Long Read - Wexford Youths' Lauren Kelly: 'It's not very often you get the opportunity to win a medal representing Ireland'Sat, May 30 2020
After a whirlwind start to her Wexford Youths career, Lauren Kelly has only recently had a chance to reflect a bit more on an amazing rise to the top and some memorable moments to boot.
The Kildare native enjoyed an incredible 2019, helping Ireland to the semi-finals of the World University Games in Naples before competing with Youths in the Champions League groups in Lithuania.
While Wexford would finish a disappointing third in the league, ceding their title to Peamount United, Kelly capped the season off with two goals in a 3-2 FAI Cup final win over her childhood club.
Off the field, Kelly finished her work placement with KPMG on Friday and will return to finish her Accounting and Finance degree in NUI Maynooth in September.
That FAI Cup final was just one of the star performances for Kelly in a breakthrough year that ended with her receiving the athlete of the year award at Maynooth.
She was thrust into the public eye, however, when her spectacular 30-yard strike proved to be the winning as Dave Connell’s side beat Brazil 1-0 in their opening tie of the summer’s University Games.
Ireland would top their group and edge out China on penalties in the quarter-finals before their run was finally brough to a halt by three-time champions North Korea.
They would miss out on a bronze medal by the narrowest of margins as they found themselves on the wrong side of a penalty shoot-out defeat to Russia.
“We went out there not really expecting to do that well,” the 21-year-old tells extratime.ie.
“We just said we would focus and take each game as it comes around. We knew within ourselves what we were capable of and it showed.
“It's not very often you get the opportunity to win a medal representing Ireland so the whole experience was amazing.
"The Champions League rolled around just a few weeks later and that's where I just have to pinch myself really.
“If you had told me a year ago I would score the winner against Brazil at the University Games, score in the Champions League and in the Cup final at the Aviva, my reaction would’ve been to just laugh.
“It's been incredibly enjoyable and has all just given me a renewed hunger for more and more.”
A new start
Having begun her WNL journey with Peamount in 2015, Kelly linked up with UCD Waves before moving closer to home to Wexford Youths last year.
A serious injury had seen her sit out much of her final season at Waves but the move south turned out to be an inspired one as she quickly became a key young player in an experienced Youths squad.
“There has always been a really close bond and family feel to this team we have in Wexford. From the minute I arrived I got that feeling.
“From the youngest player in the squad right up to the oldest there is a real closeness and togetherness. We've been doing zoom quizzes a lot since this all began, almost every week, which has been great fun.
“When I joined Wexford last year, I was fresh back from a bad injury and had missed all of the previous season with a broken ankle.
“From the first day in training the girls were great and you could see they rated me as a player which was a huge boost for my confidence personally.
"Playing with the likes of Kylie Murphy as my captain and getting to play with Rianna Jarrett, someone who I've looked up to for years, has been amazing.
“There's only one option here and that's winning. Anything less is not good enough and it is not accepted.
“That's the ethic and attitude that a lot of the success in recent years has stemmed from and that's where we need to aim again. That attitude is just so infectious.
“From day one that has been drilled into me and that's the way I am no. Every day from morning to night, I apply that same work ethic and drive into everything I do.
“Despite the huge amount that this team has won in the last number of years, every year there's more trophies and medals to win and more success to achieve so it starts again, and we want it all.”
Despite the disappointment of losing the league to the Peas, Wexford finished the season with a flourish and with a 3-2 win over the Newcastle side in the FAI Cup final.
“The FAI Cup final was an absolute dream come true. I've been going to the cup final for as long as I can remember, never missing one.
“The experience was just incredible and something I'll never forget. The week leading up to the day itself, the morning of the final, the whole lot – just incredible.
“As soon as it sinks in that you have qualified for the final, the excitement that builds up in everyone involved is amazing.
“Some of the girls have been there a few times but you can still see how excited they get each time it comes around. Every one is special in its own way and for its own reasons.
“Having this enforced down time has led to be doing a lot of reflecting and you get a chance to realise what has been achieved in the last year – it's crazy when you think about it.”
Kelly's two goals helped Youths to lift their second straight FAI Cup title against former club Peamount United.
Usually, at this time of year, the Women's National League would be in full swing with Lauren and her team-mates eager to take the title back from Peamount United.
No return date has yet been set and, with her studies finished for the summer, she will have to make do with reliving last season’s memories before attempting to make more.
Whenever football does resume, Kelly feels that both herself and her clubmates will be raring to go despite their main rivals having strengthened yet again in the off-season.
Internationals Stephanie Roche and Roma McLaughlin have signed back with the champions while another Ireland cap in Ciara Grant has joined runners-up Shelbourne.
“Peamount are looking even stronger again and have made some great signings themselves since Christmas.
“They will be looking to retain the league title and will go a long way but, by the time the season does come around, we'll be extremely confident and as hungry as ever to take back the title.
“We want to take the title and more success back to Wexford and to Ferrycarrig Park and we'll keep pushing ourselves to achieve that.
“If not this year, with everything that is going on, we'll focus ourselves towards achieving it next year.
“Our performances were quite dominant and encouraging against the top teams in the league last season, but we need to be turning that dominance into points and wins.
“When I say that I'm talking about Peamount of course, Shels and Galway. I think that Galway team are very under rated and are well capable of taking points off the top three in the league on their day.
“Those are the teams that we fell down against last season and we need to put away more of the chances we are creating.”
Following last season’s European heartache, the 21-year-old is eyeing yet another crack against the continent’s elite should Youths wrest back the championship.
Convincing wins over Bikirkara and group stage regulars Gintras, Kelly scoring the winner in the latter, were undone by a costly defeat to Llaznia of Albania, who topped the table by a point.
“In my opinion we were the best team in that group and we were very unlucky not to qualify out of it.
“To know that we can compete at such a high level is encouraging for when the season does resume eventually, and it would be in the back of your mind when you are playing.
“If we get another shot at it I think we will be more aware of what to expect, how to manage games and how to manage different scenarios you find yourself in to give yourself the best chance of progressing.”
Growing up was a GAA world for Lauren for most of her younger years, and it was only later she began playing football.
“The change to soccer came about when I was in fifth class in school.
“Laura Cusack and Pat Behan [FAI Development Officers in Kildare] came to my school and were handing out flyers for the Soccer Sisters coaching sessions that they would be hosting in Kildare Town.
“I decided to go over and after a few days they noticed me and acknowledged to me how impressed they were with me.
“That gave me a great shot of confidence and I went and started playing with the boys’ academy in Kildare.
"We were playing a match in the DDSL one morning and there was a man from Peamount at the game. and he had a chat with me and asked would I be interested in coming up to the club.
“It was a great opportunity to get and I was there from that time until I turned 18 and had seven great years at the club.
“That time that I decided to go down to the Soccer Sisters session in Naas, they organised an indoor soccer tournament for everyone who was there, and Louise Quinn was there.
"When I went to Peamount shortly after that, Stephanie Roche was on the team. Those were two players in the space of a few weeks I was meeting and interacting with who I had looked up to for a long time.”
Kelly has also benefitted from the rising awareness of women’s sport, she admits.
“The 20x20 campaign over the last two years has been amazing for sport in this country and has taken stride after stride with so many admirable milestones recently.
“The shift in outlook, profile, regard and respect for the WNL and for each of the incredible female athletes we have in this country and beyond has been extremely positive and refreshing to say the least.
“Young girls know every squad players name now and look up to each and every one of them as a role model and as someone they want to be in a few years’ time.”