Most of the biggest names in women’s soccer across the pond and channel had Mark Leavy’s phone hopping right up until Christmas.
“Colleges from all across the States, Man City and Glasgow have been on and Arsenal recently made an enquiry as to where she is with her education,” reveals the man who led Shelbourne Ladies to such an emphatic league/cup double in 2016.
Leanne Kiernan is the object of those enquiries but an army of foreign scouts look likely to be disappointed as the Cavan schoolgirl appears set to remain at home thanks to her love of pigs.
Anyone lucky enough to have witnessed Kiernan’s hat-trick in Shels’ brilliant 5-0 FA Cup final victory over Wexford Youths last November will understand just why so many scouts’ have sharpened their elbows.
What’s so delightful is not just her ability to vaporise defenders with her touch and speed but how much utter, unfettered joy she expresses while doing it.
The 17-year-old from Bailieborough has three things you can’t fake in football – skill, pace and sheer enjoyment with every touch – and not even her natural humility could stop her lighting up the cup final with celebratory knee-slides and a mega-watt smile.
Leavy first spotted Kiernan when she was 12 and playing with Kingscourt’s boy’s team.
He was in charge of girls’ football in Trim Celtic at the time and also scouting talent for the FAI in that region.
She was one of just two girls playing on boys’ teams in his area, something she could only do until U-14 though the age limit on girls playing with boys has since risen to 16.
“We took her into the FAI emerging talent programme at that age and she played in the Gaynor Cup tournament (the girls’ equivalent of the Kennedy Cup) under the Drogheda League Banner,” Leavy explains.
“She only came to Shelbourne at 15 but playing out in a dogged league like the NEC (North East Counties) with boys has probably paid off for her in some ways.”
Kiernan would not be playing soccer at all if not for her former maths teacher
Harley, who had played herself, introduced girls’ soccer to Bailieborough Community School and it was there, as part of the school’s first-year girls ‘Futsal’ (indoor five-a-side) team, that Kiernan first played.
That team went all the way to an All-Ireland final and Harley, who was also helping out with the Ulster U-15 schoolgirls’ squad, brought a few of her players along to provincial trials and they made the team.
“I was driving up to Raphoe every Tuesday evening anyway for Ulster training so they used to come with me. The principal was very good and allowed them to take a half-day,” she remembers. “Leanne hadn’t even played a game of 11-a-side before that and was still quite light-framed but her skill, vision and ability to pick out a pass in advance was just unreal.”
Kiernan was already immersed in sport but, in rural Cavan, soccer wasn’t on her radar.
She was a four-time Ulster club juvenile cross-country champion with Shercock AC before her teens were out and, in 2011, was just one place off a medal in the Irish U-13 cross-country championships.
She was also a talented Gaelic footballer and has played for Cavan up to U-16 level but, like distance-running, that got knocked on the head in the past 18 months as playing for Shelbourne involves travelling to Dublin a lot for training and games and she’s also sitting her Leaving Cert this summer.
Up until Christmas her training routine, three days a-week, was hectic: "Get home and get dinner, leave around five, bring the homework with me and do it in the car on the way up to Morton Stadium. I'd get home around 11, have a shower and into bed and, if I still had some homework I'd do it before school in the morning."
Her dad, John, acts as chauffeur and, with the women’s domestic season now finished, their mileage has dropped considerably but there’s still international training to fit in alongside the books.
Kiernan has already played in two senior friendlies and is the star striker for the Irish U-19s who, by topping their initial European Championship qualifying group, will now host one of the elite rounds (against Finland, Ukraine and Scotland) in April.
The world is Kiernan’s oyster soccer and college-wise, but the pull of the land, family and some unusual pets seems greater.
“I’ve had offers from America but I don’t think I’m going to take them. I love Ireland and I don’t think I could leave my family and friends,” she reveals.
“I’ve grown up on a pig-farm and am always outdoors. I’d really like to study agricultural science here,” she says, explaining how her brother has already taken that route to the family business.
Like a lot of farmers’ children she confesses to getting a little too attached to the stock at times.
“Yes, I name a few of them and have some pet pigs,” she giggles.”I put a tag with their name on them, so they can’t be taken!”
If she chooses to study in Ireland, Shels will not be the only beneficiaries.
Her cup final hat-trick, shown live on RTÉ, brought women’s soccer to an unlikely new audience.
She had three pre-Mock exams in school next day so returned home that evening and was shocked to be greeted by a civic reception in Bailieborough and similarly feted in school next day.
“A lot of people said they were shocked at how well girls could pass and the quality of their touch and passes.
“The country lads who’d be really into Gaelic, soccer wouldn’t be their sport at all and they were saying ‘Jesus that’s the first time we ever watched 90 minutes of football!’ That made me laugh!” she says grinning.
“It was Gaelic football for me too first but, when you go up to Shelbourne, and the coaches are so good and they put so much effort into the women’s game, that’s what decided me to pick soccer.”
“We didn’t want to coach her too much this year,” Leavy reveals. “You don’t want to coach that natural street footballer out of a player so young.”
He's seen just how quickly she's learnt from experienced team-mates like Noelle Murray to adjust her natural speed and play off the shoulder more, rather than repeatedly getting caught offside.
“You could possibly call her one-dimensional at the moment in her lightning ability to push past players with pace and but she’s got two feet,” he notes.
“Some people with her talent can be slightly lazy and rely on other people around them but Leanne works so hard. She never gives up right to the last minute of a game, no matter what the scoreline. She has a really great attitude.”
With only seven teams in the women’s national league (three from Dublin), one of the FAI’s challenges is to attract girls from further afield and retain them by improving their local school and club experience.
Their 10-year-old ‘Soccer Sisters’ programme, for 7-12 year-olds, has already introduced 25,000 young girls to the game and Aviva has also just sponsored a new ‘nursery’ arm of it for 5-8 year-olds.
Yet Kiernan might still have been lost to GAA or athletics were it not for the woman who first spotted her gift.
Bridgeen Harley now teaches in St Columba’s in Stranorlar and manages Ulster’s U-15 girls squad, and soccer recently reunited teacher and pupil briefly at the national U-15 interpros where she was struck by how unspoiled Kiernan has remained, despite her burgeoning reputation.
“Leanne was there as an FAI ambassador and presented the Player of the Match award to one of our girls and she came up to me straight away with that big smile,” she recalls.
“The first thing I asked was ‘do you still want to be a pig farmer?’ and she immediately said ‘yep!’”