Ahern hangs up inter-county boots but stays involved
LAURIE AHERN is a name that has been synonymous with Wicklow football for the past 15 years.
It was her pass, after coming on as a substitute, that set up Lucy Mulhall for a vial goal in the All-Ireland Junior final replay against New York in 2011.
In 2018, she was a vital cog in the Wicklow team that went seven wins from seven to rampage to a Division 4 league title, before they proceeded to stun Meath on their way to a Leinster championship final the same year.
Her final contribution in the Wicklow colours would bring her back to Croke Park. A year after suffering heartbreak at the hands of Fermanagh in Parnell Park, Mark Murnaghan’s side came good to beat Antrim for the Junior title; ten years on from doing the same in 2011.
For Laurie, it was the perfect way to bid farewell to playing in the Wicklow jersey for the last time, as she steps into a coaching role alongside new manager Leighton Glynn.
“I have loved every minute.” she said.
“I have made a lot of great friends and I know it is a bit of a cliche but most of my really good friends, I made from county football and, thankfully, I won’t miss them too much because I will be with them this year.”
Retirement was a year in the making for Ahern. In 2020, both she and long-time confidante Lorna Fusciardi had decided to step aside once they won the All-Ireland that year, such was the confidence that it would happen.
Unfortunately, fate would have other ideas for their best laid plans, and with one stunning, crushing loss to Fermanagh, their considerations had drastically changed.
It meant that Laurie, who made her Wicklow debut in 2006, could not bring herself to say goodbye on such a deflating note.
“We lost by two points, and I just remember, at the final whistle, I didn’t take the loss too badly. It was weird. It was as if I knew I would be back the next year.
“I always remember, myself and Lorna, we drove to the match together. We got into the car (after the game) and I remember we both looked at each other and kind of laughed because we knew. We had said we would be finished but we both knew we would be back for 2021.
“It was very important. I just knew, after 2020, I couldn’t leave. I couldn’t leave the girls; I couldn’t leave on that note. I wanted to leave with something to show for it. We had won the All-Ireland in 2011 but I was quite young playing in it, so it meant the world to me to win in 2021.”
The team itself is in a far different position in the months following Laurie’s second All-Ireland title, compared to after her first. Then just 22 years of age, she was still a relative up-and-comer, refining her intercounty craft.
Whereas now, the stars of tomorrow have the likes of Laura Hogan, Lorna Fusciardi, Marie Kealy, Niamh McGettigan, Sarah-Jane Winders, Jackie Kinch, Meadhbh Deeney, and other vastly experienced players to look up to and learn from along the way, the same could not necessarily be said for Ahern.
“When I started, it was as if we were building towards the Junior All-Ireland, and we did eventually win it in 2011 but then, as soon as we won it, there were a lot of older, experienced players on the panel and they stepped away, so it was left to a few of us to hold it together, so where we should have been pushing to kind of win an Intermediate championship, we were kind of struggling for players and there were a lot of lows the following season, trying to get players in and trying to get players playing and that sort of thing, so it has been very much up and down. “It went from a big high to a lot of lows and then back to building when we got relegated to Junior (in 2019). It has been a rollercoaster.”
When pressed for specific highs, Ahern mentions Mick O’Rourke’s 2018 league winning side and its subsequent Leinster championship win over then-reigning provincial champions, Meath; eight members of that Royals team would go on to be part of the side that won the All-Ireland senior title in 2021, including Player of the Year, Vikki Wall.
Those highlights were bookended by that second Junior championship win in Croke Park, a fitting conclusion to decade-long journey that also included Ahern winning six consecutive Leinster club titles with Foxrock-Cabinteely alongside Lorna Fusciardi and one which came just over a week after she got married to partner Brendan Cunningham.
On the flip side, she does not shy away from the all-consuming nature of her football career that, over time, contributed towards her decision to retire.
A relentless schedule, that included balancing playing for club, county, college, and Underdogs in the late-2000s took its toll on her physical wellbeing, as she would pick up a range of injuries, from those inherent from contact – dislocated shoulders, broken fingers/hands – to those that come with wear-and-tear – compartment syndrome in her shins that, fortunately, rectified as years went on, and hamstring issues that, unfortunately, did not.
Laurie Ahern’s time in football is far from over. After notifying Leighton Glynn of her intention to retire, she was asked to be part of the Rathnew and Wicklow legend’s management team for the season ahead. An invitation she eventually accepted.
It was a decision that she believes will make her separation from playing that bit easier.
“I think I would have been on to the girls 24/7 if I wasn’t involved in any way, asking how training is going, how they were doing. I would have felt like I was with them. At the moment now I am at every training session. I am at the games. I am working with the lads. It is different but I am enjoying it.”
Interestingly, she will be bestowing advice to Fusciardi, who resisted the urge to retire after what Glynn himself classified as a ’30 second conversation.’ While Fusciardi herself jostled with the prospect of retirement, Ahern was far from surprised to learn she was staying on.
“She is incredible. She is one of the best half-backs in the country. She has still got another good year or two left in her. I think she is dead right. As I said, it is massive having a Leighton Glynn coming in to take over and I think all the girls are feeding from that. I think she has so much left to give.”
As for on-field matters, while she is finishing up with Wicklow, she will be back where it all began when it comes to club football, having transferred to Éire Óg from Foxrock-Cabinteely.
After 15 years of tireless dedication, Laurie Ahern has earned her retirement from inter-county commitments. It is not the end of her story and is instead the start of the next exciting chapter, as she looks to impart some of her boundless wisdom and do her part as Wicklow look ahead to an unmissable 2022.