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Love brought Kerry ace Breen to this part of the world

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Bernie Breen bursting through from midfield for Wexford during the National League Division 3 semi-final of 2017 versus Roscommon

Bernie Breen bursting through from midfield for Wexford during the National League Division 3 semi-final of 2017 versus Roscommon

SPORTSFILE

Bernie Breen bursting through from midfield for Wexford during the National League Division 3 semi-final of 2017 versus Roscommon

Forged in the green and gold of Kerry, a childhood dream to represent her county, to the purple and gold of Wexford, Bernie Breen is still a highly motivated Gaelic footballer and has the same passion for the sport as she had in her early teens.

The Beaufort native has had a chequered and unique career since she first blazed a bright path on the Kerry Senior team when she was just 14 years of age following a promising under-age and college playing career.

What makes her career in inter-county football more remarkable was her decision to leave the sport she graced with so much flair and panache at 18 to pursue other areas of her life before returning eight years later.

When she returned, Breen added a new and exciting dimension to the sport, particularly with teenage players. Her attacking and stylish brand of delightful football ensured she was the star of Kerry ladies' football.

Her return to football brought with it a new and dynamic freshness to her game and a major motivational link for other players from her pivotal role at midfield. She was the heartbeat of the Kerry side.

'Was I burned out when I took that break at 18?' Breen asked rhetoricaly. 'I think I was. I had been playing football at a high grade for the previous five years and that included club, college and all under-age Kerry teams up to and including the Senior team.

'At one time I was playing Under-14, Under-16 and Senior football for club and county, which was a huge burden and responsibility for a young teenager. Factor in training up to six days a week, so yes, it was burnout for me.

'When that happens you also lose interest in the sport, and in reality it was time to take a break and if I wanted to return to the sport in the future the door was open, and if not then I would just move on with life,' she told The Kerryman, one of our sister newspapers.

During her time away from football, Bernie went to college in Cork where she undertook a two-year course in hairdressing and beauty therapy in St. John's College. In 2010 she attended the University of Limerick where she studied health and fitness.

In her mid-twenties, Breen worked as a gym instructor and fitness trainer at The Brehon Hotel, Killarney.

'While working in the fitness and leisure sector I began to miss football, the adrenaline I savoured while playing, and the friendship of my playing colleagues. I decided it was time to return to the sport.

'What a shock that was to my system. The game and the training had moved up a few notches, it was faster and much more physical. I went back into the Kerry set-up under the guidance of Robbie Griffin, a highly-motivated trainer.

'It took me about two years to get back into the fitness side of things again, despite team training and lots of training on my own. The fitness levels were completely different and the game had changed, for the better, from when I was younger.'

Breen was a natural born athlete, showing promise and leadership skills at a very young age. Her first taste of success came in 1995 when she was attending Cullina National School in Beaufort when she led them to the Kerry Cumann na mBunscol mini-sevens title.

Her talents as a fine fielder of the ball and her dynamic style of play were rewarded when she was drafted into the Kerry Under 14 side. This team went on to win two All-Ireland titles, with Breen adding two more All-Ireland medals to her collection when her club, Beaufort, won the All-Ireland Féile title in Mayo, a team coached by former Kerry legend Nora Hallissey, and an All-Ireland medal with the Kerry Under-16 side.

'My first taste of All-Ireland success came while I was a student at the Intermediate School in Killorglin under the direction of Eoin Moynihan and David Staunton. During a golden era for the school we won four All-Ireland titles, three at Under-14 grade and one Under-18 title.

'On the field discipline, dedication and commitment to training and team spirit were all part of the ethos surrounding the team. This gave us a wonderful grounding for future years and it was something we carried with us through life.'

Club football played a pivotal role in Breen's success, initially with Beaufort and later with Killarney Legion and Laune Rangers.

With Beaufort she won an All-Ireland Junior club title in 1996, a Kerry Senior club championship title in 1998, two club Division 1 titles, while she added a second Kerry Senior club championship title with Killarney Legion in 2011.

She returned to Beaufort again in 2014 when the ladies' club was re-established in the mid-Kerry village.

For many years playing in the Kerry jersey, Breen harboured a deep and burning hope of winning that elusive All-Ireland Senior medal. Kerry had last won the Brendan Martin Cup in 1993, with many followers of the sport predicting ultimate success in the mid-2000s.

'Every player, whether male or female, is defined and remembered by winning an All-Ireland Senior medal. For me it's the only sporting regret I have. While it's great to win colleges and under-age titles, the big one is the Senior championship.

'Following very close behind is winning a Munster Senior medal. For me that joy came in 2013, with a team that included Cáit Lynch, Louise Galvin and Aisling Desmond, and again in 2015 when we beat Cork in the final. We were fortunate to have also won the National League Division 2 title when we defeated a very good Galway side.'

While the Kerry Seniors reached the 2012 All-Ireland final, they were beaten by the superb Cork side that won eleven All-Ireland titles between 2005 and 2016 and featured players such as Briege Corkery, Rena Buckley and Valerie Mulcahy.

Breen was captain of that Kerry team that also included sharpshooters Sara Houlihan, Lorraine Scanlon, Patrice Dennehy and Louise Ní Mhuircheartaigh.

During that 2012 final, as the Cork side strode to an All-Ireland victory, one of the great Croke Park acts of heroism was going on in the field of play, unknown to the Kerry fans.

Breen, the Kerry captain, played the majority of the game with just one functional arm, having sustained serious bruising to her shoulder in the opening minutes.

Speaking after the game she said: 'It just popped or something. I could not lift it over my head or out in front or anything so it was disappointing.'

Breen's skills on the field were recognised with All Star nominations in 2010, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015. While she came away empty-handed from the award ceremonies, which was greeted with total surprise and utter shock in GAA circles, she was honoured at provincial level when she was the 2015 Munster GAA player of the year.

She was also selected, and travelled, on the All Star tours of Toronto (2012), Hong Kong (2014) and San Diego (2016).

'I believe that if I hadn't taken those years out from playing and focusing on other aspects of my life, I would not have achieved the success I have had with both Kerry and Wexford.

'My advice to younger players is simple. One sport is enough at the moment. Remember you have your gym days, training days and you need your rest days.

'Rest is vital for mind and body, it's the most important aspect of your training. As a nation we all love sport.

'However, we are trying to mix football with soccer, basketball and some other sport. You try to juggle them all but the body sometimes can't take it and you lose your motivation and give them up.

'Stay focused and play the sport you enjoy most, this will bring you the most happiness and fulfilment.'

So, why did Bernie jump ship and sail to Wexford?

'The answer is as simple or as complicated as you make it. Love brought me to Wexford.

'My partner, Robert Leech, was based in Wexford and I was going to move up in 2015 but had a re-think. I really wanted to win an All-Ireland medal with Kerry and thought 2016 was going to be the year we won that coveted and elusive title.

'However, my mind to move was firmly made up when we were beaten by Monaghan, 6-17 to 1-16, in the All-Ireland quarter-final. That Kerry team had some great players including Emma Sherwood, Laura Rogers and Denise Hallissey. So that was it, my bags were packed and off I went to open and savour a new chapter in my life.'

When Breen moved to Wexford, football was still high on her list of activities in her new adopted home. Playing with Kerry was not a realistic option.

Training would involve a seven-hour road trip from Wexford to Killarney and back home to Wexford, all this while still holding down a job.

She contacted Anthony Masterson, former Wexford Senior footballer and ladies' manager, who suggested she join their panel for some training. She also joined a local club, Baile Dubh Tíre, and helped them win the a county league in 2019.

'I went in to the Wexford training camp in January and February and made lots of new friends. In no time at all I was on the Wexford team.

'I was still playing in midfield and relished the new experience of Leinster football. We were National League Division 3 runners-up in 2017 and won the title outright in 2018.

'We also won the Leinster Intermediate title in 2019. During my time with Wexford I was also honoured to be named on the team of the league on four occasions.'

Despite having a fractured relationship with referees during her playing career, the poacher has now become the shepherd.

'I always questioned referees' decisions. I demanded answers on a particular call and made my views known at the time. While I had my share of yellow cards, the only time I was sent-off was in 2016 when Kerry lost to Monaghan in the All-Ireland quarter-final.

'I started refereeing some time ago and I am now the person in the middle at Under 12 and Under 14 games. This experience has enabled me to respect and acknowledge the role of referees a lot more.

'I have a new-found respect for referees. It's interesting. It's something different, a lot different, and it's something I have come to enjoy."

The high esteem that Breen currently commands in Wexford was highlighted last summer when she was asked to launch their Kelloggs Cúl Camps programme. Similar to her days in Kerry, she is still an iconic and a much-loved and respected football star.

However, for a player of Breen's ability, winning an All-Ireland Senior football medal is always the primary goal.

She will go down in history as one of the all-time great Kerry players. The Beaufort native will also join a unique group of exceptionally talented players, both male and female, who have never won an All-Ireland Senior medal, the ultimate prize for anyone wearing a green and gold jersey.

Wexford People