youngest was sporty from the off, giving the example that she could always just pick up a hurley and hit a sliotar.

Naturally, Leanne dabbled in a few different sports growing up. She was an accomplished cross-country runner – winning the Ulster Club Championship four times – and also played ladies Gaelic football with Cavan underage. Even though it’s in the Super League at present she is making waves, GAA still has a special place in her heart.

“Gaelic football is probably my favourite sport, but then Gaelic, you can always come back to it.”

Of course, soccer too featured heavily in Leanne’s formative years. She started with Bailieborough Celtic FC, before moving to Kingscourt Harps AFC. However, after under 15 she could no longer play with the boys and continued togging out for her school team at Bailieborough Community College.

Here Leanne had a very influential coach, Bridgeen Hurley, a maths teacher, who frequently took her and some of the other girls to Ulster training. It was there at 15 she was first spotted for the Ireland setup and subsequently went to Shelbourne Ladies FC in Dublin, whom she played with from 2015 to 2018. At Shelbourne Leanne’s skill really shone. In 2016 she scored a hat-trick in the FAI Women’s Cup Final.

On the road

During those years with Shelbourne there were many miles racked up by the Kiernans, with Leanne’s parents driving her to Dublin for training three times a week and then to a match at the weekend.

“I got out of school at half three, we’d leave at half five, training is at seven, we’d be home around half 10 or 11. You’d do that Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Then we’d have a game somewhere around the country on Sundays,” says Leanne.

This was all part of Leanne’s routine during the year of her Leaving Cert, which she sat last June. Her sister Laura remarks that it was in the car she did her homework and studied for the exams, which paid off, because as the note on the fridge confirms, she got offered ag science in DkIT, which she deferred.

Around this time too, Leanne was just a couple of months off finishing her Green Cert in Ballyhaise. All this was put on ice when professional football teams came knocking to sign her last summer.

“I got this offer and if I didn’t take it, it mightn’t come again. West Ham came up in the summer time. I was still playing with Shelbourne. My Irish coach, he wants to get us all in professional environments to improve his Irish team. One of the girls was on about going to Germany. I was supposed to go over and have a trial there too.

“But England is only across the water. My parents would be out a lot and that, so it’s grand. I said I would have a look at West Ham, it was West Ham or a German club. I went over to West Ham, me and my da, naive to the fact that I probably would stay over there, just having a nosey, like us all in Cavan,” jokes Leanne, well able to poke fun at herself.

Interestingly, initially the striker was reluctant to go and check things out. “I wasn’t going and then my da said: ‘Sure we can have a look.’ We went, looked at the facilities and everything. They train in the same place as the men, so it’s quite good. I was like, sure look I’ll give it a go. A few months and if I hate it I can always come home, can’t I?”

Overcoming obstacles

Midway through her first professional season, Leanne is very much enjoying the experience, and is playing great football too. But not everything was plain sailing, moving from Bailieborough to London took some getting used to.

“It’s funny because you would be walking around Bailieborough here and everybody knows each other, don’t they?” remarks the number eight. “You are chatting away to everyone, but over there no one knows you and everybody keeps to themselves.

“When me and my da first went over and we got on the tube, that was stressful. I brought over my car eventually, just before Christmas, because I’m kind of outside London, I can drive.”

Leanne has also had to contend with injury since making the move, but thankfully is now back on flying form.

“I’ve had a few injuries since I went over, which I wouldn’t have experienced in Ireland. It’s probably just the change up. Even the gym I wouldn’t have done here. Whereas I was put into a gym atmosphere and training fulltime. I’m slowly getting it,” reflects Leanne.

“I tore my hamstring, it was actually when my cousins, my aunties and my uncles all came over, we played Bristol at home. I had torn my hamstring just at the end of the first half and I was only after coming back from studs in my leg. So it was a bit disheartening, but look, I’m back.

“That’s the thing about professional football and living over there, I still had to go training and that, but I couldn’t do anything. I got home for a little under the first week, just to get my head around it, because it was going to be nine weeks before I was fully back playing. You want to get back so you can help the team, so you keep doing your rehab and everything.”

Speaking with Leanne, it’s clear she’s a team player through and through. She never focuses on the goal she may have scored, but instead the team’s overall performance. It’s evident that she has developed a close bond with the West Ham girls, who sub-in as her family while she is in England.

Football and farming

At present, Leanne’s career is geared towards football, but she makes no bones of the fact that after football her intentions are to come home and farm pigs. Her West Ham teammates get to see that side of her when they visit Ireland.

“I think when I say I’ve pigs, people presume I have a few in the garden and I feed them spuds. People don’t realise it’s a business. So they came and thought it was great how it’s all run. They want to come back so they must have enjoyed it,” she smiles.

On her summer holidays, Leanne always worked in the piggery and also kept a bit of stock herself.

“I think with my confirmation money I bought two calves. I reared them and had calves out of them. I was always a bit like that, just a bit different, but it’s normal enough around here,” she concedes with a chuckle.

“In the summer time there I’d go out with Gary my brother and we’d head to the farm. It’s kind of like a social thing too. Something to be at, some people can just lie at home all summer and relax, I’d be bored out of my mind.

“Farming was something I always had an interest in. I had a few sheep and a few cattle, bits of this and that. It’s something I want to do.”

And do it, no doubt she will. Although the call of the farm at present may go unanswered, in life after football it may be recognised.

Read more

Irish rugby's Lucy Mulhall: One single opportunity can change your whole life

Hurleys, heifers and hard work