Quite the feat to be on cloud nine and yet still have your feet on the ground.
And for Leanne Kiernan, all the better when, instead of paining you, your obedient feet are firing goals for fun while wearing one of the most iconic jerseys in sport.
So many storied players have worn the evocative Liverpool number nine; from the first, Roger Lewis, to the latest, Roberto Firmino, generational legends have embraced the pressure. Names that illustrate Anfield’s Mount Rushmore. Rush. Torres. Fowler.
A 22-year-old from Bailieborough in Co Cavan may be an unlikely aspirant to similar significance but there is a fierce determination within that fires a striker who has already had to overcome so many obstacles to get her chance.
Nonetheless, when manager Matt Beard brought her from West Ham to Liverpool, his suggestion she don the number nine jersey almost caught her off-guard. “I am quite a laid-back person,” she explains, before relating a tale that does much to reflect her burgeoning character. “I like to be in the background and show what I am about.
“Matt rang up and says, ‘Leanne, I want to give you No 9’. And I told him I am not sure I want it. ‘Do you not have a bigger number, a 33 or something?’ He told me to think about it. Then I mentioned it to my dad, and he said, ‘Are you silly? You got offered the No 9 and you are not taking it? Take it, will you!’ It was a nice treat getting it, great that the coach believes in me like that, giving me that shirt, it shows he has faith in me.”
Kiernan has justified both her manager’s belief and her father’s less-than-subtle attempts to arouse her own thinly veiled grit. Earlier this month, she registered her first goals for the club since arriving in the summer in a 2-0 win against Coventry, netting with a brave and precise diving header, then doubling her tally by rounding the goalkeeper to tap in.
Another against Sheffield United and a goal against Aston Villa in the League Cup confirmed the hot streak, bursting into the box from the right, riding a series of flailing challenges, before neatly tucking a classy side-footer into the bottom corner.
“Playing her down the middle gives us something slightly different,” reckons boss Beard. “I knew once she got her first one for us that it would take the pressure and the weight off her shoulders. Knowing Leanne as I do as a person, she always plays with that smile on her face. It’s not just about her scoring goals, it’s her work ethic and what she gives this team.”
As she languidly lounges in the team hotel, dancing eyes confirm her revived attitude. “My personality is coming back and I’m enjoying it now,” she avers.
Injuries had darkened her mood last season; a nagging shin splints problem at first reduced her to inhibition on the pitch, then incapacity off it. “It happened in my first game, and it is not something that just goes away overnight. The pains in my shin bones were absolute agony and I am quite athletic and like to run. When you can’t run, it takes a lot from my game.
“I played for three or four months in absolute agony, then I just couldn’t do it anymore. I had to stop, I couldn’t walk. There were tears coming down from my eyes one day doing the warm-ups in training and thought that this is not right.
"I was showing maybe 40pc of my ability compared to what I can show. It is not good for me, it is not good for the coach. Nobody is benefiting out of this.
“So I took six months off completely, went home for a few weeks. I am not a massive gym head and when you are shoved into the gym every day, looking at yourself in the mirror, there is only so many songs that you can listen to on the speakers, but it worked out for the best.”
Out of contract and out of action last summer, it was fortunate that her erstwhile coach Beard had joined Liverpool, who were controversially relegated after the fore-shortened pandemic season.
“My agents had a few options but, honestly, when Liverpool came up, and, obviously, ‘Beardy’ knows me very well, we had a Zoom call with him and my dad said straightaway, ‘Listen Leanne, I have a really good feeling about this. I think it’s a really good move for you’. I felt it myself, too, but sometimes it’s handy when I have an opinion that I really respect. That’s the case with dad, and I took it (his advice).
“I needed a fresh start away from West Ham. I’m getting the old Leanne back, getting my confidence on the ball. It’s nice getting 90 minutes week in, week out, injury-free.”
Irish boss Vera Pauw has been patient with her, claiming last year she wanted to save her career when refusing to risk the hamstrung striker. Yet, after coming off the bench against Australia last month, Kiernan has no grand expectations.
“People forget enjoyment,” says Kiernan, whose own family life has armed her with perspective. “It’s obviously your job and there’s sometimes pressure on you, but I’m here to enjoy it. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t play. I’d probably be home in Cavan farming, eh!”
Wherever Kiernan finds herself now, she will always be grounded.