In attendance, from left, Athlone Town head coach Ciarán Kilduff, Athlone Town captain Laurie Ryan, Shelbourne captain Pearl Slattery and Shelbourne head coach Noel King during a media day at Tallaght Stadium, ahead of the Sports Direct Women's FAI Cup final. Photo: Ben McShane/Sportsfile

Athlone’s bid for cup success among Kilduff’s career highlights

By Daire Walsh

He achieved much over the course of a lengthy playing career, but Ciarán Kilduff has acknowledged that leading Athlone Town into the Women’s FAI Cup final is up there as one of his proudest moments in football to date.

A League of Ireland Premier Division winner with Shamrock Rovers in 2011, the Kildare native also claimed back-to-back top-flight titles at Dundalk in 2015 and 2016. In addition to a brace of First Division crowns and Setanta Sports Cup successes, he also appeared off the bench when Dundalk defeated Cork City in a tense FAI Cup decider held at the Aviva Stadium in November 2015.

He also had the distinction of representing both Rovers and Dundalk in the group stages of the UEFA Europa League – his goals against AZ Alkmaar and Maccabi Tel Aviv helping the Louth club to pick up four points in the 2016/17 edition of the competition.

Yet having rounded off his playing days with a two-year spell at Shelbourne, he now finds himself leading Athlone into battle against the north Dublin club for the women’s football showpiece at Tallaght Stadium this Sunday (kick-off 3pm).

“It’s a very proud moment for me obviously. I played at Shamrock Rovers and in Tallaght Stadium more times than I can remember. I’ve had some great moments and memories there, but I do feel like this is probably up there with the best sense of pride I’ve had in football, considering that you’re responsible for so many people,” Kilduff remarked ahead of Athlone’s clash with Shelbourne.

“They all have their own story and their only family, everyone supporting them. I do feel very responsible for them all and I want to make sure that the least we can do is put on our best performance and do our best on Sunday. Put our best foot forward in the hope of winning the Cup.”

One of the league’s youngest managers at just 35, Kilduff only took charge of Athlone on June 27 – five days after the resignation of his predecessor Tommy Hewitt.

His first game at the helm was against Linfield in their final group game of the All-Island Cup at the beginning of July, but it wasn’t until Sligo Rovers’ visit to Athlone Town Stadium on August 19 that he finally had a chance to manage the side in the Women’s Premier Division.

This was due to the fact that domestic female action on these shores was given an extended break while the Republic of Ireland were competing at the FIFA Women’s World Cup in Australia. Because of the extensive turnover in playing and backroom personnel during this period, Kilduff was pleased to have this extra time to develop a cohesive set-up in Athlone.

“A lot of players left and a lot of new players came in. A new manager, a new assistant manager, a new goalie coach, two new goalkeepers and we’ve got three American players in as well during that time. We brought through a lot of the underage set-up.

“That was probably a turbulent time as well, those five or six weeks in the summer where you’re trying to get everything in place, to give yourself the best chance to finish the season strong. Thankfully we were able to do that.”

Seventh in the Women’s Premier Division table when Kilduff assumed the managerial reins, a run of six wins, one draw and a solitary defeat (at the hands of Sunday’s opponents Shelbourne) helped Athlone to achieve fifth spot in the league’s final standings.

While disappointing early season form meant mounting a title challenge was beyond their reach, Kilduff recognised coming into the job that advancing to a second consecutive FAI Cup final was a more than realistic goal.

After overcoming Galway United and eventual league champions Peamount United on penalties following a scoreless 120 minutes on both occasions, they recorded a convincing 4-0 triumph over Sligo Rovers in the semi-final of the competition at The Showgrounds on October 14.

The above represents a significant turnaround from Athlone in the second half of 2023, but Kilduff insists all the credit for this must be given to the club’s players.

“Since I came in, we kind of had prioritised the Cup. It was probably our best hope of getting a bit of silverware if we can. We’re in a good position at the minute, we’re in a good place. Our form in the league has been good and obviously a big occasion coming up next Sunday,” he said.

“The girls have been brilliant since I came in and the run of results is down to them and not me. They’ve bought into everything that I’ve been trying to put into them. Myself as well with Ken (Kiernan, Athlone assistant manager), we’ve worked very hard and we’re just in a good place at the minute,” Kilduff added.